This paper is an attempt to unfold the complex issues related with the plays/performances carried out by Tara Arts. The paper will focus on the issues related with multiculturalism, diaspora, and migration. For this paper the focus is on the plays like Exile in the Forest (1987), a play on migration to England; Exodus (1998), story of the Kenyan Asian exodus to Britain; Genesis (1999), story of the foundation of modern East Africa by Indian migrants at the beginning of this century; Journey to the West (2002), 3 inter-connected plays explore the journey of 3 generations of Indians, from 1900 to 2001, tracing their routes from India to Kenya to England. The process of challenging the dominant culture by remaining at the periphery has taken the centre stage for the Tara Arts which employs the actors from the British soil with their Asian background. The ‘Binglish’ way was churned out of this samudra-manthan (churning the ocean). The questions pose are of identity of the diaspora, going back to the roots while maintaining the existing new ones to the actors if Asian and confronting or learning if from dominant culture.
Key words: British Asian Theatre, Binglish, multiculturalism
Globalisation, mass-media, and immigration have opened up spaces and people emerged from the periphery to occupy roles at the centre in British public domains. Britain is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-national nation, and as a result the theatre in Britain is “complex and dynamic”. (Shank: 1996: 3) British Asians migrants do not speak English. They speak ‘Binglish’. ‘Binglish’ is a theatrical concept developed and initiated by Jatinder Verma of Tara Arts in his theatrical practice through performances. The present paper is an attempt, firstly, to define ‘Binglish’; secondly, it is an attempt to see how it emerged. Thirdly, the attempt is also made into why it emerged. Finally, the paper also tries to see what changed is expected out of it.
My first encounter with ‘Binglish’ was at the Heathrow Airport, London on my first arrival in the UK in 2010 with my brother-in-law. On greeting me, his first sentence was “Badhu Alright che ne ?” [Is everything okay?] Instantly, I too replied, “Oh yeah! Badhu Alright che !”[Everything is okay.] During my stay in London for a week, I realised that Asian community has accommodated Indian lexicon in English language. I was listening English however the touch of Asian lexicon was constant. It was not Asian language and surely was not English even, the language I learnt in India.
Language is Power
Language is always changing. It (often) represents the microcosm of the society we are living in. For example, when a group of people speaking two different languages are mixed and remained in constant affinity, change occurs in the language of the group. There is a fear also that the speakers might lose their fluency in either of the language. The language, hence, tend to become different in a multi-cultural society like the UK, especially London. The main influences can be traced to the cultural environment and the immigrants. Although by physical appearance these migrants looked Asians (Indians) however they were born in Africa (Kenya) so they belonged to Africa (Kenya) but due to Africanisation they were then known as Indians. Entering in Britain they were no longer known as Africans where they were born but Indians. They had to leave the African roots and embrace Indian identity which they were not completely aware of it. Even today such migrant community in the UK identifies themselves as Africans rather than Indians. Verma was articulating a new voice that of the “a new culture that we felt we were forging in our daily lives, a hybrid culture that was neither Indian nor British.” (Verma 2006: 384)
Mass Migration and Racial Discrimination
Early 1960s saw mass migration to the UK from the African countries. The Asian immigrants, in order to, hold their identity against the pressure of fear not to lose their cultural identity and refrain from foreign influence, performed traditional and religious rituals within the community. Such congregation served two-fold purpose. First, strengthening community ties and secondly an opportunity for the youth to showcase their talent. Such events were mainly on the occasions of festivals. The languages, of course, of these early performances and performers at the Asian community were just Indian.
A decade later racial discrimination reached at its peak and the Asian community witness a racist murder of a 17 year Sikh boy named Gurdeep Singh Chaggar in 1976. The young members of the Asian community took initiative to raise their voice in a multicultural societal noise and where being Asian meant to be attacked on racial grounds and no hope for justice then. Jatinder Verma along with his four friends performed Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Sacrifice’. It was performed in English. It was a direct call to be heard, directed towards the authority, government, law enforcement agencies, and policy makers. The theme had multitude meaning of the racist murder. Afterthoughts of the play might have helped the directors and the performers to understand to create the voice louder, more profound and more continuous. The journey to have such a voice started in English though.
