Did you choose the South-West region or was it chosen for you?
In the early days as an organisation we were doing events within Bristol; then we started taking work to other parts of the region. The South-West is a huge area, and now the Arts Council has changed the area covered by the region it extends all the way from Cornwall up to Hampshire.
In terms of the difficulties of developing audiences in sparsely-populated areas in the South-West, what insights can you offer us?
The area is definitely challenging. In some areas the population is very small. The key is to find the anchor people or venues within that specific area. Unlike London, where you might find 20,000 people within a two-mile radius, the situation is completely reversed in the South-West. It’s challenging but equally it’s really exciting. It gives people a chance to come out without having to go to bigger cities or out of the region. This area has some of the biggest festivals – Glastonbury and WOMAD – and we want to bring something to these audiences.
Do you see the company growing more nationally?
Yes, definitely. We don’t want to lose the charm that comes with being based in the region and we’re not going to let go of the focus and lose the depth there, but equally we are looking at how we can take the work we develop in the South-West area beyond. It starts with the projects and our artistic ambition.
Over the last few years we’ve become more a national organisation. We’re bringing work in from overseas and touring work that has a national appeal. It’s an organic growth. We don’t want to restrict our work but take it to where the demand is and where the work should go. There was a big demand for the project with Talvin Singh and Devi (producing a contemporary score for the classic 1960 film) on a national level, for example.
It happens that we are featuring Talvin Singh and Roopa Panesar in this issue, whom the Agency is promoting in their tour of Devi. Did you commission it or did you see it at Alchemy last year and decide it was a project you wanted to take on?
It was commissioned by the Southbank Centre. I was keen to work with Talvin – I like sometimes to work with the artist on their artistic journey and see what it is they want to say. It was a combination of two things: working with Talvin again and also working with Indian cinema and a live music score ensemble. At the Brighton Festival this year it drew an amazing 1,100–1,200 people. With the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema last year, there was a feeling that there was room for more. The Devi project does two things: it looks back at amazing Indian cinema, Ray’s films, but Devi is also being presented in a different context now.
We need more British Asian artists based here to give their interpretation and artistic experience to projects like this which are challenging on the production level, not just simply going on and performing (though of course there is a place for that too).
Are you a musician yourself? Where has your love of promotion come from?
I play a folk music instrument called algoza, which is two flutes together. It’s an ancient instrument, played using circular breathing. It comes from the Punjab, though it’s also played, slightly differently, in Rajasthan. I was introduced to the instrument through listening to bhangra music. I’m not playing it these days because I’m more involved with producing and promotion.
It all came together when the music and visual side connected. My formal academic education was in film: I did my master’s degree in film studies at the University of Westminster in London. I was working as a video artist many years ago, but playing the music and coming to the Agency has been a natural process. Being asked by a commissioner to do something – before you know it, it all starts: you realise this is brilliant, this is a passion. I’m very happy I’m doing what I’m doing at this moment.
You seem to have a strong artistic vision.
Our vision is to promote the best quality of music. We work with all genres, classical to folk: we’ve worked with Zakir Hussain, bhangra, Amjad Ali Khan, Talvin Singh, Baul artists from West Bengal, Tamil artists. It’s all about finding an artist and finding where your synergy comes from as a producer in relation to that artist and taking that artist to an audience.
You’ve brought Kiran Ahluwalia and Red Baraat to the UK. It’s exciting to see fresh influences in music.
What excites me is how artists are redefining what they are doing. When we were discussing with Kiran the best way of presenting her, she said a lot of her songs are about women and this was an interesting area to explore. She sings Hindi and Punjabi songs and is a sufi singer, but we didn’t want to pigeonhole her. She is obviously influenced by other singers such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but she has own versions.
It was rather like that with Red Baraat: there’s only one dhol player in the band but amazingly they’ve got the brass section, the hip-hop, the afro element there, the avant-garde NY style of music. I admire these artists who are challenging. They are not just about playing the Bollywood tunes. Red Baraat’s debut tour in 2012 was brilliant. We were surprised at how much the press wanted to talk to them: the BBC, Radio 3, Radio 4, the Guardian, the Independent. We felt that there really was something fresh there.
We have amazing musicians in the UK too, like Talvin, Roopa, Soumik Datta, Arun Ghosh. I commissioned Arun Ghosh to do Bengali songs and poetry. People think he’s playing jazz, but he’s playing Nazrul’s poetry.
Moving on to dance: how did you feel the Dance Summit held last year in Bournemouth went? Will you be repeating it?
Our aim was to enhance the distribution of dance in the South-West area and to educate the promoters. We wanted pieces to be seen in the region. We chose Bournemouth and had good regional promoters, but we also had people from Edinburgh and London. We went on to fifteen or so bookings, including screenings of Seeta Patel’s film in Edinburgh and in Bournemouth. The plan was for the artists to speak directly to the venues. There was direct discussion between Aakash Odedra and Mayfest 2014 (Bristol). This is healthy.
What are your ambitions for the next three years?
We want to produce the best of British Asian artists in the UK and look at how we can support British-based artists abroad. We are excited about exploring the opportunity provided by the US, India and Europe. Apart from that, we’d like to increase touring activity from one a year to more and to bring something fresh from abroad. We need to see more challenging commissioning from South Asian organisations, with hopefully some outstanding result – a project we can tour.