by Zad El Bacha
I was cold and tired, searching for Saint Antony’s music room, when a vibrant singing called to me from across the quad. I stepped into the room, and the energy of the cast and the rich, vivid music overwhelmed me. This is how I was introduced to a preview of Talaash, a play with an all-women cast and all-BAME cast and crew that is unlike anything I expected to see.
The first scene I saw focussed on the contemporary dancer Jesryna Patel, moving across the room with stunning poise. Live music, singing and poetry about saffron gold joined the dance, a process which in less nimble hands could have been clunky and awkward, but which the cast carried it out with a smooth, seamless professionality. They created a solemn and joyful tone, celebrating everything from fried food to religious transcendence. This scene highlighted a factor that is a constant throughout this play: it is a true testament to the power of ensemble work, where the skill of individual performers is highlighted by the coherence of the whole.
This coherence becomes more impressive as the play goes on, and introduces a stunningly wide variety of elements; consider the kinds of dances that merge together throughout the show: contemporary, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Bollywood and contemporary ballet. This diversity is matched by the range of music, which goes from Lady Gaga’s new song Dive (from A star is born) to carnatic vocals. It’s a play brimming with textures, moods, cultures, but which is still capable of producing moments of remarkable calm and harmony. For example, Atrei Chakrabarty and Natasha Jeppu fill the whole stage with their Bharatanatyam scene, in which a great part of the musical composition comes from the dancer’s banging feet. The coordination between the two dancers is in itself enthralling, their feet create complex, sustained rhythms, their faces reflect each other’s expressions, smiling and frowning in accordance with the dance.
Part of the effectiveness of this mixture of elements is its conceptual importance in this play written and directed by Simran Uppal. The performance is a celebration of diaspora culture, of how different worlds come together without subsuming each other. This is best exemplified in the scene built around a poem about a swimming grandmother: she is shown swimming, gloriously, in the Ganges and in a swimming pool in Hounslow. These are not two separate worlds that clash, that need to be integrated; they are an integral whole enriched by all the differences it contains, and celebrating this means celebrating all the joy of being in the diaspora – a joy we need to remember exists even in this less than ideal socio-political climate. The sombre reality of race in the UK seeps through, in the mournful voice of the singer, in the violence implicit in the poem, but it never kills the sheer happiness of basking in the beauties of one’s different cultures. Rather, the sadness is a tone in a rich, complex composition, which welcomes the complexity of race, migration and diaspora.
There is an element of almost religious solemnity to all of this, despite – or perhaps because of – the lightness of so many of the elements. The poem about the swimming grandmother is artfully repeated throughout the scene, like a ritual or a song.
Another factor that is worth praising is the way Talaash refuses to compress the cultures it is drawing from into a generic BAME unity. Instead, it highlights nuanced differences: it brings together the North Indian airy Kathak and the South Indian earthy Bharatanatyam, and then adds Bollywood dancing for touches of lightness. The last scene I was shown, centered around the carnatic chanting of maula (meaning god, protector, guardian, beloved), encapsulates all this: it starts with the Kathak, which fuses with the Bharatanatyam, and is then joined by Bollywood dancers, all the while being accompanied by a brand new translation of an Urdu sufi poem about love. The scene transitions from the solemnity of sufi chanting into a clapping, dancing party, which any brown person in the room would recognise as the atmosphere at a loud family wedding. This communal celebration of love is both a fun party and a transcendental poem – and it is both of these fully, brilliantly, and magically.
Talaash is playing from the 15th to the 17th November at the Michael Pilch Studio, with shows starting at 19:30 every day and an additional showing at 15:00 on Saturday the 17th.