This month, British theatre producer Dawinder Bansal launches a brand new theatre show Mother Tongues from Farther Lands. The uplifting, inspiring and emotion-filled show has real stories of South Asian women relayed by female celebrities in a series of gripping monologues. The four-city show was produced after speaking to women of all ages and sheds light on hidden stories within the Asian community. Dawinder shares her journey of making this unique new show for a national UK tour as part of Southbank Centre’s Alchemy On Tour.
Tell us about Mother Tongues from Farther Lands and how it came about?
I was invited to join the Southbank Centre as producer to lead on a national participation project for Alchemy On Tour. The aim of the project was to create a brand new theatre show, rooted in the heart of South Asian communities in the Black Country, Doncaster, Oldham and London. My speciality is capturing real life stories from diverse communities and using these to inspire the creation of original contemporary theatre shows, which are relevant and topical. I wanted to work with Sajeela Kershi ever since I saw her award winning show, Immigrant Diaries in 2015 and also because she champions women’s rights. When we met, our values chimed so I knew we’d make a great team for this project. We had a blank canvas and decided to place women’s stories at the heart of the show.
What was the production process for Mother Tongues from Farther Lands?
An important part of my artistic philosophy is spending time with communities and recording their stories. The process for this show began in the same way, by developing a bond with participants of Aksa Homes Asian Women’s Group and Chai Ladies Group in Oldham, Alchemy Ladies in Doncaster, Feltham Asian Women’s Group in London and HumJoli in Wolverhampton. Sajeela Kershi and I began capturing their real life stories to make the new show. After each of the workshops, we would discuss the remarkable stories we were told. These stories, songs, anecdotes, words of wisdom and poems have inspired the written monologues performed in this show.
What was challenge of putting it together?
Working with real stories is both a privilege and a great responsibility. The process requires time to thoughtfully interview people and revisit the audio once it’s recorded. We’ve managed to record so many stories through the workshops that Sajeela decided to fuse all the stories together. The challenge now is to ensure all the participants see a part of themselves reflected in the piece.
Why do you want to work with community groups?
The UK arts sector is largely funded by Arts Council England. People pay their taxes to subsidise theatres, arts centres and artists to make new work, which doesn’t often get seen. So I feel it is my absolute responsibility to engage those people who don’t ordinarily interact with art and become that bridge. I work with grass roots communities because it keeps me grounded and it enables me to give a voice to marginalised people from society. Ensuring their lives and experiences are valued through an artistic vehicle. I am quite an observant person and fascinated by language. Getting into the heart of different communities allows me to understand what motivates people to engage with art. Creativity and curiosity go hand in hand and this is what always leads me to my next piece of work.
Tell us about the Feltham Asian Women’s Group?
The Feltham Asian Women’s group is made up from mainly Indian-Kenyan women who are all wonderful, strong and independent women. They meet every Tuesday to do yoga, sing, dance and share food. The sisterhood within this group is strong and when I visited them they were initially hesitant about getting involved – “we have nothing to tell you, our youth has vanished through hard work and raising children and now we are just living each day as it comes, we have nothing interesting to tell you” said one lady.
From my experience of working with elders, this is common dialogue at the beginning of the creative process so it did not deter me from visiting them again and engaging them in the creative process of this project.
After a few visits, I developed a bond with the ladies and they even said they had adopted me as their grand daughter! This bond and familiarity along with being able to speak my mother tongue language – Punjabi – helped to bring out their stories and life experiences. When the ladies shared their personal stories during our workshops with writer and comedian, Sajeela Kershi, the other women learned new information about each other.
This was brilliant and they developed deeper connections with each other. They all shared heart-warming stories about their dreams and ambitions, youth, married life and of course, the arts. They talked about leaving their homeland to come and settle in the UK and the difficulties they faced as new arrivals. They also reminisced about fun times and celebrations too.
Being involved in creative projects like Mother Tongues from Farther Lands definitely helped to spark their memories. One lady, who could not speak English told me she was so happy that someone had asked her about her life. She could finally share her story and feel heard, explaining that people become invisible as they age and it is even worse if they have language barriers.
There is much wisdom to be gained by taking the time to hear the experiences of the older generation. The vast collection of stories we have been told will now inspire the creation of a new theatre show, ensuring that these women’s lives are valued and their voices are heard. Only by doing this kind of work, can we slowly begin to help with the ongoing problems of isolation and loneliness in the ageing population in the UK.
Mother Tongues from Farther Lands is a commission by Southbank Centre’s Alchemy and supported by Arts Council England. Taking inspiration from communities across the UK, professional performers bring fascinating, fearless and funny monologues to life. It will be performed at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on May 20th. Make sure to book your tickets here. Follow Dawinder Bansal on Twitter: @DawinderBansal and Facebook: @DawinderBansal1.