Meet Jonathan Kennedy – The man behind India and the UK’s strong cultural and creative alliance
Jonathan Kennedy, Director Arts, British Council in India (Image by the British Council)
By Swarupa Tripathy
The Director of Arts for British Council in India, Jonathan Kennedy, has had an elaborate career promoting Indian theatre and arts for more than a decade.
In his current role, he is responsible for developing national strategy and working with Indian government to shape the creative economy and culture Industries research. He also focuses on conceptualising programmes to strengthen India-UK cultural ties through creative collaborations on a global scale.
Kennedy has previously worked for the Tara Arts, an Asian theatre company founded by five students in the UK in 1976 and overlooked the redevelopment of the Tara Theatre, which has become one of the most sought-after performance art companies showcasing some of the best South Asian talent in the country. Many popular productions were made under his supervision, which eventually led to his growing love for India and its culture and eventually led to his journey to India marked by some very successful collaborations, festivals and projects.
In this exclusive interview with The Asian Connect, Kennedy gives us a glimpse into his life as a young boy and takes us through his elaborate and exciting journey in the world of the creative industries.
Could you tell us about your background and upbringing?
I grew up in Liverpool and went to university in York. My father was a headmaster at a school in Everton, and my mother worked for the Liverpool Echo newspaper.
How and why did your interest in theatre and arts begin?
From childhood, I was taken to the Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman theatres, where I developed a love of theatre that was rooted in the city, but also had an international perspective. I vividly remember luminous director Glen Walford’s political theatre and wonderful adaptations of Dickens’, played by an ensemble of actor-musicians.
Beyond that, school trips to museums and galleries and regular visits to the Tate Liverpool, as well as getting involved in local youth theatre helped set me up for a life and career in the arts.
You were the Executive Director of Tara Arts for more than a decade, what was your experience like?
I worked with Jatinder Verma MBE, the Founder and Artistic Director of Tara for nearly twelve years. In that time, we toured nationally and internationally, co-produced with the National Theatre, performed in Trafalgar Square during India’s 60 th anniversary of independence, established the Black Theatre Live national touring consortium and demolished and rebuilt our theatre in South London following a 2.8 million GDP capital fundraising campaign.
As with much theatre production, it was a constantly inspiring and challenging twelve years. I discovered a love for India and South Asia through the crossing of cultures at Tara with many young actors, designers and directors working alongside some leading figures in theatre.
Some of our productions that live long in my memory are Kanjoos – The Miser adapted from Moliere’s comedy by Hardeep Singh Kohli; The Game of Love and Chance adapted by The Young One’s Nigel Planer; Farrukh Dhondy’s take on The Tempest; Combustion about the grooming in Yorkshire by Asif Khan; and Macbeth with the weird sisters played as hijras sneering and blessing their way through Shakespeare.
Working with Jatinder as a comrade in the arts was a constant delight (with the occasional grump moment between us) as we wholeheartedly bridged Tara’s East and West cross- cultural mission for artists and audiences.
Could you give us an insight into Asian representation in UK theatre and arts and how it has improved over the years?
Over 1.5 million people in the UK have heritage tracing its roots back to India with nearly 11% of the population coming from Black, Asian and Minority ethnic backgrounds.
Seeing yourself represented on stage with stories you can relate to is critical for everyone. Back in 1977 when Tara Arts was formed, Asian representation in theatre was rare. Tara was founded following the racist murder of Gurdeep Singh Chaggar in Southall. While there has been a mushrooming of other companies from the Asian diaspora, following in Tara’s pioneering footsteps, Kali Theatre, Tamasha, Phizzical and others such as Talawa, Nitro, New Earth Theatre have all made claims to regional and touring theatres since. Though it’s a constant challenge.
An established cohort of actors, directors, designers, marketers, and production staff now come from the South Asian diaspora through universities and drama schools from established names like Sanjeev Bhaskar to Meera Syal to younger artists.
However, the story is far from over and challenges to securing parity of public funding, equal access to national and regional stages, drama schools and arts education at university remain a constant challenge for young Asian talent. Long-term investment that is coordinated and focused across the country and in devolved administrations is required to strengthen equity of access for greater diversity and inclusion.
Image by Facebook @victoriamemorialhall
You also overlooked the redevelopment of Tara Theatre, what was the process like and how did it help put the spotlight on talented Asian artists?
From start to finish, it took around seven years of hard labour, sleepless nights and at times superhuman resilience to realise the vision for Tara Theatre.
The fabulous architect Julian Middleton of RHWL Architects (originally Renton Howard Wood Levin Architects) and a slew of world-class consultants in structural engineering, acoustics, environmental sustainability, and theatre installation formed the family that brought the new Tara Theatre to life.
Jatinder and I set our sights on creating the first dedicated theatre in the UK for cross- cultural arts where stories from London, the UK and across the world could find a home at Tara through a particular Asian lens.
Entering through the wooden doors, salvaged from India into the London-stick brick auditorium, with its unique earth stage under the branches of the tree inscribed on the theatre’s façade was about tapping into the epic foundations of theatre in a totally modern, digitally equipped new theatre in Wandsworth, South London.
Inaugurating the theatre in September 2016, local resident and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan spoke of the importance of Tara to the UK theatre scene and the value of the new theatre in reimagining a creative space for all artists and audiences with the spotlight on Asian artistic talent. The theatre went on to win several prestigious national and international awards for its design, architecture, and the building’s environmental sustainability credentials.
As the Arts Director of British Council in India, you are responsible for strengthening the cultural ties between the UK and India. Could you describe what processes and tasks are involved in ensuring a strong partnership?
My role at the British Council is to lead the arts and culture strategy in India through global programmes that strengthen international ties between arts companies and artists with a focus on specific sectors including the vast array of arts festivals and crafts in India.
In the past few years, we have developed over 76,500 arts professionals, 10,000 craftspeople and launched the Festivals from India digital platform to expand international audiences and festival-to-festival collaborations between India and the UK.
I work with the Indian government to shape policy and leadership, most notably in the Creative Economy and Culture Industries research. This has included a collaboration with the Government of West Bengal to assess the economic impact of the annual mega Durga Puja festival on the State’s GDP, which is possibly the world’s largest public arts festival. Our research with the Ministry of Tourism contributed to West Bengal successfully securing the UNESCO inscription for international cultural heritage for humanity.
Our creative economy research work with FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) the Art X Company and Smart Cube consultancy to track the impact of COVID-19 on employment, livelihoods and national GDP was groundbreaking. The Taking the Temperature research, based on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)approach to creative industries mapping and tax coding, has been an important part of the British Council’s work in the creative economy.
With India’s presidency of the G20 2023 we’re looking forward to continuing our work for mutual prosperity and peace.
What aspects of the creative industries in India and the UK fascinate you?
The British Council is celebrating India’s 75th anniversary this year (2022) with the landmark India/UK Together Season of Culture programme. What fascinates me the most is the bridging of contemporary and traditional, emerging and established, digital and performing arts and artists.
Mahatma Gandhi once said “I wish to become familiar with the culture of lands as much as possible but I will not permit them to affect me or shake me from my own status. I do not wish my house to be walled and my windows stuffed. I want all cultures to blow freely through my dwelling.” I think his vision for arts and culture has much to say for established and emerging artists today about the importance of knowing your roots while being open to the influence of new international routes too.
Jana Sanskriti Theatre’s co-production of The Wasteland: a Journey inspired by TS Elliot with Graeae and Tom Wheeler, with a cast of differently-abled / disabled actors; a major literature programme with a focus on Dalit writers and LGBTQI+ poets with the Verve Festival in Birmingham and the Queer Muslim Project; and collaboration with major institutions such as the Natural History Museum and Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata sensitising young wildlife photographers from state schools; EDM artists from Celtronic Festival in Norther Ireland with Box Out FM in Delhi, Manchester Museum with the Indian Music Experience creating a music festival curated by young people are just a few examples of artistic encounters fueled by imagination and mutuality in the exchanges. This year alone, the India/UK Together Season of Culture has reached over 10 million
audiences, both physically and virtually.
Do you think there are vast differences between both the countries when it comes to the creative industries? If so, how do we bridge that gap and educate each other about these unique qualities?
India’s arts are driven by cultural entrepreneurship with 88% MSMEs. Limited public investment in the arts necessitates the arts sector and artists to be resilient and enterprising. The cushion of art councils and sustained public investment in arts prevalent across certain countries is largely missing in India.
The depth and breadth of India’s cultural heritage has ensured it is the second largest industry after agriculture, with 200 million people working in crafts enterprises alone. 59% of the crafts sector is made up of women entrepreneurs who are farmers, homemakers, designers, skilled artisans and the sales engine.
Image by the British Council
India is home to several theatre and art forms in numerous languages and expressions. According to you, how can certain lesser-known art forms be provided a platform and revived in today’s world?
India has a burgeoning CreaTec industry with significant strides being made in developing technologies and sectors such as AI, VR and Gaming from India’s tech hubs such as Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Google, Meta and Microsoft all have their second global bases (after California) in India alongside local tech giants Jio and Infosys.
India is much more than just Bollywood, Tollywood and Kollywood films. The FutureFantastic Festival in March ’23 will bring together Be Fantastic from Bengaluru and Future Everything from Manchester to showcase over a dozen artists’ digital commissions to address the urgent global challenge of climate change.
Carnatic music, Kathakali and Bharatanatyam from South India are known the world over. They’ve inspired and influenced the contemporary work of Anushka Shankar, Asian Bub Foundation, Nitin Sawhney, Akram Khan, and many others through their crossing of cultures.
India’s performing arts in theatre and music stems back to before the Greeks. The linguistic diversity of some languages can be bewildering but through the literature and publishing sectors, English translations offer Indian language writers a whole new world and an expanded set of audiences to explore.
