The multiculturalism of London continues to inspire Mira Kaushik to orchestrate new outreach programmes.

Mehru Jaffer

Early this year, London-based Mira Kaushik, 49, was feted with the Order of the British Empire (OBE). For Mira, the award is a remarkable achievement considering that only two decades ago she was just another Indian living in London. In 1982, when she followed her husband, BBC journalist Naresh Kaushik, to Britain, she became one of the many South Asians who account for nearly 13 per cent of London’s population of eight million.

Apart from taking up part-time jobs — teaching Hindi and Indian culture to children of Indian origin — Mira spent much of her time at home with her children. Once, she came across textbooks that said that before Roman times, Britain was just a geographical entity with no political meaning and no single cultural identity. For 10,000 years people were moved in and out of the country in substantial numbers, profoundly influencing local culture and identity.

Celts, Romans, Normans, Saxons and members of other Germanic tribes had found a home here; now it was the turn of Asians and Africans, she concluded. She began to dream of the day when no one would question the Londonness of Londoners such as herself.

In 1988, she accepted the job of the director of the only national academy of Indian dance in England. Founded in 1979 by Tara Rajkumar, the Kathakali and Mohiniattam diva, on the premises of the Commonwealth Institute, the Academy of Indian Dance’s modest activities were initially supported by a small grant from the Commission for Racial Equality. After Tara left the UK for Australia in the early 1980s, the academy was struggling to survive. “I wanted to save this academy only because I did not like the idea of being responsible for an institution that failed,” says Mira.

She used every technique at her command, including all that she had learnt during her masters in Hindi literature from Delhi University, and from Pune’s Film and Television Institute, to stage a lone battle so spectacular that it saved the institution. She spruced up the management and concentrated on the academy’s contribution to education. A brand new outreach programme for communities with different ethnic backgrounds was most successful.

Folk to hip-hop

Mira had a mandate that went beyond classical dance and soon her repertoire included movements from folk to hip-hop. She hired both Indian and international choreographers to perform, teach and experiment. The result was that the Indian Manipuri dance style was married to the Chinese Tai Chi. That was in the 1990s and the academy dancers are now a touring group performing everywhere.

South Asian dance professionals along with their western contemporary colleagues were invited to schools, prisons, hospitals and inspired even the elderly to put on their dancing shoes. The academy’s energetic involvement in cross-disciplinary aspects of life led the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing to start a South Asian faculty for dance. Even the London Contemporary Dance School has opened its doors to Bharatnatyam and Kathak as part of its graduate course in contemporary dance. From evening classes in Indian dances, attended mainly by young people of South Asian origin, the academy was renamed the South Asian Dance Akademi. It earned a name for its daring, progressive performances with an international flavour. The separate but complementary departments of education, community, dance training and dance development overflowed with enthusiasts of different age groups and ethnicity.

A new search

But, the search to make the activities of the Akademi more useful for artistes in their day-to-day life continued. Looking for inspiration, Mira noticed the different kinds of people trying to live together in London, along with traditions inherited from generations before them. She saw the city as a living example of multiculturalism. Census reports told her that over 300 languages are spoken in London and 50 non-indigenous communities, each over 10,000 in number, live in the city.

To mark 21 years of the Akademi, Mira went public by holding the event on the street. Now people needed no formal invitation to celebrate the coming of age of South Asian dance here. Together with artistic director Keith Khan, she put together Coming of Age in August 2000 outside the South Bank complex stretching over 27 acres along the Thames River. A carnival, with song, dance and circus spectacles, was held on pedestrian zones along the South Bank.

Inspired by the sets of Pakeezah, the Meena Kumari classic, space was created between the birthday bazaar for dancers to perform on platforms. For two evenings, the event involved nearly 100 dancers, aged two to 82, who performed Bharatnatyam, Bhangra and Kathak, as well as contemporary styles for an audience of over 10,000. Soon after dusk, pedestrians in the area faced dancers drenched in floodlight. Wherever the eye strayed, a dancer was seen, some close, others far away performing to a soundtrack as moody as the movements.

Shrikanth Sriram, who composed the music, used both Indian and Western tunes to reflect the reality on the streets of Britain. The enormously successful Coming of Age won the BBC Asia Awards in 2001, linking the Akademi’s reputation to large-scale, site-specific, highly professional shows that engage artistes from diverse backgrounds, all of whom seem to enjoy a unique relationship with the architecture of London.

Coming of Age was followed by Escapades in 2003. “At a time when the stiff upper-lip establishment was snooty about popular Hindi cinema, 100 dancers, clowns, musicians and fireworks paid energetic tribute to pop culture in Escapades. Again, “the South Bank premises were owned by us during the Escapades performance,” recalls Mira.

Waterscapes, a year later (2004), was inspired by the ‘Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands’ exhibition was staged around a fountain, transporting a courtyard to an imaginary Moghul Court. Sapnay was part of the 2005 Trafalgar Square Festival, hosted every summer by the Mayor of London.

Memories of this event as a visual feast and toast to hybridism were still fresh when Awaz burst upon the same Square in 2006 to pay tribute to the dynamism of Asian women. Real life stories of South Asian teenage girls inspired this event.

Here, classical and contemporary styles, together with folk and festive dances and Geetika Varde’s singing, unfolded the struggle of women forced to live in an alien culture and society.

The Akademi’s contribution to enhancing the practice, understanding and appreciation of “South Asianness” through dance in a very British milieu was recognised with Mira receiving the OBE in March 2007. In August came Dreaming Now, part of a three-week Indian theme Trafalgar Square Festival. It was a spectacular production that included a performance by artistes from Delhi, London and Belgium.

Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 28, 2007)
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