Fifty years ago this year an important campaign to gain Wolverhampton Sikh bus drivers the right to wear beards and turbans was successful.
Himmat celebrated this victory with five performances from Thursday September 26th to Sunday 29th, in the Georgian Room, Wolverhampton Art Gallery. The hour-long play was professionally-acted and directed and is suitable for adults and children 14 plus. The play was not suitable for younger children. Disturbing subjects, such as self-immolation, are central to the plot.
Himmat has been given the accolade of appearing as a preview performance for the fourth Wolverhampton Literature Festival (WOLF) which runs from 31st January to 2nd February 2020. The production was funded by Arts Council (England)
Here is true story behind the play and some details of both the writer (myself) and the script editor and director Eshmit Kaur and what made us want to tell this particular story.
History of the “turban incident”
In 1967 Tarsem Sandhu, a young Sikh bus driver, was sacked because he returned to work after being ill, wearing a beard and turban. Wolverhampton Corporation who ran the buses at that time said it was against uniform regulations. No drivers were allowed to have a beard or turban.
A campaign was started and supported by demonstrations in Wolverhampton (4.000 people) and Delhi.
Despite this campaign continuing for two years, by 1969 the pressure for Sikh political parties (mainly Akali Dal) the Indian High Commissioner and ordinary Wolverhampton people (mainly Sikh but also others) had failed to get the Corporation to budge.
Then Sohan Singh Jolly, a local Sikh who was a leader of the Akali Dal in Wolverhampton, threatened to burn himself to death if the ban was not lifted.
Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, sent his right-hand man Fernyhough (who was a pacifist and credited with counselling Wilson not to join Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War) to Wolverhampton to use his influence.
Whether it was the presence the PM’s envoy, or fear that Mr Jolly might carry his thereat out, that made the difference we don’t know, but the Corporation gave in and allowed Tarsem to return to work wearing the symbols of his Sikh faith. Now there are many Sikh drivers in Wolves wearing the beard and turban.
The campaign is now in its 50 anniversary year. There is information available through the city Archives and other sources. I have used this information to write the play plus other examples from my own experience (and that of others) of how discrimination affects people.
Why Eshmit and I want to tell this story in dramatic form
Eshmit Kaur is collaborating with me on the play, writing a small amount of Panjabi dialogue and generally enhancing my script. Eshmit is twenty two and I am sixty seven and she is a baptised Sikh and I am an atheist. We both believe strongly, however, in the human right to practice a religious faith without persecution or discrimination.
Wolverhampton has the second largest British Sikh community outside Southall, in London. Although not everyone with a Sikh / Panjabi background practices the Sikh faith, many people do and, of those, many men (and some women) wear a turban to show this. Women also wear headscarves as Eshmit does.
Eshmit graduated from the prestigious drama / film institution ALRA South in 2017 and has performed publicly several times. She does not, however want to act without wearing her scarf, the symbol of her Sikh belief that people should accept how God made them and therfore not cut their hair.
Because of this she is unable to take up the promising drama career she might have had. She, is however, aiming to help people by studying for a Masters in Dramatherapy at Derby university. And she will be making an appearance, as herself, in Himmat.
Eshmit’s choice: to sacrifice a mainstream drama career because of adhering to her faith, is strikingly similar to the choice many Sikh men had to make in the 50’, 60’s and 70’s: cut your hair and beard, stop wearing a turban or you won’t get work.
So both of us, as directors, as well as writers, kept this dilemma at the heart of the play.
The production is Arts Council funded.