Binglish, an alternative for English
How to raise a distinct voice effectively among many noises? How do the audience members to experience ‘us’ and ‘them’ simultaneously? These questions were not easy to answer then. The samudra-manthan and the negotiation were fused with English during the rehearsals, at the community meetings and in the society where the Asian languages constantly and (un)consciously. Verma pointed out that, “in rehearsals we negotiated across several languages, and yet none of those languages are on stage.” (Plastow 2004: 91) The range of Asian languages were used like Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu and English, a fraction of linguistic map of contemporary Britain, however Punjabi was the most commonly used South Asian language among British South Asian settlers. The allowance of such languages into theatrical practices was not yet experimented in plays.
It seems it was the experimentation phase for the Tara Arts. In fact, such an experiment was the conscious effort from the Tara Arts. The voice heard on the British stage came from the marginalised Asian migrant community, though in English. Unheard voice reverted back to the speakers and the recognition of such voice was to be reckoned in order to make their presence felt. The language was one of the instruments they used however yet it was not super-effective to get noticed inside and outside the theatre. With a view to make it effective, loud and clear, the English audience was then confronted with the used of mixed Asian languages. “...Binglish ideologically and physically decentres English and all the power that flows from this, presenting it not as the supreme authority but as another language among the vast family of languages.” (Chambers 2011: 161)
The constructive linguistic barrier was created. A space was created for Asians to relish, and it was this space where the experience of being ‘Other’ was created. The purpose was to convey the experience of being ‘marginal’. The intention was to make their presence felt though at the periphery. It clearly seems that the conscious attempt to allow the experience of being ‘other’ worked not only for the Tara Arts but also for the British Theatre to some extent. Using ‘Binglish’ in the plays, Tara Arts set an example for the companies to follow like Tamasha Theatre, Kali theatre, Rifco Arts and others. These companies later profusely used the Asian languages innovatively than ever before.
‘Binglish’ is not a language. It is an innovative use of theatrical language. It belongs to English. It can be distinguished by its use of Asian, especially Indian, phonological and semantic features like intonations patterns, accents, pitch, stress and lexicon along with different theatrical models from Natya Sastra, Brecht, Bunraku, Indian folk forms and Bollywood songs. “Verma was beginning to develop a distinctive methodology he termed Binglish, a name that captures the fractured, overlapping hybridity of modern Britain. Binglish is distinguished textually by transposition to an Indian setting often using storytelling devices and, in performances, through costume, set, and the actors’ accent, inflection, tone, gesture, and stance.” (Chambers 2011: 161) It has been defined by Verma as “a distinct contemporary theatre praxis[...] featuring Asian and black casts, produced by independent Asian or black theatre companies [...] to directly challenge or provoke the dominant conventions of the English stage.” (Verma 1996: 194) ‘Binglish’ as defined by Ley and Dadswell, “...the integration of elements of the South Asian languages into scripts and performance was seen to be a constituent element of a production style and aesthetic.” (Ley & Dadswell 2011:248) It was heavily influenced by Verma’s study of Natya Sastra. Even Vijay Tendulkar’s play ‘Ghasiram Kotwal’ was instrumental for Verma to move “beyond use of English and the tendency toward naturalism that companied it toward a more Indian-influenced aesthetic, returning to the languages they had at first rejected. Now, Tara looked forward to time when it would not be embarrassing - indeed, it would be enhancing - to speak an Asian language in public.” (Chambers 2011: 160)
The early plays like Miti Ki Gadi [The Little Clay Cart] (1984), Tartuffe (1990) and Cyrano (1995) have ample of evidence of ‘Binglish’. The following dialogue from the play Tartuffe (1990) explains the kind of the experimentation was practised:
Tartuffe: [...] ‘Call me Neech [low life], Traitor, chor [thief], Thief, Goonda [Thug], criminal, cover me with names more vile, I will deserve them all. I welcome, on my knees, this disgrace.
Orgon: No. Tartuffe-ji. No (To Tartuffe) Utho [Get up] - Please rise. Tartuffe-ji (To Tameez) Haram-zade! [Bastard] (Verma 1990: 18)
Such innovative uses of language marked a particular style of performance and “assert(ed)” their identity with the use of ‘Ji’ [honorific] and injected into variants of English. (Verma 1994: 3) It is “syncretic and hybridised nature of post-colonial experience refut[ing] the privilege position of a standard code in the language.” (Ashcroft et.al 2002: 40)
Journey to the West: A Triology
With the ‘Journey to the West’, a triology, it became evident that it is not just the use of language but it emerged as an established style of theatrical performance. The three parts were performed on the same day over nine hours. Outside the theatres, local Asian merchants were invited to create a Chandi Bazaar selling Asian clothes, jewellery, handicrafts, historical exhibits, Asian food like pakora [crisp potato fries], patra [fried spinach rolls], mango juice, choley [curried white peas], sweets like Burfi (coconut) and jalebi along with demonstration by henna and rangoli artists and even champi [Indian head massage] with Asian and African music played live in the background and selling Bollywood material. Thus creating the effect of miniature of Asian Community.
The triology is a mini reflection of life of British Asians settlers’ history on to the British stage. The triology oscillates in optimism in Genesis (Part One), pessimism in Exodus (Part Two) and finally accepts the challenge to rediscover identity in the West in Revelations (Part Three). Part one is about the Indian workers’ initial migration to Kenya in search of work at the East African Railway. Part Two is about the Asian Kenyans migration to Britain as a result of Kenya achieving independence in 1968. Such Asians were referred as ‘shuttlecock Asians’ as they left Kenya and then were not allowed to enter either to Kenya, India, or even Britain though they had British Passport due to the Commonwealth Immigration Act, 1968, stateless beings like Trishankus, Indian mythical character who neither belonged to Heaven, Hell or even the earth. And part Three is about the hybrid Asian Kenyan British identity in contemporary Britain. Hingorani observes, “In JTW triology Tara mapped an Indian diaspora to Kenya and Britain over the course of the last century in a self-conscious act of post-colonial historical recovery from a subaltern perspective that was theatrically realised through the application of their ‘Binglish’ methodology.” (Hingorani 2010: 143-144) Moreover, Chambers comments, “The triology ranks as one of the most ambitious pieces undertaken by British diasporic theatre. Without minimizing the extent of damage and pain inflicted by colonialism, the piece celebrates not only the survival of these cultures against suppression and forced migration but their incorporation of Britain itself in their cultural practice, a historical triumph as yet only partially understood within the former imperial homelands.” (Chambers 2011: 165)
The triology is also seen as an attempt to reconnect with the Asian community. “This was to be achieved methodologically by going out and interviewing members of the Asian community and documenting the stories of their experiences of living in and then leaving Kenya in 1960s as source material for the performance.” (Hingorani 2010: 144) While ‘Binglish’ was reconnecting the lost audiences, the non-Asian audiences were challenged openly. “The three plays charted the story of Indian migration from India to Africa to Britain during the course of the 20th century. The methodology of fashioning the triology steered us into ways of theatre making that were quite new to us. It was central to my approach that we should make a piece of theatre that would reflect, as directly as possible, real peoples’ experience.” (Verma 2006: 387) The provocation was political as when Asian audience bursts out laughing on jokes, non-Asians consciously felt left out. Hussein comments, “Observing the non-Asian children at times I felt that they were left out, but then I thought how regularly Asians left out of the ‘mainstream’. Without going down the poisonous road of revenge the presentation stood as a defiant statement, an assertion, a determination not to apologise for speaking out.” (Hussein 1999: 24) However Verma defends the relevance of the non-Asian speakers’ moments of marginalisation within ‘Binglish’ performance, “that moment of incomprehension is terribly important because that is the reality of multicultural Britain.” (Verma quoted in Hingorani 2010: 48) In addition to that Hingorani also comments, “There is a clear politics to this as the audience are constantly being made aware of their own and by extension the culturally constructed ‘others’ constantly shifting position of centrality or marginality.” (Hingorani 2010: 48)
Indian society, Asian to large extent, has the religious, social, and linguistic differences creating the unjust inequality based on caste, clan and creed or even economic status. The differences are interwoven in the life in such a manner that it is difficult to get out of such mindset. However the migration to Africa allowed these communities to rise as either Asian or Indian community, leaving their differences behind, respecting the faith of others. It clearly came out when Sayyad, dies in Part One of the Triology, whose dream was to ‘build a mosque, a Gurudwara and a temple’, the chorus reiterates ‘a dream we must honour’. (Verma 2002: 26) Further the elements like music and songs also were part and parcel of the Binglish style. In Part One, Sutradhar [Stage Manager] sung a song on their journey from India to Africa and then was repeated by Chorus in Part Two signifying their journey now from Kenya to England. The song was thus accompanied by harmonium, dhol [Drum], Asian musicians sitting on the stage floor which was new to the British Stage. The song is:
‘Ohre taal miley nadhi kya jhul meyn
Nadhi miley saagur meyn
Saagur miley kaun say jhull meyn Koi jaaney na’
[Oh the beat is mixing with the river’s sound The river meets the ocean
What sound does the ocean mix with Nobody knows] (Verma 2002: 22)
The issue of identity, religious as well cultural, became the subject of the racist jokes. In part Two, conversation with Ranjit’s supervisor comments humiliates the migrant:
Reg: What’s wiv the towel on the ‘ead, Gangadin?
