Location: Tufnell Park
Interviewer: Beth Walton
Technician: Rosie Fielding
Topics List: Jessica Higgs
Audio timings – 1:34:54
Video timings can be found on Poulomi Desai video Topics List
00:00:00 Beginnings. Born and brought up Hackney. Moved to Harrow after parent’s divorced. Parents positive about arts and education. Encouraged to do lots of things. Harrow in 70s had a lot of National Front. Mother got job in local school. Harrow pretty backward educationally, aspirationally then. Time outside Harrow doing extra curricula, seeing shows, exhibitions – rounded cultural upbringing. Her aunt came over in early 50s. Was ‘other’ world in Britain that Asian’s weren’t part of. Lots of different Asian communities in UK. Whole host of Asians, highly educated, highly cultured. Southall riots – showed Asians were ‘not to be tread on’. Not only S Asian thing but of all working class communities in UK. Poulomi Desai (PD) Mother’s best friend, ran forward-looking lefty Gujarati newspaper, Fridor Sally (spelling?) who worked in Arts, Ravi Janer (spelling?) published books, the Huntleys who ran bookshops.
00:05:00 HAC (Hounslow Arts Co-op). Began HAC at 13. Mum encouraged her to recite poetry. Met young guy who was recording a recital she was giving at what was the Commonwealth Institute. He asked if she was interested in starting a group. Looking to find like-minded Asians and found them locally via him and decided to set up a theatre company. Did Shakespeare & Ibsen at school. Did History option at school. Was exposed to Dadist and Realist ideas. Watched Cocteau films. Bunked off school to go to exhibitions. More traditional plays going on and they [HAC] had different take on it. Hardly any of them been to University. About casualness of sexism. Had a zine and band in HAC too, not just one thing. Young and quite naïve. HAC had a manifesto. ‘Voice of angry youth’. No peer group. Work evolved. Internal dialogue which continued. ITC/Equity recognized touring theatre company, band continued independently and PD worked with 3 other artists to develop her own Performance Art-led Live Art – Alan de Souza, Dil Sudjip Mare & one other [name not remembered]. PD did solo things as well, used photography in performance. Influenced by cinema.
00:14:07 Collective. Wanted HAC to be a Collective – what a lot of other groups were doing. Diverse nature of HAC may have alienated those wanting to do pure theatre. Always accused of washing dirty laundry in public. The few Asian officers around at the time didn’t get HAC. They wanted to talk about now and what was happening with Asian youth. Influenced by Funkidelicate Parliament to political poets to science fiction. Ravinder [Gill] obsessed with Sci-fi writing and interested how that related to theatre.
00:19:30 Influences. Actual process and influences changed over the years. Came through improv, reading, through practice. Adaptations. Trying out ideas. Later it changed when Parv [Bancil] came onboard. Used external writers. Open policy. Sort out new writers. Parv was in-house writer so had in-house scripts.
Audiences – Southall, Hounslow. Did street theatre with Street 7 (later). Trying to connect with larger Asian communities. Some kind of subversion going on somewhere, especially with poetry. The touring aspect was to get work to much wider audiences. Difficulties booking. Booked selling ‘Asianess’. Shows that were stopped. Honi (spelling?) from ADF [Asian Dub Foundation] saw them at Nottingham – couldn’t believe there were Asians doing ‘that kind of work’. South Asian audiences were fine, problems were with community representatives.
00:25:14 Touring. London – collaborations with Double Edged Theatre. Tours had minimal funding. Stayed with Asians families, friends, sleeping on people’s floors. Rehearsal space originally in Hounslow at the Multicultural Centre. Well supported there. Cranford Community School youth worker also gave them space. Put on shows there. Post-HAC at Watermans. Response from different touring places varied. Talks a little more about that and working processes. HAC on the Road to Nowhere – a cabaret using anecdotal accounts of being an Asian actor. Toured for ages, short sketches devised by company with a director.
00:30:50 Other HAC things. Different people were involved in different parts of HAC. Some people from the theatre company wrote for the Zine. But Zine organized and published by people not in theatre part. The Marassis were a separate band. Later a group called the Dead Jalebis were formed but practice connected to theatre. They were a spoof Splash Metal band. One Nation Under a Groove In It. Became a monthly thing when resident artists at Watermans. As company progressed some would take class at City Lit for example. Learning process – so were much more aware of what body was doing on stage and its relationship with the audience. Tradition of stand-up. Played a lot with sound.
00:35:40 Mid to late 80s started her own practice. Early 80s, sound bits were with off shoots – Grey Lags Spiff, Live Art Company. Also performed in theatres. Sound prominent there – sound of machines, used slide projectors. For HAC definitely sound was there, not necessarily abstract sound. First wave of so called, ‘Asian Underground’ – more about the music and what that music represented. Parv had DJ background. All brought different loves and passions to the mix. Parv – self-taught, learnt writing through being in HAC and was mentored. Brought own ideas on music and what it meant in wider society. Rav – of the 70s would say from Star Trek to Sci-Fi to all sorts. Difference experiences and references to PD. For Rav science fiction and its relationship to theatre & performance. Processes within theatre – traditional, contemporary. PD more influenced by Live Art. Hardial [Rai] looked at traditional theatre from India, practices, and to see how they could use some of those and their particular characters in their work. Looked at Japanese practices of contemporary theatre. Journalists didn’t know how to write about them – who are these people? Very negative until Asian journalists came along. Much later at Waterman’s when HAC members became part of other groups that they were taken more seriously. Didn’t have the polish like Secret Asians for instance. All of their material was middle of the road. HAC were more Wooster Group mixed in with Marx Brothers & Sex Pistols. Anything could happen. Remembers some of their work. Journalist and promoters who came preferred the Asian stuff they could put on TV. Not very good at selling themselves. Their influence has gone unacknowledged.
