Asian Music and Dance

Ray of Light

The director of Sampad shares her experiences of setting up one of UK’s most dynamic South Asian art’s agencies.

Piali Ray has, in the best sense, a lot to answer for. As the director of the South Asian arts development agency sampad for the past two decades, this gracious visionary has done much to enrich the cultural life of Birmingham, the Midlands, Britain and, indeed, other parts of the world. Writing in The sampad Story, a book commemorating the organisation’s first twenty years, colleagues from Ravi Shankar to Akram Khan praise Ray’s immense energy, charm and determination. One of them even dubs her a national treasure. It’s an especially fitting tribute once you recall that the word sampad is Sanskrit for wealth.

Sampad’s twentieth birthday celebrations coincide with its move into new, open-plan offices shared with the Midlands Arts Centre, popularly known as mac. Brought in on time and on budget (£15.2million), the revamped mac is a vast improvement on the always friendly but aesthetically discordant hodgepodge it was previously. Showing me round the building two weeks before the official opening, Ray is practically humming with pleasure at what the new facilities will be able to offer.

She’s very fond of mac, and with good reason. “We’ve always received tremendous support here,” she says, “as well as from the Birmingham arts community and the community in general.” Born into a family of renowned artists in Calcutta, where she trained in bharatanatyam at the Uday Shankar school, Ray arrived in the UK in the early 1980s with a husband who’d come to acquire a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering. “We planned to go back home after four years,” she recalls, smiling at the memory. Instead he got offered work while she steeped herself in the British dance scene, bringing to it a background in classical dance (also including kuchipudi and kathakali) and traditional folk styles that had been learnt from respected gurus like Thankamani Kutty.

“… a multitude of talented artists …working alone”.

One of the first classes Ray herself taught, in 1982, was at mac. In due time, having been appointed dance animateur for the Midlands in 1985, she was conducting workshops all over the region. “The years I spent travelling across the country at schools and community centres gave me a lot of exposure to the UK’s way of thinking, and the opportunities – or lack of them – that were available.” Ray gradually discovered a multitude of talented South Asian artists in all fields, but often working alone and with insufficient support. Such first-hand knowledge informed her way of thinking when she conceived sampad.

“It was an idea from an individual,” she says. “There was no reason for anybody to believe in it, or invest any money in it.” So how did Ray convince others that an organisation focused on developing artists, and creating work of high quality across many disciplines, would benefit South Asians and the wider community alike? It’s a question, she believes, of what your attitude is when facing fresh challenges. “There are challenges all the time. How can you make them into opportunities?”

“… taking risks to enable artists to realise their own vision”.

According to Ray, sampad was born at a time when notions of multi-culturalism were being met with political goodwill. “The government wanted to do things for minority communities. We fit that agenda.” By the mid-90s the organisation had, she admits, taken over her life. How did Ray – and, as she’s quick to point out, a succession of strong, responsible and carefully delegated administrative and creative teams – manage to transform it from its humble origins as an annual festival and a host for local workshops into a year-round programme with a global scope? “By being determined to raise our profile through an association with prestige events and venues,” she replies, “and by ensuring that we were offering high-quality and relevant work. We had a long-term vision of strengthening the infrastructure of the profession, developing capacity within the communities, creating jobs, making strategic and international partnerships and taking risks to enable artists to realise their own vision and creative urges.”

“One of Ray’s strategies was hand-written invitations.”

In terms of audience development one of Ray’s literal signature strategies was hand-written invitations. As she says, “People would say, ‘We had to come – Piali wrote us personally.’ And we’ve been able to retain those personal relationships even twenty years down the road.” At heart, she believes, it’s about ownership. “People buy into sampad. It’s theirs as much as ours.”

Asked to pick out highlights from among sampad’s many achievements, Ray first mentions the early festivals that “brought the community together and created a space to celebrate our culture and make connections”. Large-scale productions like Heer Ranjha, Layla Majnun, Dounia, Dido and Aeneas, staged in mac’s outdoor arena, placed enthusiastic amateurs alongside professionals in what she describes as “the magical ambience of summer evening performances as the sun went down”. Ray is also proud of both DanceIntense, an international professional development programme that has to date brought together sixty emerging professional dancers from the USA, Canada, India, UK, Singapore and Germany, and Aarohan, targeted at South Asian professionals who, in her words, “possess the ability and passion for creating a leadership role for themselves in the cultural sector”. Thus far thirty delegates have been exposed to the latter programme. Lastly Ray cites several international conferences and symposiums held during the 1990s when, as she states, “critical issues around the status, identities and new directions of South Asian art forms required political and economic recognition, and the profession itself needed a platform and cohesive voice”.

Where does Ray feel that sampad stands in relation to the UK’s other South Asian arts promotion agencies? “Most have developed their niche in terms of location, arts profile and programming style. We’ll continue to develop partnerships of mutual benefit with them when appropriate, and where they can have a wider impact for the future of the arts sector.”

Ray keeps a keen eye on the bigger picture. “South Asian artists, promoters and audiences have increased in numbers, and it would surprise me if some performance or cultural event wasn’t taking place in most UK cities on any given weekend.”  But, as she puts it, the reality has shifted. “The label ‘South Asian arts’ is rightly coming under scrutiny as a politically expedient term that plunks together all art forms with any kind of reference to the Indian subcontinent, or its diaspora cultures, but fails to recognise the distinct identities of those forms. What was a useful term in 1990 may not work in 2010 for those who want recognition for their expertise in a specialist practice as opposed to its specific geographical origins.”

“The tensions between Euro-centric and South Asian arts (is) exciting.”

What, then, is the future for South Asian arts in Britain? “I always feel like saying the future’s bright, the future’s orange!” Ray jokes. In truth she finds the tensions between Euro-centric and South Asian arts exciting. “South Asian arts are more integrated and profiled within the UK than ever before. The distinctive quality of our art forms provides an edge. Many artists use this to work collaboratively with other forms of music and dance. However, that throws up the challenge of maintaining our position while keeping an eye on the qualitative – as well as quantitative – impact of our work. We’re constantly debating, reviewing and repositioning ourselves. This adds to the dynamism of what everyone is doing.”

Ray’s leadership qualities have been duly recognised via an OBE, an honorary doctorate and a 2009 citation from the Asian section of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry as Outstanding Business Person of the Year. As indicated earlier, her peers are unstinting in their admiration. Delia Barker, senior dance officer of Arts Council England, dubs Ray as “one of those people who, along with inspiring, informing, educating, embracing, amusing, challenging and keeping you sane, displays a generosity that knows no bounds”. For her part, Ray seems happy with the accolades but just as happy to get on with the business of running sampad. She now maintains a staff of ten, hiring in additional freelance help as needed. “It’s important for us to stay within a certain size,” Ray explains. “We need to be fleet of foot and not invest so much in administration and infrastructure. I want the money to go to productions and artists.”

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and live performance for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.



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