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Founding members of the South Asian arts company accuse Arts Council England of turning a blind eye to "the definition of appropriation" as new programmes and audiences are pursued.

Longtime supporters fear for the future of classical South Asian dance forms in the UK
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Vijay Sundararaman Iyer

Founding members of Kala Sangam say a plan to change its name next year is part of a "gradual, very systematic cultural dismantling" of the South Asian arts company's historical purpose.

Long-time supporters of the Bradford charity have become frustrated and disillusioned as its board and executive try to reposition it as "a space where creativity and culture make a difference to people’s lives and aspirations, regardless of background".

Creative Director Alex Croft, who assumed the post in 2018, says the rebrand is necessary for the National Portfolio Organisation (NPO), promoted in Bradford's UK City of Culture 2025 bid, to ensure financial viability, keep it relevant and create an identity that reflects its changed focus.

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"For some people the name Kala Sangam is intrinsically linked to the past and our broader new programme doesn’t reinforce what they believe Kala Sangam to be. 

"People can’t spell it, they don’t know what we are, there’s a misconception that it’s a faith centre… we want to be welcome to anyone.”

The organisation said support for South Asian arts "remains part of our core focus" and has grown under Croft's leadership, as one of three public programming strands alongside 'This is Bradford' and 'British diversity'. It says it welcomes more South Asian audiences and supports more South Asian artists now than before 2018.

Croft acknowledged "a small minority" of locals are unhappy with the company's current direction, but claimed "there are undoubtedly people who have a longstanding association with Kala Sangam who weren’t attending before I joined".

"A number haven’t, but we never excluded any of those people."

Those involved with Kala Sangam during its first 24 years disagree with Croft's assessment.

They believe its current White-led management lack the expertise and - crucially - the support of Bradford's South Asian arts community to uphold its legacy.

Attempts to fundraise for Kala Sangam have been hamstrung by deep distrust of its new leadership, and its Co-Founder, Dr Geetha Upadyaya OBE, has discouraged plans to protest outside the building to try protect its reputation.

While previously small and specific in focus, sources said Kala Sangam developed a reputation for classical performance in the UK and abroad and appealed strongly to White British audiences. 

"As dancers and performers, we showed it wasn't exclusive to Asians," one of the company's original performers said.

She and a friend, who had also been involved for more than 20 years, told ArtsProfessional they stopped attending after 2018.

"There were new staff, and they would say, 'have you been to Kala Sangam before?' It was somewhere we felt at home and suddenly we weren't known anymore."

The change

Seven new board members have joined Kala Sangam since 2018, with the majority of trustees now of South Asian heritage.

Two new trustees were recruited last November after Arts Council England (ACE), on receipt of complaints from community members, facilitated a meeting in April with Kala Sangam's board.

"It went okay. I think they were surprised we weren't there to throw stones," a person involved in the discussions said.

"It wasn’t about knocking them, it was about seeing where we can go as a South Asian organisation. All that was existing was a name and everything else had been taken away."

The company's constitution was changed in 2018 from an explicit focus on South Asian arts to promoting education and equality" in particular but not exclusively through the use of intercultural arts".

The amendment "was to simplify and future-proof the constitution", Kala Sangam said.

"This will help us stay relevant and therefore viable as an organisation."

An 'internal summary' by ACE in March 2021, released to ArtsProfessional following repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, says Kala Sangam was establishing an artist advisory panel to ensure South Asian representation. Artists would have one-to-one conversations with Croft, the Creative Director, and be paid for their time.

When asked about its progress, Kala Sangam said that, "unfortunately, implementing an artist advisory panel was impacted by the pandemic".

"It is still in our planning to introduce the artist advisory panel and we are looking to begin this in October once the result of our NPO application is known."

Tajpal Rathore, Editor of Off/Stage, which has done its own investigation into Kala Sangam, was put forward by community members as a potential trustee but rejected by the board.

He questioned Kala Sangam's approach and ACE's sanctioning of the rebrand, saying it is "the job of every arts organisation" to attract more audiences without alienating historic attendees. 

"It’s quite obvious which organisations have longstanding history in different communities. To not be concerned that it’s a White-led organisation is ridiculous."

'Cultural vandalism'

After three years of "hopeless" discussions with Arts Council England (ACE) and Kala Sangam, the name change is the final straw for some.

One person involved with the company in recent years described it as "the definition of appropriation".

Former staff said Kala Sangam no longer provides for the community it was established to serve.

"The funny thing is you [Kala Sangam] say you want to change the name, but you are using the name to get the [NPO] grant," one said.

"To understand and assimilate is a lot of work."

Several sources commented on a perceived lack of respect for the life's work of Dr Upadyaya, who was told by ACE staff before her resignation in 2017 that she had "founder's syndrome" and needed to acquiesce to a new organisational remit. 

A community member commented that, "for it to be whitewashed and to say, 'we're just going to focus on Bradford', I think it's cultural vandalism."

"They could have easily started another organisation if that's what they wanted to do.

"We're not looking to go back 30 years [in time], but we are looking for some representation."

'Hand in glove'

Sources ultimately hold ACE responsible for not intervening more firmly.

Croft is a former ACE Relationship Manager for dance: "They are hand in glove," one complainant alleged.

Kala Sangam said the introduction of broader programming strands was in response to ailing finances and a significant cut in its NPO grant in 2015, as well as the "specific concerns about our relevance to place and artistic quality" raised by the Arts Council.

An ACE spokesperson said it has discussed the rebranding with Kala Sangam and "emphasised the importance of increasing diversity across the organisation to represent South Asian specialism as well as being representative of Bradford as a whole".

