November 30 2015
Created by just one person, it has gone on to become a widely respected and much loved organisation…
By Khakan Qureshi
IT SEEMS like quite a while ago when I first came across the organisation Sampad and its founder Piali Ray.
It was – 25 years to be precise. Back then, I was a drama student at college and we had struck up conversation. She introduced herself, told me that she was a dancer and had set up her own small company called Sampad.
“Who was Sampad?” I asked. “Just me, my telephone and a desk in a small room,” she laughed.
Now she has an OBE and is the director of Sampad; she has been a dancer, teacher and choreographer in the UK since 1982, has toured extensively internationally, throughout India and within the UK and with organisations such as Birmingham Repertory Theatre, The National Gallery and the National Theatre.
Earlier this month, Sampad celebrated 25 years with a gala performance at Bramal Music Hall in Birmingham, close to its base at the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC). Sampad stands for South Asian Music and Performing Art Development and is derived from the Sanskrit word for wealth and in its own case, cultural wealth.
The special evening managed to bring together a lot of people from those 25 years and there were some powerful performances.
Among them was Soweto Kinch – not someone you would generally expect to be showcased by an Asian dance company. Born in London, Kinch is an alto saxophonist with a mixed British and Jamaican and Barbadian heritage.
Ray explained to www.asianculturevulture.com: “I do not see Sampad exclusively by, for and of South Asian Arts, artists and audiences. To move forward, we have to look at diversifying and collaboration is a good way to reflect multiculturalism, especially in cities such as Birmingham.
“He (Soweto) embodies the main spirit of collaboration; these are organic, not forced. Artists are quite naturally influenced, learning and sharing skills with each other.”
Sampad has worked with important performers from Kathak and Bharatanatyam traditions including Nahid Siddiqui and Chitraleka Bolar, Sanyogita Kumari, Sanchita Pal and Mendi Singh to name just a few influential artists.
It prompted Ray to look back on the years.
“I don’t feel it’s been 25 years. I am always excited and inspired by the work I do. Physically I am tired, but mentally I am very excited and always have been. Since 1990, there have been new voices, art forms are evolving and emerging. It is always exhilarating and inspiring,” Ray enthused.
We do go back a little in a sense. I met her briefly again after I had left college a few years on from first hearing about Sampad. She told me with some amusement that Sampad had expanded and included another employee! We had laughed about it at the time and even then I could sense there was passion and determination behind the warm smile and sparkle in her eyes.
Over the years, our exchanges were brief. We’d acknowledge each other with a smile or glance over to one another. Having a South Asian Arts organisation such as Sampad in the heart of the Midlands meant that its reputation was developing and the wider community was embracing diversity in the performing arts. Piali was developing into a strong creative spirit.
She told me how the gala came together. She stated that the narrative was very important. It demanded artists who could share and celebrate the spirit of Sampad over the years.
It was also very important to acknowledge the mature performers who contributed to the cultural landscape and who are very loyal to the organisation, their art and the performances.
It was soon after its launch that Sampad gained publicity and further interest not just from the South Asian diaspora but the wider community. There wasn’t an organisation as such at the time and support came from the Labour-run Birmingham Council, which was very much behind promoting diversity at the time.
She agreed that Sampad gathered momentum and became something of a platform for sharing and exploring. Performers and audiences were able to examine both personal and political issues, identities and helped to build careers along the way with financial help from Birmingham City Council and the Arts Council.
“I feel art used correctly is a socially powerful tool.
“There is diversity not only in the organisation such as Sampad but also in a city like Birmingham and we need to be reflecting that.”
Eloquent, and a careful listener, she answered questions with deliberation and thought.
She told us what provided a critical breakthrough.
“It was when the minister of arts (at the time David Mellor, but Ray cannot recall) came to launch Sampad. It meant we had support, support, recognition, was able to build working relationships, status and the ability to pay rent! Historically speaking, there wasn’t anything to represent South Asian arts in the city of Birmingham or in the Midlands. It was a challenge and hard work.
“Right from the start, we had to connect with more people.
“We had to connect literature, craft, music, drama. Sampad is a broad based organisation and as such, we had to take ownership and ownership comes from within.
“We had to show consistency and continuity – also it was very critical that the sensitivities and sensibilities of South Asia culture and communities were understood and respected in the proper manner.”
While Ray has a background in dance, and the organisation had its roots in that, it soon became apparent that it had to be much more.
“Genre classification is irrelevant. We know have relationships and an international mix of people. How do you classify people? Our organisation is open and reflects society. We are inclusive and we have artists and audiences from all backgrounds. Excellence and innovation is relevant to us.”
She is very clear about how Sampad should operate.
“I am resistant to accommodating people for their own political agendas. We don’t create platforms for performers to push their own political agendas.
“We look at issues that need people to be more receptive and aware of our own culture and communities.
“We explore issues such as domestic violence, mental illness, the integration of other identities, communities, the different relationships we have with other people.
“These are not necessarily South Asian issues. Our aim is to explore global dramas, to heighten awareness and possibly trigger answers, influence change.
“We don’t interfere in the artistry and we don’t dictate. We are here to help and support the performer to express themselves.”
The hardest shows to sell she feels are the ones which invole spoken word artists.
“With the Spoken word, people don’t always respond. We have to ask is it the art form or the artist? For this reason, we always try to help. That is the reason the Arts need to be supported and promoted. However, that might not always work out.”
For Ray, one element lies at the heart of what Sampad do.
“The key is curiosity. Not to know it all! Personally and as an organisation, we are learning all the time. We know that things are changing all the time, in the environment, in the cities, and with the challenges we face. We constantly question is there a role we can play to bring communities together or does this divide? We have to learn and evolve. Most importantly, keep the energy!”
She understands the challenges of the future and wants Sampad to remain alive to change and innovation.
“I feel that having been part of the MAC is a good thing. It provides a balance and identity for the organisation. I hope the organisation will stay for another 25 years, but this can only happen if it stays open and receptive to the opinions of the city and the country. Sampad can’t afford to get fixated in cultural agendas.”
For more, please see http://www.sampad.org.uk/