The Empress tells the story of the sixteen-year-old Rani Das, ayah (nursemaid) to an English family, who arrives at Tilbury docks after a long voyage from India. Writer Tanika Gupta tells us what inspired her to take a new perspective of India and its relationship with Britain.

Spanning a period of 13 years over the ‘Golden Era’ of Empire, this drama takes audiences from the rugged gangways of Tilbury docks to the grandeur of Queen Victoria’s Palace.

Tanika said: “The Empress for me, was a coming together of my interest in history, my parents story of immigration, the British Empire and the people who came here not just to make a better life for themselves, but from whose work we have gained so much.

“In my early twenties, I read a wonderful book by Rozina Vishram ‘Ayahs, Lascars and Princes, Indians in Britain 1700-1947’. I was fascinated by the book, the stories and photos within it and the alternative history of Indian immigration.

“Visram’s book had it all – but it was a history I had never read before, not even as a History undergraduate. As she writes in her introduction: 

It is often forgotten that Britain had an Indian community long before the second world war, and that the recent arrival of Asian people in Britain is part of the long history of contact between India and Britain. The arrival of Asians in Britain has taken place precisely because of these long-established connections.

She said she undertook her initial inspiration came from an old black and white photograph taken in an ayah’s home in Aldgate in the 19th century.

“The picture of a group of Asian women sat around a table sewing and reading, wearing saris and Victorian dress, intrigued me. What were these women all doing in East London at the turn of the last century?

“The picture and the stories in Visram’s book haunted me for many years until one day I told the then Artistic Director at the RSC, Michael Boyd, that I wanted to write a play about British Asians in nineteenth century London. He was up for it and happily commissioned me.”

The play begins in 1887, the year Queen Victoria celebrates her Golden Jubilee, and, for the first time.

Tanika said: “The experiences of immigration are echoed through the years and some of the characters in The Empress could almost be contemporary ones.

“Immigration is a controversial political topic in our own time and many of today’s issues and debates are the same as those in the past. At this very moment refugees arrive in boats, desperately trying to escape starvation, poverty, war and climate change; impoverished, homeless people are destitute on the city streets, racism and prejudice continues, but through it all, the indomitable spirit of people like Rani persists.”

Tanika is a descendent of the Indian revolutionary Dinesh Gupta, who fought against British rule in India.

She said: “My own parents travelled to the United Kingdom from the city of Calcutta in recently independent India (1947) in 1961 in their early twenties and myself and my younger brother were both born here.

“My parents thought they were coming to the golden world of Shelly, Keats, Byron and of course Shakespeare, but the reality was a lot harsher to begin with.  

“They were graduates from university and spoke English well but struggled for years facing poverty, racism, bad housing and exclusion from employment. They were proud Bengalis, who believed fiercely in giving their children a good education and my father in particular was a brilliant storyteller.

“I grew up hearing the stories of the epic Mahabharata, Ramayana, the history of India and the struggle from independence from British colonial rule, which his family were closely connected to.

“Through my father’s stories of the injustice of the British Raj in India, through the years, I also became very interested to learn more about British colonialism. It is a fact that at its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1920, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, and covered 24 percent of the Earth's total land area.  

Rani, played by Tanya Katyal, is an Ayah - Indian nannies who worked for English colonial families in India.

“They were more than babysitters – they were almost alternative mothers – spending most of their time caring for the children, and their wages were an eighth of the wages of an English nanny.

“By the 1850s, as travel became more regular, the number of Ayahs brought to Britain increased.

“Between 100 and 140 travelling Ayahs visited Britain every year but once in Britain, many Ayahs were dismissed without pay. They usually had no formal contract of employment and return passages agreed in India were not always honored. While awaiting employment with a family going to India, the Ayahs stayed in squalid lodging houses that charged high rent.”

Hari, played by Aaron Gill, is a Lascar who  first began to be employed in small numbers from the seventeenth century by the East India Company, which was set up by private merchants in 1600 by Royal Charter to establish trade links with India.

The term ‘Lascar’ became a term for almost all non-European sailors.

Tanika said: “Once in Britain Lascars had to wait, sometimes for months at a time during winter before they could get a return ship back to India.

“Shipping companies did not provide proper accommodation while they waited, and in the nineteenth century, distressed Lascars were often seen wandering the streets. The term ‘the black poor’ was first used to describe destitute Indian sailors waiting to go home.”

The Empress features a handful of real-life historical characters, such as Abdul Karim, who was ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria (by the Viceroy of India) to celebrate her Golden Jubilee in 1887.

Also featured is Dadabhai Naoroji, the first ever Indian MP, elected in 1892 in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Naoroji also mentored British-Indian law students such as a teenage Mohandas Gandhi (later the Mahatma) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (later the first Prime Minister of Pakistan).

The Empress first premiered at The Royal Shakespeare Company a decade ago in 2013 and was more relevant now.

Tanika added; “Unfortunately, the current British government’s obsession and war against immigrants means that positions have become even more entrenched and there seems to be a lack of knowledge, bordering on racism when it comes to this subject. ‘We are here, because you were there’ is one of my favourite ways of summing up the situation.

“I hope audiences will be thoroughly entertained and engaged by The Empress.

“It has a cracking story at the heart of the play of a bright, young Indian woman arriving on the shores of Britain in 1887 and trying to make her way through a bewildering cold and alien society – making many friends and falling in love along the way.

“This is Victorian Britain as you’ve never seen it before.”

The Empress is running at Swan Theatre util Friday 15 September 2023 before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London from Wednesday 4 October to Saturday 28 October. The production will then return to the Swan Theatre from Wednesday 1 November to Saturday 18 November 2023.