"We also encouraged the organisation to consider the role of its South Asian offer in any rebranding."

Rathore, of Off/stage, said ACE's minimal response to community opposition to Kala Sangam's revisioning cast doubt on its relevance.

“If you’re a publicly funded organisation and the public can’t do anything about it, then you’re not fit for purpose.”

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Comments

Thank you @Adele for raising this and writing a balanced article. I have been to number of Kalasangam programmes with my girls in the past and they have grown with organisations like this. Organisations like Kalasangam and SAA-UK works as an oasis for people of South Asian origin. Also, the events held pre-2018 were not just South Asian and were inclusive. The current team and the board member's strategy to change the foundation of the organisation is questionable. In 2019, I attended a public consultation process organised by Alex and team to understand what people want from the organisation. The results are yet to be published and we have not been informed of the outcome. It was just another eyewash event i.e. decisions are already made. There should be serious questions asked to the current committee and board to understand "real" reasons behind this. When the world is moving towards purpose, a heritage arts organization wants to transform itself towards profit. Why?

Hi I am Ahmed Kaysher, the director of Saudha (www.saudha.org). As an avid admirer of Kala Sangam, this report has now given a bit of in-depth understanding on what's happening with this remarkable promoter of South Asian Arts. I am absolutely frustrated to know that the management committee is now going for re-branding through changes of the name for absolutely ridiculous reasons. Kala and Sangam both words became the part of British cultural life, too. And many prominent writers that include Salman Rushdie, R K Narayan, even William Dalrymple used these Kala or Sangam in English text so spontaneously. Kala always means something more than Arts and just after you utter this, you bring the whole depth of myths associated with it and these words perfectly represent the inner depth of South Asian Arts and Sangam is such a beautiful word evolved from Indian Myth but it has such a wider meaning the context of multiculturalism. I attended many dance and classical music events of Kala Sangam, too, while Prof Geetha Upadhyaya, a dedicated life for the promotion of South Asian Arts in this country, used to invite regularly and I am sure, she and her team managed to build us a great mix of audiences who would love the vision of Sangam between different art forms, Sangam between different cultures, Sangam between different people. Now, some of these excuses are just risible, I think. If someone has a trace of journey in arts - how could this be a case that kala Sangam is hard to utter? And to be honest - Kala Sangam is the best phrase of words that go with the ways and culture of the people living in Bradford. A multicultural town, people of different faiths and religions are living together and this togetherness is actually a form of Sangam. A painful disappearance of Dr Geetha Upadhuaya from the management scene is perhaps a reason why this is directing towards opposite way of its initial vision. I personally know Dr Geetha Upadhya and I think she is one of the foremost visionary art-promoters from South Asian heritage here in this country. And I find some of these comments on her was simply not fair. I am sure this will be a beginning of a neo cultural vandalism if the name of Kala Sangam is changed with the excuses that do not have a base.

Changing the name of Kala Sangam and its mission is the first step in cultural erasure. It will stop being about South Asian culture and more about mainstream culture. There are many black organisations that went that way. They were threatened with loss of funding to essentially erase/whitewash their culture.

Issues of culture and community are notoriously complex. It is not unusual for confusing and even contradictory claims to be made in their name - and I think that may be the case here. I am not sure, because I do not understand quite what complaint is being made by the people quoted in this article. For me, the article raises more questions than it answers. A follow up article addressing those questions would be helpful. Meanwhile, I would be interested to know the following. 1. Why are so many people quoted anonymously? Were none of the members of 'Bradford's South Asian arts community' who are referred to prepared to raise their concerns openly? 2. Is it really true that all 'Those involved with Kala Sangam during its first 24 years disagree' with the current leadership team? 3. What is the significance of the statement that the charity has a 'White-led management'? Is the suggestion that being White in itself disqualifies people from (i) being South Asian, (ii) understanding South Asia, and/or (iii) participating in South Asian arts? Surely that would mirror some of the unfortunate assumptions made about Brown people over the years? As a middle aged British man of South Asian heritage, I have experienced those assumptions - and hoped we had moved beyond them. In one of the comments above, Ahmed refers to 'prominent writer' William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a remarkable historian and an example of a White man who is very knowledgeable about Asia and South Asian arts (and has written about 'the unplanned minglings of peoples and cultures and ideas’). 4. If it was important that "As dancers and performers, we showed [White British audiences that South Asian art] wasn't exclusive to Asians", shouldn't we also be open to seeing suitably qualified White British people performing those arts and leading companies concerned with those arts? 5. Do those complaining accept the assertion of Alex Croft that changes are necessary 'to ensure financial viability, keep [the charity] relevant and create an identity that reflects its changed focus'? (I hope there is more to it than the idea that Kala Sangam is hard to spell.) 6. Is it really '"the job of every arts organisation" to attract more audiences without alienating historic attendees.' as Tajpal Rathore suggests? I'd always imagined that if the presence of Black, brown or working class people at the Royal Albert Hall, the RSC or the Royal Opera House deterred a small minority of historic attendees that was a price worth paying. 7. Is it possible that the repositioning of Kala Sangam - and even the adoption of a new name - could help it reinvigorate the work it does with South Asian arts, engage with those of South Asian heritage in Bradford *and* engage with other art forms and local communities? 8. Could this article have explored what common ground there might be between the charity's current leadership team and those 'long-time supporters' of the charity who regret the recent change in direction? Given the time and attention that many arts charities - and charities in other sectors - are putting into addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion it would be enormously useful to see Arts Professional address these issues in more detail. As a charity trustee, a charity lawyer and, from time to time, an audience member, I would find it interesting to learn more about these challenging issues. I hope you can help. Thank you.