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Jatinder Verma: A Profile

TUESDAY 30th April 2002
Real people, authentic testimonials and continuous improvisation: Journey to the West is the latest offering from Tara Arts and marks a new departure for the theatre group. The story of migration and British settlement in the 20th century, it comes from the heart of the company's founder, Jatinder Verma.

Born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Verma grew up in Nairobi, and was part of the mass Kenyan exodus to Britain in the late 1960s.

Living in South London he watched his mother "swap her sari for a pair of trousers and go out to work", and many Kenyan Asian families were adjusting to having much less. Worse, they found much of Britain completely unreceptive to her new inhabitants.

This sense of alienation came to a head in June 1976, when a 16-year-old boy, Gurdeep Singh Chagger, was murdered in Southall by a racist. Verma wept and decided to make his voice heard.

In 1977, he co-founded Tara Arts. The theatre group's first production was the anti-war play Sacrifice, by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. Verma's mission was to reflect genuine Asian experience, away from imposed caricatures.

Shoestring sets and soaring stories

In the early years, Tara Arts worked on a shoestring. The butt of leaflet jokes by the National Front, it received no funding and mounted productions in church halls. But writing, adapting and directing most of the productions himself, Verma has seen his group go from strength to strength.

When Tara began to receive Arts Council funding in 1986, Verma was able to widen his interests. He started to mix western classics with Indian theatrical tradition, developing a characteristic "Binglish" performance style.

In 1990, he became the first Asian director to stage a play at the National Theatre. He set Tartuffe and Cyrano de Bergerac in colonial India, and adapted an 8th century Sanskrit classic, The Little Clay Cart.

Writer and actor Sanjiv Bhaskar described this watershed moment. He said, "There it was. At the National Theatre. Not in some community theatre. And it was accessible. That's what excited me."

Along the way, Tara has launched the careers of some of Britain's most successful Asian actors. Vincent Ibrahim, now in television comedy The Kumars at Number 42, describes his time with Verma's company as "the first time in my professional life I could draw on my own experiences".

Verma has never slowed down. In 1997, he became a member of Channel 4's Poverty Commission, investigating social exclusion in Britain. He has written and presented programmes on radio and television, and is a frequent speaker, both at conferences and more intimate workshops.

But his first love remains the theatre. Back in the 1970s, as they watched the company's first ever performance by the theatre company, Verma's colleague mentioned to him the prospect of the group running for a couple of years. But the director protested, "No, this is my life."

And he wrote, "It will be our fate to beat our head against the wall, but the blood that flows will nourish another generation."

Sure enough, British born Asians experience a very different homeland from those of Verma's generation. And Tara Arts will have to adjust accordingly. For its director, neither national softening nor personal success can challenge his identity.

He says, "Because we're a touring company, we've stayed on the edge. And that's what I am. I'm nothing but a migrant."