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Talaash interview – a fusion of dance, poetry, and identity

Life as a British South Asian can be complicated at times. It can also be incredibly beautiful. Sometimes, it can feel like you don’t really know who you are, especially when you have to deal with elements of your identity that might not be so widely accepted, like religion, queerness, your dress sense – the list goes on. That’s certainly been my experience, and it is clear during my conversation with Sparshita Dey and Simran Uppal, the directors of Talaash, that they’ve also dealt with this emotional rollercoaster of self-exploration and discovery.

Talaash means ‘search’ in Hindi and Urdu. “It’s about trying to find ourselves through poetry – as we go through the poems in the play, we get closer to who we are – we find bits of memory and translate that into a journey of self-discovery,” Sparshita says. It’s a play that isn’t trying to tell a story, but instead trying to take the audience on a journey, and to make them feel something. A mix of poetry, dance and music is used to communicate this feeling, with poetry written by Simran and music and dance arranged and choreographed by Sparshita, alongside Raghavi Viswanath and Madhulika Murali.

There are five poems in all – a mix of original poems and some freely worked translations by South Asian female poets such as the Hindu saint Mirabai and the Mughal princess Zeb-un-Nissa. Through these poets, the play also celebrates the fact that despite the sometimes violent religious divides between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs across South Asia, they all ultimately share a rich tradition. All these poems are deeply personal for Simran, and seeing them put to music and dance is a new experience. “Seeing other people connect with them with a lot of love – especially Zehra, who does most of the spoken word – it’s made me feel like their sibling. It’s like we’re siblings and we’re cooking together.”

The poems cover everything from hugely relatable South Asian tropes, such as the smells of frying pakora and the sounds of chanting, to very specific experiences, such as finding strength and faith in a Hounslow swimming pool. There’s a sense of reclamation to Simran’s work – ‘Ghazal for Gold’ is a poem which celebrates the colour gold and its use in South Asian tradition – in weddings, jewelry, sarees, in the spices used in cooking. But above all, it’s about taking back the word gold and putting an end to the politicization of people of colour: as Simran says, “We are calling ourselves gold. And we are not apologizing.”

“We all found Simran’s poetry really relatable,” Sparshita says. Her musical and dance direction is wrapped entirely around the poetry. Throughout ‘Ghazal for Gold’, the raag (scale) of Sindhu Bhairavi weaves in and out. A raag in Indian classical music is traditionally associated with a time of day and a mood, and Sindhu Bhairavi represents a mood of nostalgia, a prominent theme in the poem, and it is usually played at the crack of dawn, when the sky too is saffron gold – it’s as if the ‘Ghazal for Gold’ is being literally and musically wrapped in gold.

The play is also an assertion of queer identity, and about taking back some of the queerness present in South Asian tradition, which has been particularly repressed in recent years – although the legalization of homosexuality in India in September marks a shift in attitudes towards queer people. The concept of being genderqueer and free from the binary, explored in the poem ‘Ardhanareeshwara’, also isn’t new. 

“It’s about reclaiming spirituality, and recognising that formal religion has pushed queer people like me out. I’m using poetry to take it back for myself in my own way. It’s about listening to the positive and negative voices in our heads, accepting both, and watching those voices transform,” Simran says. Sparshita adds, “We’re all longing to be ourselves, but something is stopping us. And people aren’t binary – we’re sliding scales.”

Dance is used to represent this multifaceted identity – traditional classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Kathak, from the South and North of India respectively, are fused together and contemporary Western dance is thrown into the mix. “We’re using these fusions, because as people, we are fusion – we’re a mix of South Asian and British and we shouldn’t have to choose one or the other – because both sides have shaped who we are, and we’re just searching for ourselves.” The contemporary music in the play reflects this search – a haunting solo of ‘Shallow’ from the film A Star is Born, and Tamil song ‘Naan Yen Piranthen’ (Why Was I Born).

“The way that we directed this was like a jam session for poetry, dance, music,” Sparshita says. “Nobody just went into this play and did what I asked them to do and nothing else. Every single person has put a bit of themselves into this play. It’s not just mine and Simran’s – its everyone’s.”

Simran comments, “Doing this, making this with this community of queer artists, BAME artists, female artists of colour, you have this wonderful feeling of being your own person, and being your own person fully, but also being a part of a community. Being a part of that community – I don’t want to say it’s amazing, or there’s nothing like it, but there really is nothing like it.”

Talaash is at the Michael Pilch Studio from Thursday 15th November to Saturday 17th November.

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