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Jatinder Verma MBE
of Tara Theatre

"The thing that has always frightened me, is regret. I don’t want to have regret, because regret is the tainting of the soul and when you’re alone at night, actually, it’s regrets that are going to call on you...
...they’ll crawl on you."

Having jumped off the train at Earlsfield station, we find ourselves opposite the recently renovated Tara Theatre. The building consumes a corner block, narrow and tall and is unassuming from the outside save for the heavy arched wooden door. On the other side of that door is a beautifully ornate creative haven – the main 100 seater auditorium complete with Earth floor, a rehearsal space which moonlights as a smaller studio for literary events and more intimate performances, a welcoming foyer bar seating area, an outside patio, and the most vibrantly decorated toilet doors we’ve ever seen.

Nestled at the top of this tree is Jatinder Verma’s office, flooded with natural light and dotted with interesting artefacts, exotic instruments and countless books offering tales and philosophies of other lands. Each object providing an insight into the mind a man who has devoted his working life to furthering cross-cultural integration through the exploration of stories and ideas.

Jatinder started a touring version of Tara theatre company in the 1970’s [with four friends: Praveen Bahl, Ovais Kadri, Sunil Saggar, Vijay Shaunak], but it is only this year they have firmly planted roots to open Britain’s first dedicated multicultural theatre. In their own words the new theatre has become ‘home to a world of stories, from the classic to the new’.

Could you start by telling us a bit about the Tara Theatre?

The auditorium of the Tara Theatre was originally built as a mission hall when Earlsfield rail station was built. This mission hall was a place where workers could gather after work and keep away from drink and it continued in that function over the years eventually becoming a Salvation Army hall. Just before we bought it, it was a West Indian church.

We acquired it in ‘83 and as a theatre company it seem to be made for us perfectly. I like the idea of the story of this building, that goes from a church to a theatre, since both are, actually, meeting places for ‘improvement’. 

What inspired the incarnation of the theatre in the first place?

The company itself had grown up several years before ‘83, when there was a killing of a young Asian boy in Southall [18 year old Sikh student, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, murdered in June 1976] . There was a lot of anger because it was a racist killing and while we felt that there was a place for direct protest, in a way racism is about a lack of imagination. All we could do, because we were interested in the theatre, was to mine and in effect become engineers of imagination. Stories connect us wherever we come from and that became our mission. To create stories that would connect different worlds.

None of us [the original founders of Tara] had gone to drama school. I had done a little bit more than the others, but it was not like we were trained in the theatre. We knew that we didn’t know enough, which began the whole process of training. We would go to shows and actually focus on the ones that we didn’t like to figure out what it was that didn’t work, so that we could learn from it. We got lots of different people, Alan Bennett, people from The Royal Court and so forth to come and do workshops, and gradually that’s how it all began to develop.

"Stories connect us wherever we come from and that became our mission. To create stories that would connect different worlds."

By the mid 80’s we started to see that what we call theatre in England, is not the only theatre in the world. We looked at Indian, Chinese, Japanese, African theatre etc, and realised that there are other ways of looking at it. It doesn’t have to be just a ‘realistic’ world.

In 1983 you purchased the building in Earlsfield. Was there a reason why you felt the need to have a permanent space or was it always an aspiration?

If I look at our history as a touring company it echoes the history of migrants. You come into a country and you go into rented accommodation, which is also what I did and what my parents did and then after a while you think, hang on a minute, I want to sink roots, I want my own place. I didn’t want to lose the sense of touring, but I wanted to have a space that in its bricks and mortar, could articulate what the company is about.

I wanted to create a theatre that could speak about the kinds of journeys that we’ve gone on and that, in many ways, would echo modern London, which is extremely diverse.

Obviously a lot of thought has gone into this renovation, seemingly with sustainability in mind. Do you see that as implicitly related to the reasons that the theatre was set up in the first place?

There are two things actually. One aspect of sustainability is legacy. A touring company, what is it’s legacy? For many companies it’s mostly in the mind, a memory of an extraordinary show. But theatre, as we know it in this and many other countries, is also an institutional thing. The kind of experience people have in coming to a place. I began to feel that in terms of Tara, it would be a loss if we simply remained a touring company. We would eventually die and it would be just memories. Whereas a building could encase these memories and they could be taken further by the next people to come along.

There is another angle to sustainability. I feel that theatre anywhere in the world, at any time grew up under the shade of a tree, on an earth floor and that I was very clear on. That whatever theatre we created needed to be able to dialogue with the past and with the future.

"I feel that theatre anywhere in the world, at any time grew up under the shade of a tree, on an earth floor."

Then thinking about sustainability in terms of energy issues, I thought, well this is a perfect coincidence. If I can have trees in site, trees on a facade and earth as the stage floor, I’ve got the beginnings of something which is also energy cooling.

This building talks between the modern and the past and that’s life. All our lives are lived like that, and in the theatre even more sharply. We depend on old scripts, we depend on old ideas and we are reforming them in order to look ahead, to see the next new challenges that are coming up.

From the shop - Dream Door: Tara Theatre inspired print

This print is inspired by the unique entrance to the Tara Theatre and the stories, ideas and dreams that lie beyond. 20% of all the profits made from the sale of this print will go directly to Tara to help them continue their great work. Visit the shop

What keeps you motivated?

It’s sort of dreams. Shakespeare, in The Tempest talks about “We are all the stuff that dreams are made of”. An Indian critic in the fourth century defined drama like this: “Drama is like a dream, it is not real, but it is really felt” and that’s been something that has always banged away in my head. We all dream, and actually, in some ways we are working on dreams here. Everyone knows it’s an illusion, but what everyone is desperate for is the feeling of reality. That it is horribly, or joyfully real.

And of course there’s no end of stories. It could be in the news, or a book or you’ll meet up with someone. For example, I was talking to the musician Nitin Sawhney, his response was to find a way of travelling through this building with music and stories. I thought, fantastic, what a great idea and we went off on a riff on that. Some time next year that might become a project…great!

You’ve been doing this since the 70’s now. Are there any particular challenges that stand out over that time?

There is a Buddhist proverb that came to mind and I think it’s absolutely bang on, the paradox of this quote is so delicious. It says “Hold onto your certainties with a vengeance. Let go of them lightly”. In a way we’re having to tread that line all the time. There may be conversations you have, or you read something that makes you think, oh, hang on, that’s a cool idea. But equally, you know where you are going and it’s this sort of dialectic, or dialogue or opposition which I really like.

It sounds like being open to how ideas evolve is very important to you?

Very much so. I’ve long felt that theatre is the only bastard art form. What I mean by that is that it’s a mixture. There’s a bit of literature, painting, architecture, dance, music and you put it all together and cook it up and it is mortal, like life. You see the show that day and that’s it. Dead after. As the experience, with an audience, it’s unique. We’re always teetering on the edge of destruction or total elation because of that live moment. You don’t know quite where it’s going to go.

Have there been any stand out highlights since you started?

At the beginning of this century I spent five years putting together a trilogy of migration. It was the first project that we did over that length of time. It involved talking to people who’d experienced some aspect of a journey, recording their experiences and then doing our own devising. We invited them to come and see the result, so in a way, we all went on a journey. That I found particularly satisfying because of the journey which everyone took from their own history into something that was slightly distant from them. In the process everyone became authors. It was more than just a theatre piece, it had all sorts of other implications.

We did it in many theatres around the country as a one day event. It was nine hours long and we worked with all sorts of local people. There was a foyer, marketplace, lunch and then there was an evening meal, all done locally. What was astonishing was that people bought into this idea that this was an event and it meant that time and time again, when the show ended, hardly anyone wanted to leave. You’d become part of this experience and you wanted to just suck it all in.

"We all dream, and actually, in some ways we are working on dreams here. Everyone knows it’s an illusion, but what everyone is desperate for is the feeling of reality. That it is horribly, or joyfully real."

What are your future plans? Would you like to open theatres in other cities?

There’s a general rule that I’ve heard a lot now, which is that most people have only one theatre in them and part of me feels that that’s absolutely true. The amount of time I’ve spent A, thinking about it, then B, working with the architect, then C, during the construction period, I don’t think can be repeated. It was very intensive. But then I still remember one person from the arts council saying, “I think you’ve got another theatre in you”, I’ll see. If you like I’ve created a kind of home, but it’s actually the breath of other people that’s going to tell me what quality of home this is. That is what I’m looking forward to in the variety of shows that we’ll have in here.

If you could go back and speak to the guy who set up Tara in the first place would you have any advice for him?

When we did our first show in ‘77, we did three performances. I was on the way to the second performance with one of the other founders and we were talking about the future of Tara. He gave it about five years, something like that and I said no, this is it, this is life. It’s an idealistic comment, clearly I was too young and bombastic at the time, but I told him “I’ll carry on until the end of my life and the blood that will be shed will nourish others”. Terribly arrogant, but if I look back at those forty years that’s absolutely true. There have been occasions when we’ve been cut by fifty percent or we’ve lost grants and so forth. I’ve ploughed on and ploughed on.

There may come a time when that fire is no longer in me. I’ll know that time and it will be I who leaves. Or else my ashes are here. It’s one of the two, I don’t think there is anything else.

Having a long game in mind, somehow meant that with the loss of funding, or the loss of people, we were always able to reinvent and find some other patrons and people that we could work with.

So yes, I think my advice to that young person would be, come up with something equally stupid to give you that long view. But you won’t know what that long view is.

It doesn’t matter if it finishes in a year or if it finishes in forty years. The point is that this is what you wanted to do and you put everything into it. You begged, borrowed, stole and tried to make it the best you could, and that’s all you can do really.

The thing that has always frightened me is regret. I don’t want to have regret, because regret is the tainting of the soul and when you’re alone at night, actually, it’s regrets that are going to call on you…they’ll crawl on you. And if you spend a year, or a month and you’re completely committed to it, fine. You’re not going to have any regrets, because you did it.

Tara Theatre

Tara Theatre
356 Garratt Lane
Earlsfield
London
SW18 4ES
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From the shop - Dream Door: Tara Theatre inspired print

This print is inspired by the unique entrance to the Tara Theatre and the stories, ideas and dreams that lie beyond. 20% of all the profits made from the sale of this print will go directly to Tara to help them continue their great work.

Visit the shop

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