On the 20th November 2023 we said farewell to Ranjit Sondhi CBE, as he stepped down as the Chair of Sampad’s board after twenty five years. Ranjit has kindly shared his farewell speech, which we now pass on to you.
With the permission of our new Chair, Dr Niti Pall, I would like to say a few words by way of a farewell to Sampad.
I am stepping down after over two decades of being at the helm of Sampad.
During that period, I have had the privilege of attending many breath-taking performances as well as participating in really innovative and thought-provoking projects, delivered by Sampad’s growing army of talented performers, actors, artists, dancers, musicians and researchers.
Let me give you just a flavour of what I have enjoyed over the years (in no particular chronological order):
Who can forget Heer Ranjha, the Romeo and Juliet love story of the Punjab, brought vividly to life in MAC’s outdoor theatre – a performance that would have made even Shakespeare exclaim in ecstacy ‘Chak dey phatey!’
And what about the unbridled exuberance of that high energy South African dance company, Tribhangi, who enthralled the audience with their unique blend of Cossack, Zulu and Bharatnatyam dance forms, that sent shivers down our spine and left us gasping for breath.
Turn to Navadisha, an international dance symposium organised by Sampad that sealed its reputation as a significant player in establishing the role, function and contribution of South Asian art and culture to the British cultural landscape.
And then there was that unique leadership and management programme called Aarohan that unlocked the creative genius of a remarkable group of South Asian men and women who went on to make such a distinguished contribution on the national stage.
And now recall how the My Route project turned a simple journey on the number 16 bus into a compelling narrative that captured the arrival and settlement of successive waves of Irish, Italian, Turkish, Pakistani and Somali communities, describing how their trades, shops, food, languages and religions have enriched the neighbourhoods of inner city Birmingham.
And who can forget Mandala, a multimedia production in which world renowned British Asian dancers, musicians and tabla players mesmerised vast outdoor audiences in Birmingham with 3D digital images projected against the Town Hall moving in complete synchronism with the music and rhythm on stage – providing a grand finale to the week long celebrations that marked the end of the Olympic Games
Finally, the truly memorable heritage exhibition sponsored by Sampad called ‘From City of Empire to City of Diversity’ which inspired young people to explore their identities by connecting the past to the present even as they prepare to step out boldly and confidently into the future.
And all these landmark events were happening against the backdrop of our never ending educational work with schools in some of the most deprived parts of the city, as well as the continuing cycle of performances by truly remarkable established and emerging artists – dancers, musicians, actors, writers – who readily accepted our invitation to perform for our audiences.
Hardly surprising therefore that I stayed with sampad for two decades!
There are so many people to thank for all this prodigious high quality output – but before I do so, allow me to offer a brief reflection on why I believe Sampad is such a critically important part of Birmingham, an indeed Britain’s, cultural and social life.
Firstly, Sampad is not just another supplier of cultural goods and services. Art and culture are not just commodities that can be bought and sold on the open market.
At Sampad, we have always held the belief that our art is not just transactional, it is transformative.
To be sure, it entertains, but it also educates, in equal measure. It broadens both our aesthetic and our intellectual horizons. It has the potential to change individuals and communities. Art has agency.
Because, art is not simply about pleasing the senses, it is also about developing our critical faculties.
Secondly, art carries meaning which is capable of interpretation and re-interpretation. Through its art and heritage, Sampad makes people think about how that meaning is constructed and conditional, and how it is negotiated across cultural boundaries.
In a troubled, unsettled and often polarised world it provides a universal language of communication and a neutral, but not neutralising, space in which one can receive, respect and reconcile different truths and realities that pull in opposite directions.
This is not straightforward. But at Sampad we are pretty good at holding the tension between polar opposites – between tradition and modernity (between Bharatnatyam and Body-popping!), between preservation and experimentation, between predictability and surprise, between continuity and change.
Thirdly, we are bold. Our art glides like mercury along a spectrum between audacity and meekness, between irreverence and piety, between capriciousness and steadfastness.
We are unashamedly promiscuous – Kathak flirts openly with Flamenco, Bharatnatyam cavorts with Ballet. Indian Classical ragas lock themselves in a close embrace with Jazz.
At Sampad we respect boundaries but are not straight-jacketed by them.
We live in in-between spaces. In the language of the younger generation, we are both cool and wicked.
So, our art both reassures but also interrogates. It soothes minds but also excites them. It supports but also challenges. In this way I believe that Sampad offers a whole new way of conceiving our cultural and national identities. We replace condescension with complexity. In our world, identities are not so much fixed and incapable of change, as they are dynamic, fluid, hybrid, and capable of infinite variations.
Perhaps Sampad’s greatest achievement will have been to provide the intercultural space in which all these differently constructed identities can find a voice, flourish and grow, and create great art forms of dazzling beauty, energy, vitality, innovation and flair.
This is Sampad’s unique contribution. Long may it continue.
Of course, all this could not have been achieved without the hard work and commitment of our staff, both past and present, who have consistently maintained the quality and quantity of our output year after year. As they say, never was so much achieved for so many by so few. They have managed performers – with great skill, patience, diplomacy and fortitude.
And a very special and heart-felt thanks to all my Board members, a modest, unassuming but committed group of people who quietly, gently and unobtrusively, behind the scenes, set about creating and maintaining a fit for purpose governance and accountability framework within which our staff could flourish and create. Personally, I have never worked with a more supportive and considerate board – members, treasurers or vice chairs alike. I have greatly benefited from their support.
Always invidious to name individuals but I cannot step down without paying a special tribute to our Director Piali Ray. Piali has a kind of eternal quality about her. She reminds me of Saraswati – those who are familiar with the pantheon of Hindu gods, will know her as the goddess of the arts, culture and education. Like Saraswati, Piali has always been there. She was there long before Sampad was conceived, she has nurtured it, raised it from infancy into maturity, and with the help of her trusted and skilled senior team, established it as the NPO it has become.
She has been the creative force, with a very long line of devotees and proteges, a number of whom now distinguish themselves on the world stage.
You have been their guide, their mentor, their guru.
You have even turned me from a mere philistine into an arts connoisseur – of sorts!
It has been an absolute joy to work with Piali for all these years.
I take my leave, and in the words of millions of Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Persian, Kurdish and Pushto speakers around the world, I bid you