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Founder of Tara Arts, Jatinder Verma MBE, to step down as Artistic Director

Theatre news

FOUNDER of Tara Arts, Jatinder Verma MBE, is to step down as Artistic Director, forty years after founding the ground-breaking company.

From its beginnings in 1977 at Battersea Arts Centre, Jatinder Verma has led the company in a pioneering effort to promote cross-cultural theatre.

Garnering support from Arts Council England, trust and foundations and over 1,400 individuals, he led the creation of Britain’s first multicultural theatre building. The award-winning Tara Theatre marks a historic step-forward in BAME theatre provision.

The company was formed in response to the racist murder in 1976 of young Gurdip Singh Chaggar, with a clear mission to make connections across cultures through theatre. The company’s inaugural production was Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore’s anti-war play, Sacrifice, staged at Battersea Arts Centre in the summer of 1977.

Verma has led the emergence of Tara Arts from a community theatre group rooted in Wandsworth to an international touring company to, now, the only BAME company to own a distinctive theatre building, which echoes his vision of connecting worlds. The award-winning theatre in south London combines architectural elements from India and Britain to create a unique legacy for multicultural theatre provision in the country.

Over four decades, Verma has supported the emergence of generations of Asian theatre artists – including Ayub Khan Din, Sanjeev Bhasker, Shelley King, Paul Bhattacharjee, Shaheen Khan, Kumiko Mendel, Sudha Bhuchar, Nadia Fall – and companies such as Tamasha, Kali and Yellow Earth. He has toured extensively around the UK and internationally and co-produced with a wide range of theatres, including the National Theatre where he was the first non-white director of a production.

Naresh Aggarwal, Chair of Tara Arts commented: “Jatinder’s greatest achievements lie in helping us appreciate that Asian stories are for all Britons and inspiring generations of Asian talent to emerge onto the public consciousness. He has firmly set Tara on the map of modern British theatre and I am confident his legacy will be built upon by his successor.”

Jatinder Verma said: “Salman Rushdie memorably talked of introducing a ‘different sort of noise in English’ with the publication of his ground-breaking novel Midnight’s Children. The past 40 years have seen British Theatre take on the challenge of embracing difference, with a host of new writers, directors, performers and designers.

“I feel privileged to have played a part in changing the landscape of modern theatre. While cultural diversity has increasingly become an accepted norm, the challenge of diversity, sadly, remains as acute as ever. Connecting worlds seems to me a necessary mantra for our times; it is certainly what I intend to continue to work on in the years ahead.

“Theatre has never been more urgent. This is an exciting time for a new generation of artistic leaders to continue the “connecting worlds” story of Tara.”

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “Jatinder’s vision and dedication to championing inclusion and diversity have opened up the theatre and changed the landscape of the stage in London and beyond. Tara Theatre has always held a special place in my heart, and I know that Jatinder’s legacy will continue to inspire artists and audiences for generations to come. I wish him all the very best for his next adventure.”

Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries, Justine Simons OBE, said: “Jatinder is a trailblazer. It’s hard to quantify the breadth and depth of his influence on theatre and on society over the past four decades. He has given a vital platform to generations of writers, directors and performers and produced work of the highest quality that represents, reflects and speaks to today’s society. Jatinder leaves a powerful legacy at Tara and I wish him all the very best for this next exciting chapter.”

Director Theatre at Arts Council England, Neil Darlison commented: “Jatinder is one of the pioneers of British Asian Theatre. Under his direction Tara Arts has been extraordinarily influential in British Theatre and both he, and the works he has created, have inspired theatre-makers and audiences alike. In addition to this, his unstinting energy means he leaves an award-winning theatre in Earlsfield – a brilliant legacy for Wandsworth, for London and for the next leader of this company. I look forward to whatever he does next.”

Born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Jatinder Verma grew up in Nairobi and migrated to Britain in 1968 aged 14, as part of the exodus of Asians from Kenya. At 23, when he co-founded Tara Arts, he began to develop a unique cross-cultural theatre style, influenced by both Indian and European theatre. After writing and producing new plays in the late-70s and early-80s, exploring racism in school, migration and the sexual dilemmas facing young Asians, he began directing adaptations of European classics, including Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Buchner’s Danton’s Death.

During the 80s he helped set up the pioneering Black Theatre Season – an effort to bring Black Theatre onto West End stages and in 1990, became the first non-white director at the National Theatre, staging his own adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe. This was followed by the first-ever staging at the National of the Sanskrit classic The Little Clay Cart.

As well as productions of other classics, Verma produced a new play from India, Hayavadana and, in 2002, saw the completion of a five-year cycle of work for Tara, staging Journey to the West. This large-scale trilogy of plays was based on over 400 interviews with migrants across the country, presenting the story of Asian migration and settlement in the West over the course of the 20th century. The trilogy was written and directed by Verma.

Through the company’s 3-year strategic initiative, Black Theatre Live, Verma helped commission the staging by Jeffrey Kissoon of the first all-Black Hamlet, the emergence of Cathy Tyson’s new company Pitch Lake Productions, Ambreen Razia’s ground-breaking Diary of a Hounslow Girl and Joseph-Barnes Phillips’ searing play, Big Foot.

In 2009, he returned to the National to direct Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album. In 2012, he took Farrukh Dhondy’s compelling post-colonial take on The Tempest, Miranda, on tour to India; a new version by Hardeep Singh Kohli of Moliere’s The Miser followed; in 2013 he premiered American writer Wajahat Ali’s The Domestic Crusaders.

In 2015, Verma directed a touring version of Macbeth, casting the Witches as Indian hijras (transsexuals and transgenders) and, in 2016, Farrukh Dhondy’s Bollywood Jack. In 2017, he co-produced debut playwright Asif Khan’s hard-hitting play set in Bradford, Combustion. Most recently, he directed Nigel Planer’s adaptation of a Marivaux farce, The Game of Love and Chai and Shamser Sinha’s Three Sat Under the Banyan Tree.