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British South Asian women's voices on the English stage: the work of Kali Theatre Company.

Since the establishment of the first theatre companies in the late Seventies, British Asian theatre has been active across the UK, articulating on the stage the different realities of South Asian communities in the country, while increasing the visibility of Asian culture in Britain and contributing to propelling it into the cultural mainstream.

As one of the longest-standing British Asian theatre companies, the London based Kali Theatre has been committed to offering in the space of the theatrical event a creative response to the experience of diaspora and exile on the part of South Asian communities in Britain. Similarly to fellow leading British Asian companies, one of Kali's main objectives has been to explore the contours of the diaspora space and affirm South Asian culture on the stage as "part of British culture" (Griffin 9), while placing cultural hybridity at the centre of the theatrical experience.

As Dominic Hingorani has pointed out,
   British Asian theatre has not only been concerned with the
   reproduction of culturally "traditional" forms from the South Asian
   subcontinent ... but has also focused on the contemporary frame and
   the emergence of new and dynamic forms as a result of [their]
   hybrid cultural location. (7)

As a theatre company specifically aiming to promote works by women writers of South Asian lineage (1), Kali has focussed on identity politics, debating "issues of race, colour and ethnicity" (Griffin 15) from a distinct gender perspective. The company's ongoing investigation of the plurality of South Asian British life has led to the production of a series of issue-based plays, revolving around crucial themes such as gender relations, patriarchy, racism, citizenship, as well as generational, class, religious and inter and intra-communal conflicts. Thanks to their strong commitment to showcasing the work of South Asian women in Britain, Kali Theatre has arguably contributed to the understanding that there are now "three generations of Asian women living in Britain" (Wilson, Dreams 129). While a considerable body of works by Kali writers has foregrounded the diverse experiences of South Asian women in the diaspora and privileged a South Asian setting, often projecting unsettling images of diasporic South Asian culture onto the stage, more recent works have moved on to explore themes with a broader cross-cultural and transnational appeal, such as the harsh reality behind global trade and the fragile balance between sustainability and economic growth as in the play Zameen (2008), or the consequences of the government enforcement of identity cards and the danger of identity theft in the dystopian play Another Paradise (2009).

This contribution intends to chart the development of the company since its founding by focusing on three exemplary productions. The selected plays reflect different stages of the company's history in relation to issues of identity politics, as well as to the representation of social and political concerns on the contemporary British stage.

Song for a Sanctuary (1990)

Kali Theatre was founded in 1990 by actress Rita Wolf and playwright Rukhsana Ahmad, as an ideal complement to the work undertaken in the 1980s by Black and Asian women writers' collectives, such as the Asian Women Writers' Collective which had been active since the mid-1980s, striving "to find a voice" (Wilson, A Voice). The aim of the Asian Women Writers' Collective was to challenge the representational void that women of South Asian descent had long faced in Britain, in an attempt to redress their long-standing exclusion from cultural practices, while exploring their particular predicament of being Asian women in Britain. The Collective offered both a supportive environment for women writers and the opportunity to create links with prospective publishers. As Sarah Dadswell has noted, "for the development of Kali, the Asian Women Writers' Collective provided a forum that was both multilingual and politicised and introduced [the company] to the workshop principle as a means of developing and supporting the work of others" (132), a principle that inspired Kali in their early stages of activity and has also oriented the company's subsequent work, since the company continues to offer a variety of support structures for aspiring writers, such as new writing workshops, public rehearsed readings and training outreach schemes.

The company's debut production entitled Song for a Sanctuary (1990), was written by Rukhsana Ahmad and drew on a real life event, the murder of a Punjabi woman in a women's refuge in South London, where she was tracked down by her violent husband. However, as Ahmad has pointed out, the play "was not a documentary but an artistic response to the horrific murder" (in Hingorani 121) and drew also on the writer's own research on women's refuges and her direct of running writing workshops with groups of residents in a refuge (Dadswell 132).