00:44:30 Very conscious to explore. Anger at being forced into accepted roles. HAC originally multiracial. Feeling of what it was to be British. Other companies they felt sympathy with – Red Ladder. Live Art Development Agency. Complicite [Theatre de]. Michael Clarke – seeing things at Riverside Studio, bands and clubs. People dressing up. Lee Barry. Live Art performance. ICA work. Sadie Plant. Observing and talk to people about ideas.
00:49:47 Watermans has a history and relationship with HAC and other groups in the area. Height of HAC desperately trying to use Waterman spaces and weren’t allowed in. They didn’t want riff raff. They had a battle with Watermans management. A group took over Watermans to make it more open to include local communities and then HAC ended up working there with a range of people. It’s when their music programme became very exciting. Dollar Brand played there. It provided an opportunity to bring people in to do try outs, scratch nights etc. Did their own productions there. Could invite people in to try out work with them.
00:53:40 Always difficult running a company. Support for individuals increased over time. Post-Uganda Asians coming in and post-EU completely changed face of towns and cities and culture. Food changed culture of places, 3rd, 4th generation South Asians and Caribbeans, Equalities Acts – race, sexuality all helped. Support by GLC. Festivals were happening. European cities of culture. Things changed quite rapidly, although for actors they were still being told to do accents – the ‘authentic’ accent whether born in Birmingham or not. Emergence of younger Asian directors. Kali, Tamasha, Tara began to do more main stream productions.
00:57:45 Leaving HAC. Wanted to do other things and couldn’t survive on little money. Actors got paid first and lived at home. PD primary role at end was as administrator. Differences happening within HAC. People wanting to lead it somewhere else. Parv put on some work at Royal Court and radio. Wishes there could have been mentors to help sustain something and wishes they had squatted the building [Watermans] to get something permanent. PD was already doing photography by then, having exhibitions. Exploring solo Live Art interventionist stuff. Doing early sound bits for projects and worked with other people. Other Southall performers. Parminder Secol (spelling?) Workshops with early autograph agency, workshops in schools, photo fusion – work became more photography led. Young Offenders Institute in East London. They’d bring together theatre practitioners, lighting, sound people. Working with women’s groups as well, Manchester and all over. Worked on ‘Lambeth Community Play’ in Brixton. Involved over 200 people. Became Race Equality Officer in Ealing for 4 years.
01:05:22 If they had had mentors at HAC work may have been different and success of individuals would have come earlier. But brought own passions and interests to the work. Had shared love of music. HAC massive learning period.
Dead Jalebis had entity of their own. Parv wrote for Syncopated Sponge Bunch.
Music audiences very different, Asian 2nd wave had happened by then. Huge sell outs every month at Watermans. Audiences were more open, more educated about the work. Things had changed.
01:12:07 Constantly seeking to give benefit to black sisters. Activate politics. Anti-apartheid movement etc Links were there in a real sense. About change. Talked about ‘things’ other theatre companies would avoid talking about. Linked internal politics of different Asian groups and the hatred, sexism etc within. Confronted racism in Southall. About change, questioning, power, power of authority, where budgets went, what was British Arts and culture, and why were certain people feted. Visibility and people’s openness has changed because of the internet and you tube. Has changed people’s references. Privatisation of venues has changed things. Previously there was the dole, you could sign on as an actor. You had youth workers who gave support. Satellite support has gone. Arts funding has changed. The idea of big names big productions is here. Believes Government should be spending money to support grassroots artists. She has now set up a space, Usurp, in Harrow and is in a position of relative security. Aware it’s much harder for those setting off now. Ideas of indebted nation and contemporary politics. Only public independent art space doing the kind of work they are doing. Harrow has largest Indian population in the whole of Greater London. PD gets commissions now. And can do night gigs because she doesn’t have to earn elsewhere. Uses internet to get her work known and shared. An invisible history out there. It would be nice for HAC to mentioned alongside wider theatre rather than the Asian thing.
01:24:00 An Ode to or India Radio. Subversive in a musical sense. It’s the attitude. Working with people. Free improvisation is attractive because it’s collaborative in a group. Working in groups – approach which runs through. Politically it’s being open to everything and trying to make a statement as to what is going on currently. Playing to small venues, playing with people who know about the music and the collaborative effort – that makes a statement in itself. Some of those teach and so hopefully impart their ideas to their students. Her duo – about subversion and recycling. This is with Simon Underwood who used to be in band called Underwood. He subverts kids toys – their sound tracks. For her it works through the sitar, electronics and specific radio commission. Given a broken sitar with NF scrawled on it. She modified that and another. Began to think about the sitar as a sacred instrument and how it could be unraveled and see what happened with that. Explored whole sound base of it – what does the inside of it sound like – if you scratch it etc
01:31:00 Add on to interview about Tom Allen Centre. Half Moon, Jacksons Lane and Moonshine in Kilburn, Hoxton Hall, Chats Palace – all supportive London venues of the time. Manchester – The Green Room and John McGrath at Contact Theatre. Also formed Shakti with Sivananda Kahn in 1988, South Asian LGBTT group. Campaigning group and to support anyone identifying South Asian queer, had a club night which funded helpline and other support groups. Many spin offs with that. HAC & Shakti opened up the debate. She and Sivananda Khan co-founded NAZ [foundation] project, first IV Aids project in India.