Reg: On yer ‘ead!
Ranjit: That’s my turban. I’m a Sikh.
Reg: Whatchu doin’ here then, if you’re sick? (Verma, 2002: 23)
Ranjit’s mother, first generation migrant, finds a job but ‘no saris’ at the workplace for health and safety reasons and she has to fit in to the job requirements. She removes her traditional clothes to wear the western outfit however with the feeling of being ashamed: “Hai rubba! [Oh God] How am I to look my man in the eye?” (Verma 2002: 27) The removal of traditional clothes is performed on the stage which signifies the episode from the epic Mahabharata wherein the Draupadi was attempted disrobe by Dussashan, brother of Duryodhan, the chief antagonist, in an open court, an act of huge insult to the sanctity of Indian woman.
It is vital to note that newly migrants were seen ‘more Indian than Indians’ in the UK and as Ranjit’s girlfriend, Helen, comments, “you speak English but more correct somehow”, the influence of colonial education in Kenya left to feel more English than English in speech. (Verma 2002: 26, 28) In part Three, Kamaal, son of a Hindu mother, Sita and a Muslim father, Liaquat is on his way to scatter grandfather’s ashes at Hadrian’s Wall, on the border of Scotland and England. Kamaal’s hybrid Asian identity makes him Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani, African, and English. Throughout the play he encounters his fragmented identity and rejects them one by one and at the end after scattering his grandfather’s ashes, he realised that his hybrid identity is the fact, and determines “to make this England, our England, full of all your long journey West.” (Verma 2002: 31) Chambers comment, “Kamaal’s journey is one of self-discovery, confronting the draw of both assimilation and separatism, neither of which he favours, as he questions his own identity.” (Chambers 2011: 164)
Another dimension to ‘Binglish’ is that of the challenge to the actors’ part. Tara’s actors were from British Asians as well as White. How do they present or perform the sensibility of the marginal group by using ‘Binglish’? Hingorani observes, “The theatrical, and indeed political, problem of how a white, albeit Irish, actor plays an Asian character without being subsumed within a racist discourse was addressed by the hybrid ‘Binglish’ methodology, which maintained the differentiation between the actor and character meant that the actor is not attempting, in a Stanislavskian way to ‘be’ the character but rather is presenting the character. Furthermore, the hybrid ‘Binglish’ text incorporated not only Asian languages alongside English but also Gaelic.” (Hingorani 2010: 61) In fact, it is a challenge for the actors and the critics to see through the performance, an attempt not to provoke but to integrate the cultures.
Thus to conclude it can be firmly said that though ‘Binglish’ started as a reaction in order to be heard, it later established itself as a style of theatrical presentation which was consciously or unconsciously affected the British Asian theatre. It is also important to note that due to such stylistic approach to the theatre in Tara Arts’ work in contemporary Britain, the British Asian Theatre companies have exerted tremendous pressure on the mainstream theatre via audience to share their place and identity at teh centre, rather than being recognised just as part of the fringe. With innovative hybrid theatrical form which is ‘not quite English’ (Verma 1996:200) has extended the parameters of contemporary British Theatre. With these new parameters British Asian Theatre is in search for new analytical model inclusive of these parameters, Western nor Asian model in isolation would do justice.
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i It is Indian myth that Samudra-manthan was carried out to empower the Gods with immortality against Demons.