Kala Sangam is the only South Asian arts organisation to have its own dedicated building in the north of England. Impressive! In 1886 St Peter’s House in Bradford was a post office. Now it is a Grade II listed building housing Kala Sangam. Constant developments have seen the construction of a performance space, the Ganges Hall, in 2011, and the Arts Centre in 2012; as the director puts it, this has been achieved while swimming against no ordinary tide but a tsunami. This year they have been celebrating twenty years of promoting and putting South Asian arts firmly on the vibrant arts scene in England. A series of events including a free family arts day, Carnatic, bharatanatyam, kathakali, sitar and mohiniattam concerts; film screening, arts exhibition and the highlight KS20 extravaganza, all formed part of the momentous twentieth anniversary celebrations of the organisation. A formal event at the Nehru Centre with presentations by the Kala Sangam resident artists in collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic brought the celebrations to London. Dr Vyjayanthimala Bali, the unrivalled Indian actress, dancer, parliamentarian and a patron of Kala Sangam was the guest of honour at the celebrations.
I later caught up with the director of Kala Sangam, Dr Geetha Upadhyaya, and it was interesting to hear the evolution of the organisation over the years. When asked how it all started and what influenced her journey in the arts world, the rather strong traditional roots came to the fore. Trained under guru Dandayudhapani Pillai as a young child, she did her arangetram at the age of 17. She then underwent specialist abhinaya training under Mylapore Gowri Ammal for three years.
Did you always combine your medical and dance careers?
Both while training to be a doctor and later while working as a doctor in Chennai I continued to perform and keep up the dancing career. Vadhiyar (my guru) used to ask us to perform at various places and I would diligently agree to each of his requests.
When and how did you come to the UK?
I moved from Madras (now Chennai) to Malaysia in 1984 where I continued to perform and teach senior students of dance at the Temple of Fine Arts alongside practising as a doctor. At a chance meeting with a visiting professor I was offered a position in the UK which sparked my move to Great Britain in 1990. With my husband Shripati Upadhyaya securing a position as consultant clinical psychologist in the UK, the first ideas of Kala Sangam came into being.
Why did you and your husband decide to set up Kala Sangam?
When we first arrived in England, it was a very different place. There were people from different parts of the world living right next to each other but never interacting, leading separate lives, with separate cultures, separate activities; everything was segregated. Even within the Indian communities the Gujaratis, the Punjabis, the Tamils and other regional groups were all leading very segregated lives. It was then that my husband thought we needed to do something about this and arts can be used to bring people together. The idea of rivers and how they all have individual identities but do intermingle provided the inspiration for the name Sangam. Triveni Sangam in India where the three holy rivers join was behind the name of the organisation and therefore Kala Sangam or intermingling of arts was born.
What is unique about Kala Sangam?
We are unique in the fact that we expressly work towards bringing people of different walks of life, of different cultural backgrounds together. Most South Asian arts events attract South Asian audiences (in the north) but all Kala Sangam events have a mixed audience that reflects the diversity found in the general population. This I think is a very big achievement. We host a wide-ranging group of activities like dance, music, visual arts, crafts, puppetry, theatre, poetry readings and many more. We also work with different disadvantaged sections of society such as criminal offenders, drug-users, children with special needs and people with long-term illnesses. We also produce our own work with the artists in residence.
What aspect of Kala Sangam’s activities do you most enjoy?
Given my medical background, working with people with illnesses or special needs and helping them integrate into society and make a useful contribution is very dear to my heart. I find it very fulfilling and the other aspect I enjoy is creating new and challenging work. I have done quite a few over the years: Digital Dance – Selfless Princess was an interactive piece with media; Poetry in Action was a collaboration between bharatanatyam and poetry and Echoes was in collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. We have performed at the Tate Modern and even performed for the Queen! My main aim is to retain the character of every art form and yet blend the various art forms to create new and challenging work.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your work?
In the current economic climate, as with every other arts organisation, it is the funding which is the most challenging of all. That aside, working with children and young people who have been through a lot either with a criminal past or a drug habit is the most challenging but I am rethinking this after the rather stressful arrangements for the twentieth anniversary celebrations (laughs).
How do you see Kala Sangam developing in the next ten years?
Until recently we were a group of three to four people putting in long hours every single day, raising funds for our activities by taking classes from Oxford to Newcastle, from Scunthorpe to Sheffield, but as we grew from strength to strength we have been able to attract larger and larger funds from the Arts Council and recently secured capital funding to gain our own building, in the centre of Bradford. Since then there has been a burst of activity and the team has grown considerably, taking the organisation to the next level. We now have a very busy arts exhibition space, performance space for hire, a café and events space. By simply having the building our course has evolved and widened considerably. I struggled immensely when I started off, especially finding rehearsal spaces etc., so now with this new building I would like to see artists use this as a base to develop their own companies; we also support independent dancers to run their classes and grow and expand. In the future we will continue to do this and offer our space for nurturing new and young talent. We are also hoping to produce themed events in the future. A number of international collaborations with North American dancers and European dancers are also on the cards in addition to arts-science projects too.
The enthusiasm for the future was evident in Dr Upadhyaya’s energetic replies and it can only bode well for the organisation. It appears that Kala Sangam is set to go onwards and upwards, although I believe that they could benefit from focusing their energies on a few key projects as opposed to thinly spreading their energies across various projects.