May 15 2015
Artistic director of one of the capital’s leading arts centres opens up about upbringing and the profound impact it had on her cultural leanings…
By Suman Bhuchar
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre (SC) is an inspirational woman.
That is certainly the view of artists who have worked with her, and even if you don’t know her, it’s impossible to miss the vibrancy that she has brought to London’s South Bank.
Here, she is following the principles enshrined in the complex when it was first created during the post-war years to host the centerpiece exhibition of the Festival of Britain in 1951 – which was considered to be “one of the democratic, optimistic and progressive moments in cultural history,” promoting the notion that art and culture should belong to everyone
Under her tenure, she has turned the SBC into an artistic hub and a social area where people met each other, enjoy the events on offer or just promenade along the river.
There are many different themes and festivals that are a regular feature of the SC calendar, and for South Asian lead work the Alchemy Festival has become a brand to watch.
Now in its sixth year, Alchemy 2015 runs from Friday 15 May – Monday 25 May and will showcase the best of dance, music, theatre, design, fashion, comedy and literature from the UK and South Asia.
Highlights include floor art from Nepal, performances by singing sensation Shreya Ghoshal and Zakir Hussain; as well as a conversation with Meera Syal about her new novel; and an audience with Gurinder Chadha about her new musical, Bend it Like Beckham and much more. The powerful drama, “Nirbhaya” returns to the Purcell Room and throughout the eleven day festival there are free and ticketed events as well as delicious Eastern inspired food market.
This year the Southbank Centre is reaching out of London as a selection of Alchemy events go off on a tour across the UK.
How did it all begin?
Jude Kelly, who was appointed Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre in September 2005, is responsible for a unified vision for the whole 21-acre site (which includes the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, the outside walkways and all the shopping areas).
Kelly, who took time to talk to www.asianculturevulture.com explained that her desire to create a South Asian artistic festival came from an enduring relationship with the British Asian and Indian community that was fostered through her family and working life.
Her father, John Kelly, who hails from an Irish Catholic background, worked in the Civil Service and as he rose through the ranks found himself in charge of customs at Heathrow Airport during the years it was being built.
This brought him into contact with a huge Sikh and Asian community – who were the backbone of the airport workforce — and they met each other at festivals, Christmas parties and family events, sharing stories and learning about another culture.
“And I suddenly felt, I could enjoy being with people from the diaspora who were part of my country but they were also teaching me about their country.
And you know, it’s just the inevitable thing you feel which was that there was an extraordinary wealth of stories and experience, unless we tell each other and ask each other, then we are remain ignorant — so Alchemy comes out of that the use of that word ‘alchemy’ if you put different blend of things together you will get gold.”
Kelly, who began her artistic life working in theatre also recalls how in the early years when she was at the Phoenix (an arts venue in Leicester), she started a women’s theatre group and met a lot of Asian women who would have just come from Uganda and settled there. Since those early days she has gained a wealth of experience in the arts and cultural sector, as her career has taken her from running the Battersea Arts Centre (now BAC) during the 1980s to working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (1986) was the founding and artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) from 1990-2002 Leeds, turning it into a centre of excellence.
She left in 2002 to create Metal, an artistic ‘laboratory’ that she still Chairs.
On the way she has picked up an OBE for services in theatre (1997) and worked with the English National Opera and other organisations.
In 2013, Radio 4 Woman’s Hour programme considered her to be one in a 100 most powerful women in the UK, and in January 2015 New Year’s Honours list, she received a CBE for services to the arts.
She is the face of the Southbank, whatever festivals or themes she creates she is always be there, talking and encouraging artists and audiences alike.
However, her first actual experience of going to India, she said, was an invitation to go on a 15-day train ride across India called the Jagriti Yatra in 2008, a venture created by Shashank Mani Tripathi, husband of Kathak artist, Gauri Sharma Tripathi, associate artist of the SouthBank Centre.
“He’s a wonderful person, they are a wonderful team, they invited me to travel on this train across India looking at projects that are committed to social transformation and raising the quality of life amongst the poorest,” she recalls.
The Yatra took 400 young people with qualifications and skills from right across India on this journey and asked them to think how they would apply these to change for their own country.
“And on the train, apart from being inspired by the scale of India, the shifting landscapes, the contrast between rural and urban, the way that you could look at the whole of time written before you,” she said.
There were also women working in the fields breaking rocks with their bare hands and then the contrast with Bombay (Mumbai) which has the most modern ideas about gaming, about technology, about culture – the state government even considered giving couples who lived together (but were not married) the same legal rights as married couples.
“It was an extraordinary experience and it made me think about women and where women stand in Indian society and also made me think about how all countries need to make sure that they don’t throw their culture out of the window because it’s not modern, because, eventually your identity is your history and your future.”
Clearly the journey had a big impact, and it crystallised for her a way of creating a wider dialogue with artists of South Asian heritage.
“I started Alchemy six years ago, it was one of the first things I wanted to do, because when I came I had always been interested in Indian dance and Indian music, and the divisions’ between THE classical and the contemporary artists were just so extreme.
“I got together a number of organisations who work on ‘Asian arts’ as it were, in this country, and I felt that there were richer conversations that could have been had if more people, talked with each other, worked with each other and had a big platform to share ideas and I set out to try and make Alchemy that.”
Although artists will argue that the Alchemy Festival in the first couple of years tended to highlight one area of South Asia more than others, it is worth pointing out that Alchemy producers took note of criticisms and worked hard towards achieving a range of artistic output from the different countries of South Asia, as well as inviting British South Asian artists as part of the platform.
It is a testimony of its success that this year some of the events will be going on a UK wide tour.
“So it is about classical and contemporary, it is about old and young and it is about urban and rural but it’s also about making stories available to people which includes me.”
Main picture: Bollywood Big Dance, Alchemy 2014; Jude Kelly by Sara Shamsavari
Full Alchemy Festival 2015 programme http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/festivals-series/alchemy
Metal culture http://www.metalculture.com/
Jude Kelly trip to India with Jagritiyatra http://www.jagritiyatra.com/