Do you think that with the advent of digital platforms and social media, the cultural industries both in the UK and India have had to change and evolve?
The impact of Covid-19 on digital collaboration was exponential. We were all forced to produce and consume art and culture digitally for nearly two years. India saw huge growth in OTT platforms such as Jio Cinema which reached 400 million subscribers alongside Netflix.
The National Theatre, UK reopened its NTLive screenings internationally and saw huge growth in audience numbers by going free online. Facebook Live, Insta Live and the growth of sales platforms in India, such as BookMyShow and even WhatsApp have opened-up new markets and ease of doing business for sales and collaboration.
Creating online through the growth of CreaTec in AI, VR and Gaming has opened new market opportunities for artists and arts organisations. We can see this with one of our current arts projects, Elsewhere in India, which is creating 3D images online from museum objects and archives in India and the UK to create a new gaming and performance experience.
Performing arts in theatre and concerts all need the collective feeling of an audience sharing the experience, in that context, the brave new world of hybrid models of digital and live, which I think are very much here to stay, are great. The experience of this is also transforming marquee erstwhile physical events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival which attracts 500 thousand visitors each year. The JLF now attracts 27 million for the digital and live-hybrid editions globally, although income from digital reach is still modest.
I’m mindful that digital divisions in India between urban and rural and men and women deepened during Covid-19, so there is still work to do to improve digital access and online skills for women most importantly. There is much for the UK and India to play for, in the digital meta-sphere.
The British Council’s Festivals from India digital platform, launched in spring 2022 brings together innovation in arts festival collaborations, India/UK partnerships and international networks on one major online platform for the first time.
What can be done to encourage the youth to take on creative pursuits and be actively involved in the cultural industries?
There is much to gain for aspiring young artists wishing to collaborate and learn together. For marginalised and vulnerable communities especially, the creative and cultural sector can be a potent tool for advocacy, empowerment, and social inclusion. We should all work to support young entrepreneurs in getting the management and marketing training they need to run successful creative businesses; to improve artistic and creative abilities that can foster more dynamic creative sectors; to strengthen the development of professional associations, networks, and alliances for young cultural and creative professionals; and to educate youth about the environmental and social issues that affect the creative industries.
What improvements or changes do you want to see in the creative industries of the UK and India?
The UK and India have a longstanding shared heritage in arts and culture. Creativity should be accessible and experiential and connecting and collaborating with others through trusted partnerships is a definitive way of achieving that.
There are cutting-edge new creative technologies, creators from the UK and India, and links between Web 3.0, 5G, and game engines that highlight opportunities for both the tech and digital sectors. The creative economy will continue to change, and new industries may completely appear (as radio, television, video games and podcasts have in the 20th and 21st centuries so far). The digital and creative industries are increasingly overlapping, and new VFX techniques and AI’s expanding role make me believe that this trend will continue (including the use of gaming platforms in making new film and TV).
It would be wonderful to see more creative collaborations between the two nations. Culture unites us, and the British Council is dedicated to ensuring that Indian partners, artists, and audiences have access to the arts and cultural connections with the UK.
In terms of India-UK cultural ties, do you see much more growth and collaboration in the future? What steps are being taken to ensure it?
The UK and India have a long history of cultural interaction, and today the two countries stand as natural allies because they share many attributes, especially cultural ones. To improve the bilateral ties between the UK and India, there has been a significant amount of effort. The India/UK 2030 Roadmap signed by the Prime Ministers of both governments sets the course for deeper cultural ties, trade, and collaboration to strengthen the creative economy and culture industries for the decade ahead.
The community of artists will come together to create ingeniously, reveal distinctive perspectives, and communicate ingeniously despite being divided by borders. The commitment of both countries to the Season of Culture is highlighted prominently in the ‘Connecting Our Countries and People’ section of the Roadmap 2030. The agreement also covers cooperation on approaches to resilience and the protection of cultural heritage assets from risks like natural disasters. These topics are covered along with collaboration on strengthening our creative economies for long-term impact on GDPs, enhancing arts and culture capacity programmes creating opportunities for digital innovation and entrepreneurship, and cooperating on these topics.
What would you like to tell young Indians and British Asians who aspire to join the creative industries in both the countries?
The British Council’s expertise in cultural relations between business-to-business and artist- to-artist globally is set to grow and deepen as a legacy of the India/UK Together Season of Culture in arts, education, and English, with a focus on access to new ideas, digital innovation, and equity of partnerships between diverse young and emerging culture organisations and artists.
Along with knowledge and creativity, science and technology are essential for fostering international connections, but they are no longer restricted to the lab. Globally, a key component of our programmes is gender equality. We are aware that strong societies are those in which everyone is valued and has equal access to inclusive arts, education, and culture. We are committed to increasing access to cultural connections with the UK for young people, artists, arts organisations, and audiences in India because we believe that culture unites us. This is especially important given our recent experience with the pandemic. Through our arts work, we are creating equitable opportunities for artists and the creative industries to recover from the pandemic’s impact by implementing new and innovative approaches.