Word of Colour

Interview with Jatinder Verma

After 43 years, Jatinder Verma MBE, is stepping down as artistic director and founder of the ground-breaking theatre company Tara Arts.

Tara Arts was formed in 1977 by Verma, and his friends, in response to the racist murder in 1976 of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, with a clear mission to make connections across cultures through theatre.

The company’s inaugural production was Sacrifice, the anti-war play by Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, and was staged at Battersea Arts Centre in the summer of 1977. Since then, Verma has led Tara Arts from a community theatre group, rooted in Wandsworth, to an international touring company, and as the only BAME company to own a distinctive theatre building, echoing his vision of connecting worlds.

Verma is moving on to lead a new production company, Jatinder Verma Productions. The inaugural productions will be The Mistake, a multilingual production about the bombing of Hiroshima, and Indigo Giant, an adaptation of the censored Nil Darpan play about the 1860 Indigo Revolt. Both shows are bilingual and will premiere in the summer, 2020, continuing the cross-cultural dialogue that Verma instilled in Tara Arts.

As Verma steps down, Heather Marks speaks to him about Tara’s legacy, the state of diversity and inclusion in British Theatre and what he believes is at the heart of theatre making.

 

How does it feel to be leaving Tara Arts?

It’s a mixture of relief, that I can now freely look at the things I want to direct, and a kind of mourning. When you have lived with something for over 40 years, have seen it grow, I think it’s absolutely right that one should move on, but I’ve never subscribed to the sense that a company like Tara is just a steppingstone to something else. I felt it would be too mercenary. Now I find myself in that situation, but I think it’s not quite the same way because I built the theatre and that theatre, whoever comes, whatever happens, is speaking the philosophy that we worked on. It’s in the very architecture, showing a dialogue across cultures, and that makes me feel that now I can step away.

What do you hope for your successor?

I hope that they love the building. That’s the key thing. Because if they love the building, that will make them it to be used in all sorts of different ways. [Tara Arts Theatre] works as a fabulous conversation setting. Whether these conversations are creating new artists, whether they are creating old artists or new stories.

You’ve mentioned that Tara Arts, in its founding, was engaged in an outsider-insider/being vs. a belonging dynamic. Has this dynamic changed over Tara’s 40 year existence?

At the very beginning, it was clear we were the outsiders. And yet what we have seen over the course of the last 40 years is an increasing representation happening in theatre, TV, and cinema. There are more people of colour on stage, which is a huge advance on what was occurring in the 70s and 80s, but what we were also arguing for were conditions of equity; that there should be parity of power.

For the first time, ever, in the last few years, we have four or five artistic directors of colour. Does that mean diversity is achieved? One face of it is yes, it has. But those companies of which they are the artistic directors are not, in themselves, diverse. They haven’t got a legal or constitutional duty to engage with diversity. So when these artistic directors move on, what are those theatres going to do? I say this to highlight the point that I think the difference between Tara’s founding and now is that if one is translating diversity purely as a matter of colour, then a new kind of colonialism is on the rise.

Diversity is more than a question of colour, it is about the imagination. It is about texts, about history. I go into drama schools and there is nothing on African or Asian theatre, even though they have huge histories. So what am I really being trained for?

Racism, I have always felt, is fundamentally a failure of the imagination. If I can see myself in the white person, can the white person see me in their own heart? I think at the moment, one has to say, well no, they can’t. And the more that continues, the more the challenge of diversity will remain in our society.

As a director and a writer, what other artistic principles do you feel have come to form the core of your practice?

I’ve already mentioned it but ‘truth is joy’ – that’s quite a critical one – and silence. In Noh [the Japanese theatre tradition] there are very slow movements, almost like a person is still. When I first saw it, I thought ‘Gosh, there’s such energy emanating from that person and yet they’re doing nothing.’

Voice is very central to the making of theatre, but what makes it central? Silence. Those gaps, those moments when there’s nothing said – that’s what makes the text really powerful. And it’s a very difficult thing to do, to be able to hold. Those are the actors I want to work with, the ones who can enjoy silence; who can hold it.

Which productions and directors have made a lasting impact on you, alongside the work of renowned performer and director Anuradha Kapoor and Gashiram Kotwal by Pune Theatre Company?

Anuradha’ work gives me an acute sense of modernity with the distinctiveness of Indian theatrical traditions while Kotwal’s work is really revelatory… It opened my mind to the power of theatre, that the actor alone can be everything; and that you don’t have to understand the language to know what’s going on. The Dragons Trilogy, directed by Robert Lepage was brilliantly executed) while the translations by Brian Friel is a brilliant way of exploring the differences of language. As for the production of Macbeth by the Yukio Ninigawa theatre company. I had never realised until this production how death can be beautiful. There was this moment when Macbeth was killed and the whole stage filled with pink cherry blossoms, falling on the stage. There is a word in Indian dramaturgy – Satchitananda. It means, ‘Truth is joy’. Beauty doesn’t negate violence or discrimination or ambition. It can all be part of it. Humans are affected in a visceral way by beauty and it seems to me that it is a carrier of our message, over and above what the actual text is saying.