Asian Music and Dance

North East England

North East England is as complex and varied a region in terms of South Asian music and dance as it is in landscape and population. It covers the counties of Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Teesside: the Pennines lie to the west and the North Sea to the east; North Yorkshire is to the south and the Scottish Borders to the north. It is home to areas of great social and economic deprivation as well as to areas of outstanding natural beauty and thriving cultural – and party – life.  Newcastle upon Tyne is the centre of one of the largest and most populous conurbations in the country and is also a hub for its cultural life.

Arts Organisations

GemArts is the most visible arts organisation working with South Asian dance and music. It is flourishing and has succeeded in retaining Arts Council funding at a difficult time, producing concerts, events, festivals, workshops and commissions from across all the arts. The director, Vikas Kumar, tells me they have aimed to reach a much wider audience than before and to engage with rural and other communities through outreach programmes. GemArts is also proud to support new and emerging performers: it introduced Raghu Dixit in the UK and is currently working with Elena Catalano, raising the profile of odissi dance in the region. It works with the Music Departments in the Universities of Newcastle and Durham to support the academic research and artistic growth of those involved in South Asian music and dance. 


Saarang – Arts and Culture, set up by Vidya Sarangapani in 2010, works principally in primary schools, “because that’s where it starts”, bringing experiences of South Asian and other world cultures to largely ethnically unmixed areas such as rural County Durham. ‘The diversity comes from the artists I work with . . . from Indian, British, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Iranian, Chinese, African, Polish, Irish, to name a few.’ The vision of Vidya and her team is to bring creative practices into learning; thus Saarang works with a small core of committed professional artists, including the choreographer Devika Rao, together with school head teachers; visual art, food, storytelling and music can be brought together with dance to enrich the children’s exploration of other cultures. Saarang creates its projects to suit varying needs: those who are new to dance engage more readily with Bollywood or folk dance, whereas dance academies and the more experienced will enjoy both classical and contemporary dance.


Kalapremi is a smaller organisation founded in 1983 by a local GP from South India, Dr. P.V. Nath. It is based in Stanley, County Durham. It operates now without public funding and is run with the help of a volunteer, Richard Neville. Kalapremi organises the Ganesh Festival celebrated annually at the Lamplight Arts Centre in Stanley, when, following the puja, there are performances involving music, dance and literature by both amateurs and professionals, drawn from the region and internationally. Among the highlights of their work in the past years have been performances by visually-challenged artists and children.


University of Newcastle

A five-year project in Indian music led by Professor David Clarke in the Music Department at the University of Newcastle has now become part of the Department’s curriculum. Around 150 students have been engaged in the practical study of Hindustani classical music in the guru-shishya (master-disciple) tradition, their teachers artists of world standing: vocalist Vijay Rajput, Indian-born and now resident in Newcastle; and British-Pakistani tabla-player Shahbaz Hussain, who is based in Rochdale. David Clarke – himself a student of Vijay Rajput – writes: “For most of these students (predominantly white, or non-South Asian), learning in this way has meant an encounter with another culture grounded in a lived relationship with their teachers.” Professor Clarke and others have also been involved in a research project looking at South Asian musical activity in the North East, together with GemArts, Saarang and Kalapremi and The Sage, Gateshead. 


Community Groups

There are less formal, participant-led groups which hold lively and well-supported events. One such is the Pakistan Cultural Society which hosts more intimate community gatherings, including Urdu poetry recitation and the singing of ghazals. It also mounts well-attended performances by visiting artists, advertised on the South Asian community radio station, Spice FM. The Asian Artists’ Network is a collective of mostly Indian music lovers based in the Newcastle-Gateshead area who invite visiting world-class musicians such as The Misra Brothers or Sanjeev Chimmalgi to sing in their homes. There are many other disparate groups who hold concerts and performances, sometimes in connection with Pujas and other festivals. 

Vocalist Vijay Rajput

Dr. Vijay Rajput (see also above), is a khayal singer who trained for many years with Bhimsen Joshi. A visiting lecturer in vocal music at Newcastle University and the Leeds College of Music, he has recently established NiSaPa (National Institute of South Asian Performing Arts) in Newcastle. NiSaPa offers a wide variety of activities and classes based on South Asian music (vocal and instrumental), and dance (Bollywood, kathak and bharatanatyam). Dr. Rajput is keen to expand its work into schools.


A Dancer

Elena Catalano (winner of a 2012 Milapfest Dance Fellowship Award) is working on a PhD on odissi dance at Durham University. She has been performing and conducting workshops within the University and outside it with the valuable support of GemArts. ‘People are very enthusiastic about trying the dance and watching performances. I believe there is a great potential for a growing interest in South Asian performing arts in the North East … it is very important to give greater exposure to the dance form.’ She also feels the need for more networking occasions in the region to allow for more interdisciplinary collaborations among artists. In this she echoes a widespread sentiment.


In this diverse region, the activities of small groups of enthusiasts who already enjoy and participate in South Asian music and dance continue. But it is also heartening to see new audiences and a greater awareness and understanding of these arts being developed through the efforts of organisations and individuals working together.



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