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Spiritual awakening

Globalisation has been good for gods in the Indian subcontinent. As the region has remade itself, it

On a foggy winter's night in November 1998, Om Singh, a young landowner from Rajasthan, was riding his Enfield Bullet back home after winning a local election near Jodhpur, when he misjudged a turning and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. As a memorial, his father fixed the motorbike to a stand, raised on a concrete plinth under the shelter of a small canopy, near the site of the crash.

“We were a little surprised when people started reporting miracles near the bike," Om's uncle Shaitan Singh told me on my last visit. "Om was no saint, and people say he had had a drink or two before his crash. In fact, there was no indication whatsoever during his life that he was a deity. He just loved his horses and his motorbike. But since his death a lot of people have had their wishes fulfilled here - particularly women who want children. For them, he has become very powerful. They sit on the bike, make offerings to Om Singh-ji, and it is said that flowers drop into their laps. Nine months later they have sons. Every day people see him. He comes to many people in their dreams."

“How did it all begin?" I asked. We were in the middle of a surging throng: crowds of red-turbaned and brightly sari-ed villagers gathered around the bike, the women queuing patiently to straddle its seat and ring the bell on the canopy. Nearby, two drummers were loudly banging dholaks, while chai-shop owners made tea and paan for the pilgrims. Other stalls sold plaques, postcards and statues of Om Singh and his motorbike. Pieces of cloth were tied to branches all over the tree and gold flags flapped in the desert wind. Everywhere buses and trucks were disgorging pilgrims coming to visit Rajasthan's newest shrine.

“First it was just family and friends who came," Shaitan Singh replied. "Then people realised there was a certain power here. It wasn't just the Hindus: Muslims came, too. Now the truck drivers will never pass this spot without stopping and making an offering. Every year the crowd grows."

“Do you believe in Om's power?" I asked.

“The more faith grows," he answered enigmatically, "the stronger it becomes."

Across the subcontinent, faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as the region develops and reinvents itself. In 19th-century Europe, industrialisation and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went hand in hand with the Death of God: organised religion began to decline, and the church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of south Asia has been more or less the reverse of this.

During the early 20th century, educated, urban Hindu reformers moved away from ritualised expressions of faith, and early leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar constitutionally formed India as a model secular state with no official faith: this was to be a nation where, in the words of Nehru, dams would be the new temples. But over the past 20 years, just as India has freed itself from the shackles of Nehruvian socialism, so India has also gone a long way to try to shake off Nehruvian secularism, too. The revival of religiosity and religious extremism in Pakistan may be more the focus of the international media, especially as Barack Obama grapples in vain with the troubled region now hyphenated as Af-Pak, but what is happening in India is equally remarkable and in many ways surprisingly similar.

The dramatic revival of piety and religion in India has recently been the subject of a remarkable study by Meera Nanda, a Delhi-based academic who has shown how globalisation may be making India richer, and arguably more materialistic, but it is also making Indians more religious, and at the same time making religion more political. "Globalisation has been good for the gods," she writes in The God Market.

As India is liberalising and globalising its economy, the country is experiencing a rising tide of popular Hinduism which is leaving no social segment and no public institution untouched. There is a surge in popular religiosity among the burgeoning and largely Hindu middle classes, as is
evident from a boom in pilgrimage and the invention of new, more ostentatious rituals. This religiosity is being cultivated by the emerging state-temple-corporate complex that is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehruvian era . . . a new Hindu religiosity is getting more deeply embedded in everyday life, in both the private and public spheres.

India now has 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals. Pilgrimages account for more than 50 per cent of all package tours, the bigger pilgrimage sites now vying with the Taj Mahal for the most visited sites in the country: the Balaji Temple in Tirupati had 23 million visitors in 2008, while over 17 million trekked to the mountain shrine of Vaishno Devi.

In a 2007 survey jointly conducted by the Hindustan Times and the CNN-IBN news channel, 30 per cent of Indians said they had become more religious in the past five years. Such is the appetite for rituals in this newly religious middle class that there has recently been a severe shortfall of English- and Sanskrit-speaking priests with the qualifications to perform Vedic and Agamic rites. When it comes to rituals in the new India, demand has completely outstripped supply.

