Tanika Gupta on The Empress

Set in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Tanika Gupta’s The Empress tells the story of the sixteen-year-old Rani Das, ayah (nursemaid) to an English family, who arrives at Tilbury docks after a long voyage from India, to start a new life in Britain. On the boat, Rani befriends a lascar (sailor), an Indian politician and a royal servant destined to serve the Queen. Full of hopes and dreams of what lies ahead, they each embark on an extraordinary journey. Spanning a thirteen year period over the ‘Golden Era’ of Empire, this epic drama takes audiences from the rugged gangways of Tilbury docks to the grandeur of Queen Victoria’s Palace, whilst unveiling the long and embedded culture of British-Asian history which continues to shape our society today. We spoke to playwright Tanika Gupta ahead of the play’s opening week.

Please tell us more about your play The Empress when did you start thinking about the idea for this play and what were you most inspired by?

The Empress for me, was a coming together of my interest in history, my parents’ story of immigration, the British Empire and the people who came here not just to make a better life for themselves, but from whose work we have gained so much.

In my early twenties, I read a wonderful book by Rozina Vishram ‘Ayahs, Lascars and Princes, Indians in Britain 1700-1947’. I was fascinated by the book, the stories and photos within it and the alternative history of Indian immigration.

Vishram’s book had it all – but it was a history I had never read before, not even as a History undergraduate. As she writes in her introduction: 

It is often forgotten that Britain had an Indian community long before the second world war, and that the recent arrival of Asian people in Britain is part of the long history of contact between India and Britain. The arrival of Asians in Britain has taken place precisely because of these long-established connections.

My initial inspiration came from an old black and white photograph taken in an ayah’s home in Aldgate in the 19th century. The picture of a group of Asian women sat around a table sewing and reading, wearing saris and Victorian dress, intrigued me. What were these women all doing in East London at the turn of the last century?

The picture and the stories in Visram’s book haunted me for many years until one day I told the then Artistic Director at the RSC, Michael Boyd, that I wanted to write a play about British Asians in nineteenth century London. He was up for it and happily commissioned me. 

Are you looking forward to seeing it back on stage and what’s been most exciting about bringing it back under new direction?

Yes, I am very much looking forward to the new production after ten years, directed by the amazing Pooja Ghai who is a long-time collaborator with me. This is a 5-month run for the play both in Stratford Upon Avon and the Lyric Hammersmith which means that lots more people will be able to see it than before.

The experiences of immigration are echoed through the years and some of the characters in The Empress could almost be contemporary ones.

Immigration is a controversial political topic in our own time and many of today’s issues and debates are the same as those in the past. At this very moment refugees arrive in boats, desperately trying to escape starvation, poverty, war and climate change; impoverished, homeless people are destitute on the city streets, racism and prejudice continues, but through it all, the indomitable spirit of people like Rani persists. In 2019, The Empress was one of the texts chosen for the pilot scheme of Lit in Colour: Penguin’s campaign to increase the number of texts by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers studied in schools. In 2019, fewer than 1% of GCSE English Literature pupils studied a book by a person of colour. Following a successful campaign, including participation from the RSC’s Youth Advisory Board, The Empress has been added to the GSCE Edexcel syllabus and the GCSE AQA Drama syllabus.

To me, this is part of a broader move to try and decolonise the curriculum. I have grown-up children now and even when they went through school, there was nothing for them in terms of their own culture.

But it’s not just about Asians learning about Asians, and Africans learning about Africans. It’s about everybody learning about each other’s history through literature. Without that, nothing’s going to change. It all starts with education.

How did you go about doing the research for the original play and what fascinated you most about this part of history?

I read a lot of history books, spoke to academics and spent time in the British library looking at primary sources. What struck me the most was how little we know about these historical characters – we are never taught about them at school.

How did you draw on your historical background to support the writing process?

I read History at Oxford University and was fortunate enough to study under Professor Jane Garnett who inspired me by gifting me Rozina Visram’s book. I have always been interested in looking at unwritten histories, or underrepresented narratives and felt compelled to tell the story of the Indian ayah in nineteenth century Britain.

Which do you find most energising – the research or the writing?

I am a playwright and dramatist first and foremost. Whilst I find the research very interesting intellectually, and the historical characters fascinating, my main interest is in storytelling through live action. This means that characters and stories need to be dramatic, engaging and have emotional depth. The research is a jumping off point.

What can audiences look forward to?

I hope audiences will be thoroughly entertained and engaged by The Empress. It has a cracking story at the heart of the play of a bright, young Indian woman arriving on the shores of Britain in 1887 and trying to make her way through a bewildering cold and alien society – making many friends and falling in love along the way. And of course, Queen Victoria and her relationship with her Indian man servant Abdul Karim is beautifully re-enacted.  The play has new music composed for it by the Ringham Brothers, live musicians, dancing, a lot of humour, as well as tragedy.

This is Victorian Britain as you’ve never seen it before!

We’re moving into such an exciting time in our theatres (in terms of being back in them post-Covid) but also in championing diverse stories. What more should the industry be doing, if anything, to support new diverse work?

More plays by writers from diverse backgrounds need to be commissioned by theatres and those writers need to be supported and developed by excellent dramaturgs who celebrate and understand  the writers’ vision. And then of course those plays need to be produced.

Finally, what advice would you give to new and emerging playwrights looking to build relationships with theatres?

If you really want to be a playwright, go and see plays, read scripts and try and write everyday – even if it’s just for an hour. And write about something that you are passionate about – not what you think you should be writing about. Join workshops and approach theatres who work with new writing. Try and make sure that your play says something about the world in which we are living. 

The Empress runs from 7 July – 18 November at Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, transferring to Lyric Hammersmith 4-28 October.

Tanika Gupta Image credit: Oscar May

Photography by Clare Park © RSC