Britain and South Asia’s complex relationship was born out of trade in the 1600s, mutated into the imperial rule of the colonies in the 19th century and led, eventually, to an influx of migrants from all walks of life to suburban UK in the 1950s.
Like the ancient practice from which it takes its name, Alchemy explores philosophical and artistic transformations, curating a diverse range of the dual-heritage acts produced by today’s cultural melting pot. What are British Asian artists creating today?
‘I tell ancient myths; however, I live in the 21st century. I think all art looks backward to some extent, but it needs to be tuned into the hearts and minds of audiences in the present,’ says Wolverhampton-born Peter Chand, who uses spoken word to pass on folklore from Punjabi elders.
Spinning lyrical stories in English with occasional flurries of his mother tongue, his act Tongue Tied and Twisted hauls a once-forbidden art form into the modern, thumping world of bass. DJ PKCthefirst underlines the narrative with hip-hop, dubstep and bhangra soundscapes.
The British Asian equation yields multiple answers, and writer-performer Saikat Ahamed shares how he worked it out in Strictly Balti, an autobiographical stage production about growing up as the actor son of two Bangladeshi doctors in 1980s Birmingham.
Though his childhood home was a shrine to the Land of Bengal, one of his earliest memories is of watching Donald O’Connor perform ‘Make em’ laugh’ in Singin’ in the Rain: ‘I knew life would never be the same again. I used to creep into the kitchen to covertly hoof on the tiled floor.’
The first hurdle on his acting path was facing his family’s opposition to his career choice. Once he’d cleared that one, the next hurdle was grappling with his ethnic identity. ‘It felt that sometimes I was too Asian for parts I wanted and other times not Asian enough for parts I was being offered. Creating my own work has been an opportunity to present my own voice, and take ownership of who I am on my own terms.’
YouTube comedian and actor Mawaan Rizwan knows no other way. The best way to make someone laugh, he says, is ‘The willingness to be honest. Honest to the point it hurts… It’s vulnerability and humility that connects us.’ At Alchemy, he screens his film How Gay is Pakistan, hosts The Weirdo’s Ball and features as a Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate.
If the last of these titles doesn’t give it away, Rizwan uses physical absurdity and theatrical crossdressing in an attempt to destroy the taboos around what it means to be homosexual and come from a Muslim family. ‘The most dangerous thing we can do is act like something doesn’t exist,’ he says.
The performer’s online channel, MalumTV, has 87,000 subscribers and growing, and it spawned his part in Murdered by My Father – a hard-hitting drama about an honour killing that recently aired on BBC One. He’s living, clowning proof that people want to see the full breadth of their demographic represented in the British mainstream, and not just see their community represented as extras, or caricatures.
When the door is closed, artists are forced to use stereotypical gags or internet platforms as lock picks to break into the industry. Stand-up comic Tez Ilyas puts it perfectly: the best thing about being British Asian is having a USP (unique selling point) and the worst is ‘trying to stand out from the tired ethnic tropes’.
His act draws on his Pakistani heritage, and it’s seriously funny and subversive, even when broaching hard topics, like Islamophobia. ‘Sometimes you have to go to dark places to say something meaningful, and that takes skill.’
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