In her book, Nanda writes engagingly about what she calls "karma capitalism" and the Indian equivalent of American televangelists, the TV God Men, some of whom have huge followings: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is in many ways India's Pat Robertson, has built a global spirituality empire called the Art of Living, which claims 20 million members, and much of whose land has been donated by Indian state governments.

Meanwhile, religion and politics are becoming ever more entangled. Nanda presents interesting evidence about the dramatic increase in state funding for yagnas (fire sacrifices), yoga camps and temple tourism, as well as the sharp increase in state donation of land for temples, ashrams and training schools for temple priests. In Rajasthan, the government annually spends 260 million rupees on temple renovations and training for Hindu priests. Mass pujas (prayers) and public yagnas have become an important part of political campaigning for all parties, not just the overtly Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Perhaps surprisingly, India's growing band of techies and software professionals seems particularly open both to religiosity in general and to hard right-wing Hindu nationalism in particular, so much so that many have joined a special wing of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Association of Volunteers), the organisation to which Mahatma Gandhi's assassin belonged. The RSS now organises regular social meetings called IT-milans, where right-wing techies can "meet like-minded people and get a sense of participating in something bigger than just punching keyboards all day".

The modernisation of the RSS is certainly one of the more worrying trends in Indian religiosity, as is the organisation's increasing respectability in the eyes of the urban Indian middle class. For, like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements. Like its 1930s models, it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes (the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest). The idea is to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will bring about a revival of what the RSS sees as the lost Hindu golden age of national strength and purity.

The BJP, which governed India from 1999 until 2004, and is now the principal opposition party, was founded as the political wing of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both organisations. Though the BJP is certainly much more moderate and pragmatic than the RSS - like Likud in Israel, the BJP is a party that embraces a wide spectrum of right-wing opinion, ranging from mildly conservative free marketeers to raving ultra-nationalists - both organisations believe, as the centrepiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation and that the minorities may live in India only if they acknowledge this.

The most notable political manifestation of the increasing presence of religion in Indian life took place in the early 1990s as the Hindu right rose slowly to power, partly as a result of taking advantage of a long-running dispute over a small mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. The argument revolved around the question of whether Mir Baqi, a general of the Mughal emperor Babur (1483-1530), had built the mosque over a temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram.

Although there was no evidence to confirm the existence of the temple or even to identify the modern town of Ayodhya with its legendary predecessor, Hindu organisations began holding rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple. Finally, at a rally in December 1992, a crowd of 200,000 militants, whipped into a frenzy by inflammatory BJP statements, stormed the barricades. Shouting "Death to the Muslims!" they attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, like symbols of India's traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.

Over the next month, violent unrest swept India: mobs went on the rampage and Muslims were burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the street. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It was a measure of how polarised things had become in India that this violence played so well with the electorate. In 1991, the BJP had taken 113 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous ­election. In 1996 that proportion virtually doubled, and the BJP became the largest party. After the 1999 general election, with 179 seats, it was finally able to take the reins of power into its hands.

Since then, however, the BJP has lost two general elections, largely for economic reasons, and perhaps especially their neglect of India's farmers; the ability of the religious right to mobilise votes by exploiting communal religious grievances seems, thankfully, to have diminished. But as large-scale anti-Christian riots in Orissa last year showed, it doesn't take much to wake the sleeping dragon of communal conflict from its slumber, and Ayodhya remains an emotive and divisive issue. If religion is no longer a vote-winner for the BJP, it is largely because other parties have found more subtle ways to use its ever-growing power.

F or the growing politicisation of faith among the middle classes is only part of a much wider story. Behind the headlines, and beyond the political sphere, in the small towns and villages suspended between modernity and tradition, Indian religion is in a state of fascinating flux. Over the past couple of years, while researching Nine Lives, my book on local and folk beliefs in contemporary India, I have been very struck by how fast forms of traditional Indian devotion have been changing, even in the villages and backwaters, as India transforms itself at breakneck speed.

As is now well known, India is already on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third-largest economy in the world; the Indian economy is expected to overtake that of the United States by roughly 2050. Much has now been written about the way that India is moving forward to return the subcontinent to its historical place at the heart of global trade, but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected the diverse religious traditions of south Asia, and particularly the archaic and deeply embedded syncretic, pluralist folk traditions that continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

Though the west often likes to imagine the religions of the east as deep wells of ancient and unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself beyond recognition.

