Sudha Bhuchar's new 'Child of the Divide'
A story of family, identity and belonging.
Actor and playwright Sudha Bhuchar has built an impressive career including acting, writing and co-founding her own theatre company. Her new play, Child of the Divide, is set during the 1947 Partition in India and is based on the personal stories of 5 different children. It's her first piece of work for children and families, currently touring around the North West of England.
We spoke to Sudha to find out more about Child of the Divide and the inspiration behind it.
Why did you decide to write this play? What inspired you?
It was a combination of personal and external experiences. We are a mixed-religion family, I am a Hindu married to a Muslim, and at some point my children asked questions about their heritage; they didn’t even know that India was just one country. So that was one of the things that inspired me: looking at what combined our history as a family.
I was also inspired by a short story: ‘Pali’ by Bhisham Sahni, about a Hindu boy who gets separated from his family when Pakistan is created. He is taken in by a Muslim family and gradually becomes a Muslim boy until his real father finds him again. It is that kind of complexity of identity and helping children to navigate that that interested me, but also because of how it relates to today’s reality.
Would you say that those issues (family, identity and belonging) are topics that should be talked about nowadays in a globalised world where immigration and multiculturalism are key to people’s lives?
Talking about these issues is urgent nowadays, when you see people navigating those experiences everywhere. Even though we are living in Britain, we have the world at our doorstep: we look at global events all the time and we don’t relate them to things that happened 70 years ago. This play works on many levels, it’s a specific window into 1947 when it is set, but it’s also very universal because of the themes that it deals with. People make all sorts of connections after seeing it. We just had a two and a half week run at Polka Theatre and you would have an elderly Asian woman watching is and seeing her own story and then you would have young children questioning the meaning of what constitutes a family, belonging, mixed-race families, adoption - all sorts of themes that may or may not directly relate to their lives. It even talks about love: the love of children for their parents and vice versa, first loves, falling in love; there are a lot of universal themes in there.
Would you say that Child of the Divide could make immigrant and non-immigrant families reflect on their own identity?
I think it does. On one level, we’ve had audience members that would say ‘I am from Bosnia and I experienced this in my country’, on another levelyou’ll just have a mother who found it very hard to conceive a child, relating to that side of the story. It is definitely an emotionally connecting play and people are making their own personal connections to it. I wanted to find out more about the history, but also reflect on people’s personal circumstances, while arising the curiosity of children as well. What I found fascinating is that we had schools coming and, I play a lot with languages in the work, English children were delighted by that: they haven’t taken that as a barrier, they found it exciting. For the Asian audience, for them it is a celebration of how we speak and how our language has evolved.
How did arts and culture affect your own search of a personal identity and belonging?
I have become a theatre maker because of my search for identity and belonging! I did a degree in Maths and Sociology, but it was because, when I was 17, I and my sister went to see a company called Tara Arts perform and it was so amazing to see young Asian people on stage talking about the things that we would be experiencing but didn’t know how to talk about. We joined them afterwards and it was supposed to be only for fun, in the evenings, as amateurs. Before I knew, it sort of became my life!
What was the place of arts and culture within your family when you were a child?
My parents were teachers. My father had always liked classical music and poetry, so we used to see him with his students, they used to have these cultural evenings… We had that, but they weren’t art practitioners. Bollywood,that was the other thing: And we used to watch Bollywood films. It wasn’t my family what encouraged me to pursue a career in the arts: my mother was concerned about it. It wasn’t that easy, and it remains like that. But it is really exciting!
You are both a writer and an actor, which one came first? Would consider yourself more one than the other?
Although acting came first, I now combine my career as an actor and a writer. I also have ran Tamasha Theatre Company for 26 years, producing work and nurturing other actors and writers. Recently I’ve focused on Child of the Divide - it took a long time to get to this point and to produce the play. At first, we tried a pilot version of it with the Partition History Project, which I am in partnership with, and we took the play to schools, together with a lesson plan. After that, I set up a company, Bhuchard Boulevard, and Child of the Divide became its debut. I’ve spent such a long time trying to build this infrastructure that I haven’t had any time to create new work. In the end, it is really rewarding for me to know that this work is out there, so you have to make it happen.
Would that be a piece of advice that you would give to young people trying to pursue a career as an actor or writer? ‘You have to make it happen?’
Some people believe that if you want to be a writer then you must just do that, you shouldn’t get involved in production or other things that might distract you, but for me, my journey has always been that I am making the work and I am finding the audiences for the work, and I produce it all at the same time. I think it can empower you, because you’re not waiting for other people to say ‘Oh, you’re brilliant!’. Actors make good writers because actors write emotionally. Maybe we struggle with the bigger things: structure or story, but actors have a really good ear for real people. The way I write always comes from the ‘small’ person. In this case, I am interested in the Partition, but I am looking at it from the eyes of children.
What advice would you give to families thinking of trying a trip to the theatre for the first time?
You’ll just have to dive in and do it because there is nothing like children experiencing something live in front of them, especially at a time when they have so much: tablets, telly, phones, etc. There is something magical about coming and seeing a story come alive in front of you. That will connect you immediately. In terms of this play, it is rare to see a play that unites families like this one because it is an intergenerational play. Although the children are at the heart of it, there are two sets of parents whose emotions and dilemmas are as complex as the children’s. I hope that it would make a good first-time-at-the-theatre for families.
Could you let us know your personal thoughts on why arts and culture are important for families?
The arts can be a really great bridge that can help excavate and look at difficult subjects. Personally, the arts saved me from an existential crisis of being British Asian in this country because I could find true connection, absolute connection with other people, with my history, with who I am. I wouldn’t know all of this things if it wasn’t because I got into the arts. It is a really great connective tool that you can use as a family: it can help you have difficult conversations, it can entertain you, it can make you speak to your children and have a kind of uniting experience with your children, whatever age they are.
You can find Child of the Divide in the following towns and cities this autumn: