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Anwar Akhtar delivers powerful keynote at second Safe and Inclusive Communities research theme launch

Anwar Akhtar giving a talk at the second Safe and Inclusive Communities research theme launch

By Anna Paraskevopoulou, Faculty of Business and Law, May 2023

Anwar Akhtar delivered a powerful keynote talk at the second Safe and Inclusive Communities launch event at ARU in Chelmsford on 8 March 2023.

Anwar is a critically acclaimed British Pakistani writer, journalist, theatre producer and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder and director of The Samosa, a London-based arts, education, and media charity focusing on the British South Asian diaspora.

The charity has produced and co-produced several large arts productions. It has a strong social justice approach, with education a core part of its mission as it works to embed diversity in the curriculum of schools, colleges, and universities through the arts and culture.

Through an insightful biographical narration, Anwar discussed the need for society to embrace discussions on race and class identities from a global justice perspective, because the story of migration is itself closely linked to our colonial past and, more recently, to the decolonisation discourse.

What made the talk compelling was the fact that social class was core to Anwar’s analysis as an inseparable component of the discussion on race and ethnic identity.

Anwar Akhtar giving a talk at the second Safe and Inclusive Communities research theme launch

Born in Manchester to Pakistani parents, Anwar spent his early years working on his father’s market stalls selling clothing. He grew up within Manchester’s Pakistani community and is fluent in Punjabi and Urdu.

He studied Social Studies (Politics, History, and Economics) at Sheffield Hallam University, and he has played a pivotal role in arts and culture at local, national and international levels.

He has worked previously for Arts Council England, the Greater London Authority, and the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, overseeing the capital development and operational business plan for a new national arts centre in East London. He was also an associate of the Urbanism, Environment and Design employee-owned co-op URBED.

He has worked in Pakistan, working alongside Ajoka Theatre in Lahore and teaching journalism at universities in Karachi and Lahore. He is a Fellow of the Salzburg Academy.

Inspired by his Asian heritage, social background, and passion for history and the arts, Anwar collaborated with the Ajoka Theatre Pakistan and National Theatre UK as the Production Consultant on Dara, by acclaimed Pakistani playwright Shahid Mahmood Nadeem. Dara was adapted by Tanya Ronder and directed by Nadia Fall for The National Theatre in London in 2015.

This was a pivotal moment in UK theatre, as it was the first dramatisation of an original South Asian play, translated from Punjabi, adapted and performed for a British audience on a national stage.

It was also an important moment for community relations, as the play focused on a historical moment in South Asia which is still relevant today. London being a cosmopolitan city meant that people from all over the world had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the history and culture of Moghul India and its legacy today in India and Pakistan, as well as for British Asian communities.

Dara was seen by more than 30,000 people in 2015, with some of the largest BAME audiences for any National Theatre production. The film of Dara is now on National Theatre at Home and free for all schools, colleges and universities via National Theatre Schools.

In his keynote talk, Anwar unfolded the story of Dara, the need for a more inclusive education, and the importance of access to history and the arts for all young people through the curriculum. He discussed how better communication between different cultures enhances understanding and respect for all communities.

A scene from Dara at the National Theatre, with two actors standing in the foreground and four sitting in the background

Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Dara is an epic tale from South-East Asia, in what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. It tells the story of the seventeenth-century struggle between the two sons of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal), the older Prince Dara Shikoh and the younger Prince Aurangzeb. It is a story of personal ambition, state control, political and religious divide; ultimately, a war to gain power and rule.

The two Muslim princes represented and used different versions of Islam to build their power base and succession claims to the Mughal Throne. Dara was a liberal Muslim, respectful of other religions, and his idea of rule was based on peaceful co-existence. Aurangzeb was a totalitarian, and his aim was to dominate other religions to enforce his power as a ruler.

Contemporary historians often claim that the war between the two brothers and their different attitudes to Islam and state power also informed the events of 1947, when British colonial rule ended and the Indian and Pakistani partition took place.

This created displacement and sectarian conflicts that killed over half a million people and led to the migration of millions. This conflict has still not been resolved today, as we see in the tensions between India and Pakistan, and ongoing debates about Mughal history and legacy.

The success of Dara is a prime example of how arts and humanities can help the process of community building. As Anwar himself eloquently expressed: 'there is an established tradition of theatre and peace-building and activism'.

It is also a good example for diversifying our educational curricula at any level. Inclusive education recognises the value of diversity in the community; fosters a culture of knowledge exchange, understanding, respect and belonging; motivates students to learn; encourages the participation of students from all backgrounds, especially minoritised students; provides opportunities for growth; and promotes social justice.

Dara, the film Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret: Lahore Museum, and Schools Apart, a recent documentary made with BBC Radio 4, are part of a wider body of work Samosa is leading to bring more diversity into the arts and humanities curriculum.

Schools Apart particularly highlights need to update the national curriculum to reflect the contributions of Britain’s BAME communities to the island story and building of modern Britain.

Anwar explained that 'two things everyone should know [are] the huge contribution of the Windrush generation, particularly to public service and the NHS, [and] the scale of the British Indian army and the Muslim contribution in both world wars.'

The Safe and Inclusive Communities leadership team is looking forward to further collaboration with Anwar and planning future activities that will benefit ARU, its staff and students.

Anyone who wishes to use Samosa's diverse educational resources from their production work and partnerships are encouraged to contact Anwar directly at [email protected]

See also