Certainly on my travels around India for Nine Lives, I found many worlds strangely colliding as the velocity of this process increases. In Jaipur, I spent time with Mohan Bhopa, an illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan who keeps alive a 4,000-line sacred epic that he, now virtually alone, still knows by heart. Living as a wandering bard and storyteller, he remembers the slokas of one of the great oral epics of Rajasthan praising the hero-god Papuji. Mohan told me, however, that his ancient recitative art is threatened by the lure of Bollywood and the Hindu epics shown on Indian TV, and he has had to adapt the old bardic tradition in order to survive.

The epic that Mohan recites contains a regional variant on the "national" Ramayana myth. In the main Ramayana tradition, the hero Lord Ram goes to Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, who has been captured by the demon king Ravana. In the Rajasthani version of the myth, the hero is Papuji, and he goes to Lanka, not to rescue a kidnapped spouse, but to rustle Ravana's camels. It is exactly these sorts of regional variants, and self-contained local cults, which are being lost and menaced by what the eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar calls the new "syndicated Hinduism".

As Thapar explains in a celebrated essay on the subject, Hinduism is different from other major world religions in that it has no founder and no founding text. Indeed, the idea that Hinduism constitutes a single system is a very recent idea, dating from the arrival of the British in Bengal in the 18th century. Used to western systems of faith, early colonial scholars organised many of the disparate, overlapping multiplicity of non-Abrahamic religious practices, cults, myths, festivals and rival deities that they encountered across south Asia into a new world religion that they described as "Hinduism".

Since the mid-19th century, Hindu reformers such as Vivekananda have taken this pro­cess forward, so that Hinduism has slowly become systemised into a relatively centralised nationalist ideology which now increasingly resembles the very different structures of the Semitic belief systems that its more extreme adherents tend to abhor. "The model," writes Thapar, "is in fact that of Islam and Christianity . . . worship is increasingly congregational and the introduction of sermons on the definition of a good Hindu and Hindu belief and behaviour [is] becoming common, and register[s] a distinct change from earlier practice."

According to Thapar, the speed of this homogenising process is now rising. "The emergence of a powerful middle class", she believes, has created a desire for a "uniform, monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements". This Hinduism masquerades as the revival of something ancient and traditional, but it is really "a new creation, created to support the claims of [Hindu] majoritarianism".

All over India, villages were once believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods who were said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life. They were worshipped and propitiated, as they knew the till and soil of the local fields and the sweet water of the wells, even the needs and thirsts of the cattle and the goats in the village. But increasingly in urban India, these small gods and goddesses are falling away and out of favour as faith becomes more centralised, and as local gods and goddesses give way to the national, hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Ram, a process that scholars call the "Rama-fication" of Hinduism. New deities are emerging, but carefully tailored for satisfying modern and middle-class needs, such as Santoshti Ma, who first reached national consciousness in the 1970s Bollywood film Jai Santoshti Ma. Also popular are other new deities such as Shani Maharaj, who neutralises the negative impact of the planet Saturn, and Aids Amma, who reputedly has the power to do away with HIV.

Ironically, there are strong parallels between the way this new Hinduism is standardising faith and what is happening in south Asian Islam - a religion Hindu nationalists routinely demonise. There, too, the local is tending to give way to the national as the cults of local Sufi saints - the warp and woof of popular Islam in India for centuries - lose ground to a more standardised, middle-class and textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the Wahhabis, Deobandis and Tablighis in their madrasas. Today, the great Sufi shrines of the region find themselves in a position much like that of the great cathedrals and saints' tombs of northern Europe 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation. As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans are on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals and the devotional superstitions of saints' shrines. As in Europe, they look to the text alone for authority, and recruit the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, which looks down on what it sees as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Where this process differs from 16th-century Europe is in the important role played by colonialism. Religiously conservative Hindus and Muslims alike suffered the humiliation of colonial subjugation, and had to watch as their faith was branded degraded and superstitious by the victorious colonisers and their missionaries. In both faiths, reform movements re-examined and reinvented their religions in reaction to the experience of failure and conquest; but while Hindu reformers tried to modernise their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults to become more like western Christianity, Muslim radicals opted instead to turn their backs on the west, and return to what they saw as the pure Islamic roots of their faith.

