Forty Years On-In Conversation with Tara Rajkumar OAM
17th October 2019
The Bhavan, London
By Shivaangee Agrawal
“There was no Bhavan, no Akademi. There was no widespread practice of Indian classical dance. There was some intellectual understanding of it, which existed in pockets of London.” Tara Rajkumar began by painting a vivid picture of London in the early 70s and the near-total absence of our south Asian art world was an overwhelming image to behold. Of all the events, performances and festivals taking place this month, I felt that this talk by Akademi’s founder was perhaps one of the most important to attend. It offered a history of ourselves, which is otherwise hard to come by in any meaningful or genuine depth. Over the past two years that I’ve been involved in the professional dance scene in London, I occasionally pick up snippets of conversation or a photo on facebook here and there that reminds me how much I don’t know about the industry that I work in. This talk winded me once again; Tara spoke of being a ‘beneficiary’ of Mathoor-ji; of her interactions with Ram Gopal and Sunil Kothari; of being teaching faculty at the Bhavan alongside Pratap Pawar; of how Robin Howard was instrumental in getting support for Akademi (then called the Academy of Indian Dance); of how Akademi’s initial funding came through as part of newly established anti-racism policy. She highlighted the rapid growth of Akademi, bolstered by Britain’s awakening to ethnic minority arts in the 80s.
As much as these connections felt surprising to me, the talk also reminded me of the slowness with which other changes occur. Tara explained that Dance Umbrella organised her first tour to Australia in the early 80s, at a time when the ‘White Australia Policy’ was fading and multiculturalism was being actively promoted through non-mainstream arts. And yet forty years on, Dance Umbrella this year has programmed Mythili Prakash in what feels like a mini victory for Indian classical dance. Will it be another forty years before they programme the next one? Forty years on, we still use the terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘non-mainstream’ to talk about how our sector ‘fits’ into the British dance scene. Forty years on, funding organisations are still trying to diversify the arts scene in favour of multiculturalism. Though it is clear that Akademi has a lot to celebrate in the last forty years, I feel frustrated by the persistence of our minority positioning.
Perhaps the most satisfying moment for me in her talk was when Tara articulated our collective challenge. “It’s a thinking audience that you get in Britain. You bring people to the art form, but you also have to bring the art form to the people.” Perhaps this is one thing that we should celebrate for its unchanging nature; it is an artist’s responsibility to relate work to life around themselves, and this becomes an opportunity to articulate, advocate and narrate. We ultimately have a certain power to create narratives on ourselves, what we do, and who we are - so what do we want that narrative to be in forty years time?