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Dara: Bridging Cultures Through Art

City Circle recently co-hosted a panel talk - Dara: Bridging Cultures Through Art, at SOAS.

Below, Anwar Akhtar, one of the panellists, Director of the Samosa media project and production consultant to the National Theatre and Ajoka Theatre on the play Dara, reflects on the panel discussion, the profound impact the play has had with audiences in the UK, as well as wider issues re the arts, media, representation and cultural exchange between Pakistan and Britain.
Given the recent tragic events in Paris and Copenhagen, now more than ever we need non-confrontational media platforms that are based on intellectual rigour and a free exchange of ideas. Dialogue between arts, youth and cultural groups worldwide is essential if we are to challenge prejudices and build more global collaboration

The Samosa Media Project - Pakistan Calling & Dara –Peace Building Initiatives

In 2013, the Samosa media project in partnership with the RSA set up and launched an online film project - Pakistan Calling  Working with film makers from Karachi, Lahore, London, Luton and Manchester, we produced and curated over 60 films looking at issues, from identity and equality to education, conflict resolution and minority rights issues in Pakistan and the UK.

The core purpose was to help tackle Pakistan’s many social problems by supporting arts, education, welfare and civil society organisations. The films promote cross-cultural conversations, showcase filmmakers working and citizen journalism, and crucially, have been platformed on Vimeo as YouTube is banned in Pakistan.  The films range from speaking to ambulance and bus drivers in Karachi, to looking at community tensions in Luton or discussing the media’s perception of Pakistan with Jon Snow of Channel 4 News. 

The project is tapping-into and unlocking the creativity of young people and others in the most unlikely of places. It’s people to people, and cuts through some of the bureaucracy often found when accessing international development networks to connect with diaspora and working class communities. For example, we have young film makers and women’s welfare groups in Bradford, talking to their peers in Karachi and Lahore.
One very successful partnership has been Dara, the play by Ajoka Theatre Company Pakistan, which was featured in one of the Pakistan Calling project’s films. Through this work by the Samosa, the story of Dara and work of Ajoka was brought to the National Theatre’s attention. Dara was then commissioned, to be staged at the National Theatre, the first time a Pakistani theatre company has had a version of their work there.
At the play’s core is a power struggle and war between the two sons of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal)—the elder Prince Dara Shikoh and younger Prince Aurangzeb—for the great Mughal throne of India in 1659. It was a war to rule an empire that covered the lands we now call South Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, ruling approximately 150 million people, about a quarter of the then world's population.

The play Dara is about more than a succession war between Mughal princes. It is also about what India was, what it became, and the beginning of Pakistan. It is a view amongst many historians and writers in South Asia that particular seeds for the later violent partition of Pakistan from India were laid during Dara’s life.
The partition in 1947 led to one of the greatest mass migrations in human history (which included my mother and grandparents) when one of the most violent events of the 20th century took place. India divided on religious grounds, a division carried out with a disgraceful lack of responsibility by the British Government’s then Viceroy in India, Lord Mountbatten, as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, called each other’s bluff in their deadly game of chess.

Dara comes to the UK at a time of some tensions in community relations, facing Muslim communities due to anti-Muslim sentiments across Europe. In Dara, we see the complexities within Islam and across Muslim communities play out during a very different time period. 

Due to a cultural glass ceiling and lack of diversity in arts leadership, The UK’s arts sector rarely platforms or produces work that reflects the complexity and history of its Asian communities. The fact that Dara was even programmed is a significant achievement. It is worth repeating the question and answer, below that led to Dara coming to the UK, detailed in an essay for the Open Democracy site here; 
‘It has to be Ajoka and Dara’ my response, when Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theatre asked.. 
‘where do we find stories about what is happening in Pakistan and that also affect us in Britain? Where are the Muslim writers that tell their stories and bear witness?
The production has been widely praised in The Guardian, Time Out and Channel 4 News as an important piece of theatre on issues that are not always engaged with, that also deserves to be seen outside of London. Peter Tatchell in a review for the Daily Telegraph  stated

‘Every child in Britain should see the National's latest play: Dara dramatises the historic struggle against Islamist extremism - it can reach people that political debate cannot. Dara is a theatrical masterpiece, from the plot and dialogue to the sumptuous costumes and exquisite music and dancing. ..It is an amazing, pioneering cross-cultural collaboration and celebration by Samosa, Ajoka and Nicholas Hytner, the soon-to-retire director of the National Theatre. I’d rank it as one of Hytner’s bravest, most imaginative productions during his illustrious tenure at the National. It is a ‘must see’ play of the moment - and of this century.’
Dara coming to the UK National Theatre is an important moment. It is a coming of age for all of Britain, not just its Asian communities, that a play of such great historical and contemporary relevance, played at the National Theatre. A moment of arrival, integration and cultural achievement.  A reflection in Britain of both where many of us came from and where Britain also went and is still going in its colonial adventures.
I would like to share a powerful piece of writing on Dara below, by the theatre blogger, Webcowgirl, which also encapsulates exactly what we hoped to achieve when we set out on the journey with both Ajoka Theatre and the National Theatre to bring Dara to the UK.
I can only hope that those who see it are won over by Dara’s vision of an inclusive world. I, for one, left the theater feeling truly inspired, for seeing a great piece of theater and an inspiring vision of what the future might be if we could only have the wisdom to learn from the past. The James Plays spoke to a Britain united by its focus on the future of Scotland: but Dara speaks to everyone looking for a way to make our connected worlds, east and west, north and south live together in respect and harmony. And hurray for the National Theater for doing their bit both to promote this play, more widely serve the UK audience, and help in their own way to make Dara’s vision a reality.

What and where next?

The play has also been filmed and arrangements shortly will be in place for colleges and schools to view the film and will be made public. For more information about viewing the film of Dara contact . A major aspect of the Samosa and Pakistan Calling is supporting young film makers and artists in both Pakistan and Britain to produce work about how society can be improved and changed in both countries. The British Pakistani community also doesn’t have sufficient presence in international policy networks. Yet diaspora communities can significantly bridge social and economic development networks between the West and developing South Asian communities and help conflict resolution. Dara was just the start for us and we are keen to build further cultural partnerships of this scale and ambition. If you would like to be involved with the Samosa Media project and Pakistan Calling get in touch. 

Anwar Akhtar is director of, a digital media project focusing on Britain and South Asia and helped set up RSA Pakistan Calling , . He was previously Director of RichMix, Arts Centre East London and is an associate of, a Manchester-based sustainable cities think tank. He has been production consultant to the National Theatre and Ajoka Theatre on the play Dara. Anwar at 

For background on how Dara came to London here is a national theatre podcast Shahid Nadeem, writer and director of the original version of Dara, discussing the play and its journey with Ajoka Theatre, Chaired by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

To see the full event hosted by the City Circle, click here