An Indian love story as part of British culture
AI PROFILE Mira Kaushik, director, Akademi
On January 26, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, The Troth will have its world premiere. Based on a seminal piece of Indian literature, the first ever Indian short story which is set in the First World War, the hour-long production is an interplay between dance, music, and film. It has a mixed race cast of dancers and the choreographer is Gary Clarke, the avant garde creator of COAL, a dance about the decimation of the Yorkshire coalfields in the 1980s which is currently touring the UK.
It will be controversial on many levels, it is experimental in exploring new techniques, but it quintessentially represents a new stage in the mission of its commissioning organisation, Akademi, and its director or 29 years, Mira Kaushik: to establish South Asian dance as a British art form, adaptable and widely appealing.
Mira Kaushik was an embassy baby, born in Belgrade to a middle class Indian family of a diplomat father and book editor mother but brought up first by grandparents in small town India and then in New Delhi. She studied Hindu literature but rebelled against parental choice and followed her fascination with politically driven street theatre, working with leading directors, writers and thinkers whose mentoring she still falls back on, she says. At 23 she met and married a journalist, coming with him to London in 1981 when he was posted to the BBC World Service. She worked on the 1982 Festival of India and then became a community arts officer in Greenwich working with Indian women, but was quickly part of the ex-patriate Indian milieu of London, with the Commonwealth Institute a vital point of contact.
Portrait of Mira Kaushik, credit Siddharth Mishra
The Academy of Indian Dance had been founded by Tara Rajkumar in 1979 to introduce South Asian dance to the UK, with the support of Tania Rose, who had won a screenwriting Oscar for but had become an influential part of the Commission for Racial Equality, and the director of the Commonwealth Institute, James Porter. The academy provided classes and seminars, it was an alma mater for the likes of Shobana Jeyasingh and Akram Khan, and for a while it flourished, embedded in the institute. After Rajkumar emigrated to Australia in 1983 it went through five directors in ten years – latterly its leader was the journalist and arts activist Naseem Khan, who died last year but had been instrumental in the 70s in persuading the Arts Council of the intrinsic value to British culture of ethnic arts.
But by the late 80s the organisation was biased towards artistic creation, and away from costed administration. The Commonwealth Institute set it adrift but it had found a fortuitous home with the budding contemporary dance community, set in The Place under the aegis of Robin Howard, the philanthropist who had almost single-handedly brought UK modern dance out of its shell. When Kaushik arrived towards the end of 1988 as the 29-year-old new director – with her four-year-old son in tow - she found an almost bankrupt enterprise with no audited accounts for two years, shorn of many of the local government grants it had enjoyed in its first decade.
“I had to do or die” she says, and with limited resources and staff of two-and-a-half she mounted a press campaign to highlight the plight of what had now become Akademi. Among those she contacted was the Sunday Times which responded with a double-page spread. “At that point people started to come after us, that single piece saved us” Kaushik recalls. “Greater London Arts had to start a separate desk to deal with enquiries about us”.
Vidya Patel stars in The Troth, picture credit Simon Richardson
Since then, she says, Akademi has moved on, through golden funding days and austerity (her staff of ten is half what it was in 2011), part educator, part producer, part crucible, part curator – every five years, she says, she has to reinvent it to keep it close to changing external circumstances. “That first campaign quickly got me on top of how politics filters through into everything you do. You have to be aware”. Akademi works with autistic children showing how dance can help them express themselves, and also with dementia patients who find joy in the movement.
The Troth, which will be seen in Britain first at The Curve in Leicester in February and in May at the Southbank Centre, is based on a short story, Usne Kaha Tha, written in 1915 by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri. It concerns a young Punjabi called up to serve in the First World War whose love is unrequited but who makes a pledge to his loved one to protect her husband and son on the Western Front. Kaushik had studied it as a student, and when plans to mark the centenary of the Great War were announced it came to mind.
She was aware that the role of Indian soldiers in the war had been all but written out of the history books, and that the current UK-India Year of Culture marking India’s independence 70 years ago was a piquantly appropriate opportunity to put that right.
But Akademi has moved on through several manifestations since it began to introduce the principles of classic Indian dance. She saw yet another dimension to deploy in that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth if Indian cinema, and she imagined a dance as a silent film, mostly in sepia tones, with a music soundtrack and no dialogue.
By last spring when Kaushik started to plan her multi-media production, South Asian movement had moved into the mainstream of popular contemporary dance, and because of his story-telling talent she asked Clarke, never before associated with Indian dance, to choreograph the piece, the award-winning writer Lou Cope to be the dramaturg, the dance photographer Josh Hawkins to create the background movie, Charles Webber to design the lighting and Penny Andrews to produce the show, with Kaushik herself as executive producer. She commissioned the score from Shri, the classically trained Indian musician who successful crossed the bridge to modern western music and who is a long-time associate of Akademi’s. Of the dancers, four are of Asian origin, two British.
In these three decades funding models have changed several times, and now Kaushik’s skills at manoeuvring and cultivating the right contacts are bringing The Troth to life. An early set-back was being turned down for inclusion in the 14-18 NOW programme, but she got support from the National Army Museum and the Imperial War Museum who helped with images and historic research, but also from the Ministry of Defence – the production will go to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. And she has notched up a historic first in getting both India’s Ministry of External Relations and Ministry of Culture to be partners in the project, so that about half of the £500,000 costs has come from India. She also has funding from the Arts Council’s Reinventing India programme and support from the British Council.
“Akademi is concerned with the development of the art and the use of the art form – so we take an overview of the performing art tradition and take it into the society to make it relevant” she says.
And The Troth might prove to be Mira Kaushik’s swansong. She has decided to mark her 30th anniversary in the job next year by standing down, to pursue other cultural projects.
“This is a very important piece for me, a story generations of Indians have grown up with, maybe the greatest love story in Indian history, but it was not being picked up at this important time. We’re removing boundaries, using contemporary dance to tell a traditional Indian story in what is, first and last, a British work of art.”
1975 Graduated from Lady Irwin School, Delhi (High School)
1974 – 1982 Freelance artist/performer, India (theatre/television)
1980 Graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi (Master of Arts)
1981 Arrived in the UK from India
1982 Coordinator of the first Festival of India at the Commonwealth Institute, London
1982 - 1985 Freelance researcher and translator for BBC and Channel 4. Writer for Indian publications
1984 - 1985 Audience researcher for the BBC World Service, London
1986 – 1988 Arts Co-ordinator for Greenwich Asian Women’s Arts Group (developing a diverse arts programme for local Asian women, residents of the Asian women’s refuge and Senior Citizens Shelter in Greenwich)
1988 - Director of the Academy of Indian Dance (now Akademi)
1993 Awarded Fellowship of The Royal Society of Arts
2001 Awarded BBC Asia Award
2004 Awarded Kalasamman by UK Hindi Samiti
2006 Awarded OBE
2010 Appointed Edinburgh Festivals ambassador in 2010
2011 Awarded Women’s Empowerment Award by BSNL UK