In the aftermath of the brutal massacres by the British following the Great Uprising of 1857, Muslim radicals left the ruins of Delhi and the demolished Mughal court, rejecting both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors and the ways of the west. Instead, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband that went back to Quranic basics and stripped out anything syncretic, Hindu or European from the curriculum. A hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern west has yet had to face. In the al-Qaeda training camps of Kandahar, Deobandi currents of thought received a noxious cross-fertilisation with ideas that emerged from two other intellectuals forced to rethink their faith in reaction to domination by the west: the fathers of the intellectual Egyptian jihad, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.

Understandably, while it is the Islamists' assaults on India and the west that have absorbed our press of late, it is sometimes forgotten that the Taliban are also at war with rival comprehensions of Islam. Last year, in a new front on this war, they dynamited the shrine of the 17th-century Pashtun poet-saint Rahman Baba at the foot of the Khyber Pass in the North-West Frontier. For centuries, his shrine was a place where musicians and poets had gathered; Rahman Baba's Sufi verses in Pashto had long made him the national poet of the Pathans. Some of the most magical evenings I have ever had in south Asia were spent in the garden of this shrine, under the palm trees, listening to the sublime singing of the Afghan Sufis.

Then, about ten years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the dargah (Sufi shrine). Soon its students took it upon themselves to halt what they saw as the un-Islamic practices of the shrine. On my last visit there, in 2003, I talked about the situation with the keeper of the shrine, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists regularly came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry, immorality and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," he said. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble."

“What sort of trouble?" I asked.

“They tell us that what we do is wrong. They tell women not to come at all, and to stay at home. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out - even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually they have stopped coming."

“How long has this being going on?"

“Before the Afghan war there was nothing like this," he replied. "But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda to stop visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching ishq [love]. Now this trouble happens more and more frequently."

The end came on 4 March 2009. A group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn and placed dynamite around the squin­ches of the dome. The shrine chamber was completely destroyed. The Taliban issued a press release blaming the shrine for opening its doors to women and allowing them to pray and seek healing there. Since then several other shrines in areas under Taliban control have been blown up or shut down, and one - that of Haji Sahib Turangzai, in the Mohmand region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - has been turned into a Taliban headquarters.

If the North-West Frontier is now dominated by the Wahhabis and their mad­rasas, in Sindh the Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of their saints and the old, mixed culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam. Here, 60 years after Partition and the expulsion of most of the Hindus of Pakistan into India, one of the Sajjada Nasheens, or hereditary tomb guardians of the great shrine of Sehwan, is still a Hindu, and it is he who performs the opening ritual at the annual Urs (death ceremony). Hindu holy men, pilgrims and officials still tend the shrine, replenishing the lamps and offering water to visiting pilgrims.

Many scholars believe that the Sufi fakirs of Sehwan Sharif model their dreadlocks, red robes and ecstatic dancing on those of Shaivite sadhus. For Sehwan was once the cult centre of a Shaivite sect called the Pashupatas, who believed in emulating the dance of Shiva as part of their rituals, and using this shamanistic dancing as a way of reaching union with God.

As elsewhere in south Asia, these local, composite and pluralistic traditions are under threat; but, as in India, the Sufis of Sindh are not going down without a fight. As one female Sufi devotee put it: "I sometimes feel that it is my duty to protect the Sufi saints, just as they have protected me. Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis and Tablighis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is shirk [heresy].

“Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet. Mullahs and Aza­zeel [Satan] are the same thing."

As the great saint Shah Abdul Latif wrote:

Why call yourself a scholar, o mullah?
You are lost in words.
You keep on speaking nonsense,
Then you worship yourself.
Despite seeing God with your own eyes,
You dive into the dirt.
We Sufis have taken the flesh from
the Holy Quran,
While you dogs are fighting with each other.
Always tearing each other apart,
For the privilege of gnawing at the bones.

William Dalrymple is the New Statesman's south Asia correspondent. His most recent book is "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India", published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile