Spotlight: South Asian Arts-UK

Rachael Vickerman is a third-year undergraduate student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. Her degree focus is Theology & Religious Studies and as part of her final year project, decided to undertake an external placement at South Asian Arts-UK, researching visitor attendance and reflecting on the work being done by this organisation in Leeds.

The featured photograph was by the Leeds-based arts organisation South Asian Arts-UK on their Twitter page in 2016, capturing their weekly tabla class in action. What is quite striking about the photograph is that all four of the students are wearing head coverings. This is because the tabla class – like several of SAA-UK’s classes – is held at Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha gurdwara in Beeston, and all students are asked to observe the gurdwara’s codes of conduct regarding dress.

What is more, the vast majority of SAA-uk’s staff are Sikhs, from its Sikh founder in 1997 to its present-day Sikh CEO and overwhelmingly Sikh team of teachers and board of trustees. SAA-uk have also staged several productions that commemorate aspects of Sikh identity or history, such as their Sacred Sounds production from 2017 which reproduced the musical traditions of Sikh soldiers serving in World War I.

So, SAA-UK must be a Sikh organisation? Wrong. Despite its, arguable, “Sikhness”, SAA-UK does not in fact have an official religious identity. Its website states that they aim at making South Asian artistic practices as ‘far reaching as possible’, delivering them widely to all people across Leeds. However, the interviews and questionnaires that I have conducted with local people in Leeds as part of my placement with SAA-UK have revealed that this ‘far reaching’ aim is rarely recognised in reality. I have spoken to white British musicians highly trained in South Asian music styles, eager to find somewhere to continue their training in Leeds yet are greatly deterred by SAA-UK’s perceived Sikh-centred bias. Even those who do engage with SAA-UK are confused by SAA-UK’s status. For example, their Finance Manager told me that he sometimes struggles to get Sikh parents to actually pay for their child’s music classes, as they see SAA-UK not as an external, secular organisation, but as a free class offered as part of the gurdwara’s seva (community service), similar to its community kitchen and Punjabi classes.

Probably unsurprisingly, SAA-UK has struggled to attract members from outside of the local Sikh community. In many ways, the organisation gives the impression of explicitly endorsing the Sikh religion, which appears to have the impact of driving members of other religions away. In particular, the SAA-UK staff specifically highlight local Muslims as the religious group that are most under-represented in SAA-uk’s membership. One of the primary aims of my placement has been to unpick local Muslims’ disengagement, and to discover what exactly it is about SAA-UK (or about the arts in general) that deters them. The staff have several ideas – often drawn from news stories about Muslim parents withdrawing their children from school music classes, out of fear that music tempts humans away from the Islamic path – but have very little concrete evidence for those ideas.

As many researchers will know, things do not always pan out how you expect (or want) them to in the research process. I experienced this for myself when, of the initial 15 Muslim individuals, groups and institutions that I contacted, none responded. Several contacts that I made later expressed concerns about my research topic, stating that their interpretation of Islamic doctrine prevents engagement in music and dance, due to their perceived power to draw people away from their devotion to God. It would have been easy to end the research at this point, concluding that SAA-UK’s suspicions about Muslims’ disengagement are probably right. But I wasn’t content with this and wanted to press further into the issue. When I did this, I found several Muslims who were in fact very eager to take up classes at SAA-UK. Members of a very lively Muslim women’s group that I attended at a community centre in Beeston excitedly asked me for SAA-UK’s phone number and website, and instructions for how to sign up for classes.

What became clear was that those Muslims interviewed were not necessarily making an active or conscious decision to not join SAA-UK, but that many had simply not even heard of SAA-UK. Several had strong passions for South Asian music and dance, especially migrants missing the artistic traditions of their homelands. Relying heavily on funding from the Arts Council and private donors, SAA-UK has a limited budget and dedicates very little to advertising campaigns. Instead, they rely on word-of-mouth as their primary means of advertising, and if their membership is primarily rooted in the Sikh community, then it is clearly difficult for this advertising to stretch beyond that community. What we are left with is members of non-Sikh communities who, in some cases, despite living just metres from the gurdwara where the classes are held, word has not reached them.

SAA-UK is an organisation that started small and has gone on to achieve great things, obtaining Arts Council funding and royal recognition. Its next big project is to work to undo the ‘Sikhness’ that seems to have come to define it, opening up its doors to a wider, more diverse cross-section of Leeds and its vibrant South Asian communities.

By Rachael Vickerman

Image Credit: South Asian Arts-UK