The play dramatizes the plight of Rajinder, the woman fleeing her abusive husband, and reveals tensions among the women living in the refuge, by inserting them in a dramatic framework drawing on the didactic/argumentative tradition of political theatre inspired by Brecht, a modality that has been often deployed by feminist women's theatre in Britain and that has also informed later plays produced by Kali. Song for a Sanctuary follows Rajinder's short-lived stay in the refuge with her two children and intersects her story with those of other characters, either residents seeking sanctuary or caseworkers. Ahmad sharply differentiates the main four female characters by generation, class, education and cultural background, stressing the fact that, as the social worker Eileen says, "the situation is the same but women are so different" (Ahmad 166): Eileen has herself a past history of domestic violence, whereas Sonia, one of the other residents, is constantly torn between her determination to escape from her abusive partner and the repeated attempts to return to him, in the hope he might change. Yet, all characters share the same transitional space of the refuge that stands for a fragile and precarious dwelling, eventually failing to provide Rajinder with security or shelter. Ahmad offers a sensitive depiction of Rajinder, whose tragic story is the focus of the play and is revealed through a series of flashbacks, shedding light on her life as a wife victim of domestic violence. Ahmad also hints at the woman's fragile position within her Asian community, following her decision to leave her husband. In a tense exchange with her sister Amrit, Rajinder is faced with the difficult choice of preserving the family honour (izzat) or publicly expose her husband's violent behaviour:

RAJINDER: Don't you care for me at all? I've adored you Amrit, ever since I was tiny. Why do you hate me so?

AMRIT: You'll be sorry. I'm warning you. Your selfishness will ruin your daughters ... They'll learn all the self-indulgent, sick ways of the West ... You'll regret this.

RAJINDER: Would you rather I set myself alight in my back garden?

AMRIT: Honour is always preferable to disgrace, but the choice of course is yours. (Ahmad 221)

The play ultimately dramatizes the fraught quest for an "alternative home or makeshift shelter" that Susheila Nasta (84) has considered to be a defining feature in the works of South Asian women writers in the 1980s and 1990s.

Song for a Sanctuary was redolent of the spirit of the politically conscious 1980s, and representative of the early stages of Kali's activity; it was instrumental in advancing the debate on the politics of representation of minorities, by raising issues of cultural allegiance and dealing with domestic violence as a political issue that is of concern to women of all backgrounds. As Christiane Schlote has argued: "Song for a Sanctuary is marked by overlapping discourses [...] through which Ahmad disrupts familiar and often problematic representations of domestic violence" (71). The play contributed to enlarging the representational scope of minorities in the early 1990s and went counter to the reassuring narratives that tended to offer fundamentally positive, right on depictions of minorities--what Hanif Kureishi had once defined as "cheering fictions" (in Hall 449)--in favour of more complex and multidimensional narratives.

Chaos (2005)

The challenge to homogenizing and easily stereotyped images of minorities that informed Ahmad's inaugural play for Kali, has been at the centre of Kali later works, with which the company has confronted other contentious political issues, such as the positioning of British Muslims in post 9/11 and post 7/7 Britain.

The play Chaos, written by British Muslim writer Azma Dar, was presented as part of a double bill along with Bells, an uncomfortable exploration of the seedy reality of mujira clubs in the UK written by playwright Yasmin Whittaker Khan, and looks at the dilemmas Muslims in Britain have had to face as a result of 9/11 and the subsequent "war on terror". The play tends to reflect the tensions arising in the aftermath of 9/11, drawing particular attention to conflicting perceptions of British Asian Muslims. By raising questions of cultural allegiance and pointing to the fragmentation of identity politics in the post-millennium, Chaos engages in the "apparently 'new' and all consuming 'grammar'" of the war on terror while "keeping making art in the face of terror itself' (Nasta, Boehmer 1). It also poignantly registers the shift that has taken place in the millenniums whereby migrant diasporic community are more commonly viewed in religious rather than in ethnic terms. In this respect Anne Marie Fortier has noticed a "taxonomic shift in Britain, from 'ethnic minorities' in the 1970s to 'minority faith communities' today", casting "beliefs, morals and values [as] the primary site for the marking of absolute difference" (5-6), a shift which is aptly reflected in Chaos. The response to the ways Muslims are perceived in Britain in the post-millennium has been central to several works across genres and media, and British Asian theatre has also taken up the challenge to produce a body of works with a British Muslim focus, of which Chaos is part (2), works which arguably come across as an attempt on the part of British Muslim writers to respond to "[a] string of justified and unjustified questions about the nature of the British Muslim community", as journalist Ziauddin Sardar has pointed out:
   Our Britishness has been doubted since the dark clouds gathered on
   11 September 2001 and spread devastation in the dark intestines of
   London on 7 July 2005. The urgency of the question of identity
   posed to British Asians, and especially British Muslims has
   intensified in the aftermath. (372)

As Dar states, the play explores "wider social and political concerns through the conflicts and dilemmas of the Rizvi family" (3). Chaos exposes the fissures within an Asian Muslim household in London, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and invites the audience to witness the family drama as it literally unfolds in the family front room, which constitutes the main setting of the play. Mr Rizvi and his wife Safia have set a wall of incomprehension between them, and both their sons grapple with issues of identity and belonging. As Dominic Cavendish has noted, "Dar shows [...] the fissures within families- the usual generational and marital antagonisms, together with less common tussles between faith and belonging" (online 2005).

As the play opens, we discover that Mr Rizvi has political ambition and hopes to become MP for his local constituency of Wembley. Rizvi longs for assimilation and embodies a modern, politically conscious version of a mimic man, signalled at the opening of the play when he is preparing to host a reception in his house for his prospective voters, to whom he offers halal sausage rolls as a positive symbol of integration and cultural mix:

MR. RIZVI: [...] halal sausages. Think of it! It shows how far we've progressed [...] These are a symbol of my whole outlook-the union and mutual understanding of cultures. (Dar 26)

Rizvi holds on to the "cheering fiction" and dreams of a happy multicultural London, a better Wembley, "a multicultural rainbow where all the colours blend, harmonize and complement each other" (Dar 29), while his wife Safia has withdrawn from society and relinquished her active role within the household family. As a devout Muslim, her life is regulated by daily prayers and strict religious principles. Their son Babar's skeptical reaction to his father's rather naive political plans, introduces the generational gap that is elaborated on throughout the play:

BABAR: "He [Rizvi] is a brown face ... and his 'supporters' know it. He's as gullible as a baby. I don't like seeing my father being taken for a fool". (Dar 32)

The first outbreak of chaos in the Rizvi household comes with the revelation that Saleem, the couple's eldest son has somehow tested to the limit the multicultural dream of his father by being in a relationship with a white Christian woman and fathering her child, who is aptly called Aaron Thomas Jameel. This triggers opposing responses in his parents; for Safia, Saleem is unclean and lives in sin, while Rizvi has a more secular and practical approach, but is worried this incident may alienate him from the British Muslim community and hopes to hide the news from his community until after the Election.

Chaos erupts more violently and with more dramatic consequences when Babar, the youngest son announces his decision to go and join the fight in Afghanistan. Babar vents his anger at his father, exposing his political ambitions and unwavering support for the Labour party. In Babar's view, his father, by subscribing to British foreign policy and continuing to nurture "the cool Britannia" dream, has failed to perceive Britain's ill-treatment of British Muslims and of Muslims in the world:

BABAR: I'm not going on holiday. I'm going to join the fight.

Mr RIZVI: What fight?

BABAR: The one organized by your new friends in Westminster. The one that's turning our brothers and sisters into orphans and widows and corpses.

Mr RIZVI: You can't be serious. How much slaughter are you going to stop? BABAR: It's our duty to help our brothers. Isn't it, Mum? (Dar 54-5)

The play strongly relies on the generational conflict and insists on the mounting tension between father and son, a recurring motif in British Asian writing. It takes quite a complex turn and also interestingly gives voice to the parents' different reactions to their son's choice, balancing the ordinary and the extraordinary within the confine of a family drama. As Dar States in the preface to the playscript, Chaos is ultimately about "the dangers of obsession and extremism of any kind, the need for tolerance and understanding" (1).

By confronting the complex questions surrounding British Asian Muslim identity in the post millennium and investigating the intricate web of cultural allegiance, religion, local and global connections, Chaos continues in the pursuit shared by Kali writers to reflect in the space of the theatrical event "the fractured world-the overlapping world-that is modern England", as Jatinder Verma, artistic director of the British Asian company Tara Arts, has suggested (Sorry 98). Chaos exploits the conventions of Western realism along with distinct forms of South Asian British popular culture like sit-com style humour, to critically stage the current singular position of British Muslims-that in the words of Sardar-is that of "conditional Britons" (265).

Another Paradise (2009)

The political strand of Song for a Sanctuary and Chaos are resumed in Kali's Another Paradise, written by playwright Sayan Kent and first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008. The play testifies to Kali's continuing commitment to debating political concerns on the contemporary English stage, as it was written in response to the identity card debate in Britain and reads as an exploration of issues of identity, belonging and citizenship which have always been central to the work of Kali writers. As Sayan Kent states in the introduction to the play, her work was meant to expose the sinister idealism that lay behind the government's plan to collect the whole population's biometric identities onto a national computer database (2). Kent aimed to specifically address questions such as "ethically what does it mean to have all our personal information at the fingertips of a civil servant? "What would happen to those people who didn't qualify for full citizenship but still reside here?" (2).

The play takes issues with the way the world has become increasingly technocratic and explores the impact on individuals of the excessive reliance on technology on the part of government and institutions. In a humorous and surreal way, it raises questions of freedom and individual agency in a futuristic world; by taking as its starting point the enforcements on citizens of biometric ID cards, Another Paradise dramatizes in a satirical but nonetheless serious way the characters' struggle with their variously manipulated, mistaken, lost or stolen identities.

Set in the Midlands town of Leamington Spa, the play features five characters all grappling with identity confusion, as a result of malfunctioning of the computers generating and managing their digital identities. The loss of identity causes the withdrawal of citizen status, followed by the subjects' immediate relocation as non-citizens to the nearby city of Coventry.

Sayan's futuristic version of "being sent to Coventry" envisions the uncomfortable reality of the precarious lives of those who are denied citizenship status, as Coventry takes on the sinister features of an internment camp; a town purposely requisitioned by the authorities and turned into a "haven for aliens", where "the many people living in the country who didn' t fulfil the exacting requirements of citizenship" could be "dumped" (Kent 58).

Those who are forced to dwell in camps that are stripped of the connotations of home, security and belonging, feel that their inner, emotional world along with their past is totally obscured by the factual information contained on their digital cards. As Abigail, one of the characters in the play laments,

ABI: I'm not going anywhere without my past. Scarred as it is. My ... school ... my ... aunt Jasmine in Broadstairs. My parking offences for God's sake. (Desperate) It's all I've got. (Dar 53)

Identities can be lost and automatically re-assigned and characters find it difficult to adjust to their new selves, but still they have no power to refuse them. In the case of Enoch, for instance, a thirty-year old accountant, it is impossible to object to his new identity as 40-year old Abigail, despite the obvious gender difference:

LISA: Look, this is a good ID. You'll love it. Once you get used to it. Now go home.... There's your new address. Bank details. Potted history, employment record. National insurance number. Date of birth. All sorts of interesting things.

ENOCH: I can't just walk into another life.

LISA: This is you now.

ENOCH: Look at it. No one will believe me.

LISA: Of course they'll believe you.

ENOCH: But I've stolen somebody.

LISA: You can't do anything about it now (Kent 60).

Kent moves the paradox of identity to an even bleaker dimension, as we discover that people could even be assigned the biometric identity of an object:

FISHER: That can of baked beans

"Nobody knows how many women are being sold on supermarket shelves. You could go and buy yourself a wife then have her on toast. (Kent 78)

As Btihaj Ajana has noted, "the play's most sinister messages have to do with the fine and fragile line that distinguishes between citizens and non-citizens", a concern that has become very pressing in times of global transnational movements, when "there is always the looming danger of turning exception into the norm, rendering every citizen as a potential non-citizen; every identity as a suspect identity, and making the space of exception, such as that of Coventry, the fundamental paradigm of the city itself' (Ajana 324).

In Another Paradise the debate on identity is inserted in a context that moves easily between questions of national identity, the impact of transnational movements and the right to citizenship and critically reflects the western governments' current anxieties about global migrancy and the ensuing stricter immigration laws that have led to the creation of abject others, as the following quote suggests:

PAINE: A legal citizen can be heard without shouting. But this country randomly selects and spits out certain individuals denying them their legal status. It's totally absurd. Every human being is entitled to the same rights. (Kent 85)

By way of conclusion, the work of Kali Theatre has extended over a period of more than twenty years, showcasing a wide array of plays and productions, of which the three works I have examined are representative. It could be argued that the company has played a key role in both shaping South Asian diasporic culture in Britain and nurturing the writing talents of women of South Asian lineage. By producing theatre works engaging with crucial issues relevant to British Asian culture, but having nonetheless a broader cross cultural appeal, Kali writers have significantly contributed to the continued objective of minority writers to "achieve presence", as argued by Jatinder Verma (1994, 2) and succeeded in articulating a distinct British Asian female voice in the current theatrical landscape of Britain.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Rukhsana. Song for a Sanctuary. Six Plays by Black and Asian Women. ed. Kadija George. London: Aurora Press, 2003. 204-241.

Ajana, Btihaj. "Review essay of Another Paradise" .Journal of Identity in the Information Society 2.3 (2009): 319-325. 4 October 2013.

Cavendish, Dominic. "Goodness Gracious me ... My Son's a Terrorist". The Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2005. 10 October 2013.

Dadswell, Sarah. "Kali Theatre Company". British South Asian Theatres. A Documented History. eds. Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell. Essex: U of Essex P, 2011. 131-162.

Dar, Azma. Chaos. London: Oberon, 2005.

Fortier, Anne Marie. Multicultural Horizons: Diversity and the Limits of the Civil Nation. London: Routledge, 2008.

Griffin, Gabriele. Contemporary Black and Asian Women Playwrights in Britain. Cambridge: U of Cambridge P, 2003.

Hall, Stuart. "New Ethnicities". 1988. eds. David Morley and Kuan-Ksing Chen. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 441-449.

Hingorani, Dominic. British Asian Theatre. Dramaturgy, Process and Performance, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Kent, Sayan. Another Paradise. London: Oberon, 2010.

Kali Theatre Company. 12 September 2013.

Nasta, Susheila. "Homes Without Walls: New Voices in South Asian Writing in Britain". Shifting Continents/Colliding Cultures. eds. Ralph J. Crane and Radhika Mohanram. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. 83-101.

Nasta, Susheila with Elleke Boehmer. "Editorial: Cultures of Terror". Wasafiri, 22.2 (2007): 1-3.

Sardar, Ziauddin. Balti Britain. A Provocative Journey through Asian Britain. London:Granta, 2008.

Schlote, Christiane. "Dramatising Refuge(e)s. Rukhsana Ahmad's Song for a Sanctuary and Tanika Gupta's Sanctuary". Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre. eds. Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell. Exeter: U. of Exeter P., 2012. 66-78.

Verma, Jatinder. "Cultural Transformations". Contemporary British Theatre. ed. Theodore Shank. London: Macmillan, 1994. 55-61.

Verma, Jatinder. "Sorry, No Saris". Theatre in a Cool Climate. Eds. Vera Gottlieb and Colin Chambers. Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1999. 191-200.

Wilson, Amrit. Finding a Voice. Asian Women in Britain. London: Virago, 1978. --. Dreams, Questions, Struggles. South Asian Women in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2006.

(1) Kali's mission is clearly stated on the company's website: "We seek out strong individual Asian women writers who challenge our perceptions through original and thought provoking theatre. We focus on content and ideas as much as on style, aiming to present memorable theatre events based on challenging and innovative ideas (...) Kali aims to present the distinct perspective and experience of Asian women to people from all backgrounds and to celebrate that richness and diversity". (

(2) Among other plays by British Asian women writers dealing with post-9/11 British Muslim identities are Too close to home (2006) by Rani Moorthy for her Manchester-based company Rasa Theatre and Alia Bano's Shades (2009), staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The 2009 production of The Black Album, an adaptation of Kureishi's novel of the same title, directed by Jatinder Verma of Tara Arts at the National Theatre, was also part of this post 9/11 and post 7/7 exploration of British Muslim identities on stage.
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Author:Buonanno, Giovanna
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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