At 3.5 per cent, Britain's medley of immigrants - Africans, Asians, Caribbeans, Chinese, Cypriots, and other Europeans - is still a small proportion of the population. Yet despite the similarity of their problems, the ethnic minorities remain, only too often, split by hostility and suspicion. And for art to have meaning, it needs a community in which to grow. Even when the enthusiasm and commitment is there, the next step - putting on an event - adds to the cards stacked against the continued existence of 'ethnic arts': Britain's own established arts have particular ways of operating that are frequently at odds with the more informal arts from outside. Halls need to be booked well in advance and vacated at a precise hour - no good for spontaneous, freewheeling events. And applications for subsidies must be made in the correct form, to the correct person at the correct time. Yet the incredible is true. Each community has managed to develop some form of art - some large, colourful and public, others private and hardly known.
Thousands gather in London every August to join in a local version of Caribbean Carnival. Through streets festooned with flags and ribbons, packed with jostling people, wend the slowly crawling lorries with their resolute cargo of steel bands. Before them strut teams of 'masqueraders' dressed in magnificent costumes constructed in deep secrecy over the previous months - swans and animals, mythological heroes, African warriors. The air is full of heat and noise - of bells, horns, drums - and the smell of roti, patties, and curry goat.
Among the quieter, more private events, are the mushairas (evenings of Urdu poetry) and classical Indian music. There are plays in Gujerati, Hindi, Polish, Armenian, Greek, and Caribbean patois and dialects. There are evenings of Indian folk dance connected with Hindu religious festivals like Diwali, Navratri and Durga Puja. There are classes in African, Caribbean and Asian dance, and for instruments like sitar, tabla and harmonium.
Such events are not new. I remember in the 1940s, long before large-scale immigration began, a series of Indian cultural evenings in Birmingham. When I was born, the city contained - according to official figures - one hundred Indians. Nevertheless, week after week, we were ferried with other families to nondescript hired halls throughout the sprawling grimy city to functions organised by the indefatigible Indian Association. I still recall the feeling of embattled warmth - how the grownups seemed to acquire a quite different sense of authority and stature behind Association walls. And how they seemed to shrink when we emerged again into the dirty English streets.
This is one clue to the persistence of ethnic arts: today, just as in the days of my childhood in Birmingham, they serve to protect and strengthen the bonds of community. They express a familiar social order and values more acceptable - particularly in Asian terms - than the values of the permissive West.
This is their strength and their weakness. Traditional arts have a vigor and beauty that embody values both humane and profound. But perhaps the form in which they are often cast has only limited relevance today. How relevant is the mountain shepherds' courting dance to Polish city- dwellers whose nearest contact with a sheep is a lamb chop in the butcher's window? How can young people of Asian descent perform with any real conviction a harvest dance in towns where deep freezes and supermarkets have eradicated the significance of harvest?
In an attempt to escape from this contradiction, recent years have seen the emergence of a new form of ethnic arts. The new groups - like Steel an' Skin, Agor-Mmba, Tara Arts and the Black Theatre Co-operative - try to combine the new with the old and set traditional patterns in their new cultural context. Steel an' Skin and Agor-Mmba are basically African music groups. But their music goes beyond traditional West African rhythms encompassing both Caribbean and British influences, to produce a synthesis with instant validity for the present day. They work with their audiences rather than just performing for them. Steel an' Skin involve audiences in their dances; afterwards they teach drum-making, tie-and-dye printing and African hairstyles to demonstrate to black and white children that African cultural tradition is a vigorous one that demands their respect.
Tara Arts and the Black Theatre Cooperative would probably have little to say in Asia and the Caribbean - their countries of origin. Both act as a mouthpiece for their communities' experiences in Britain and talk, with precise humour and energy, of hypocrises within their own communities and racism outside them. Interestingly enough, their circuit of small venues and even the devices they use are very similar to those of mainstream community arts. The overlap is not incidental: a creative fusion is beginning to occur. Young people of Asian, Caribbean, and British backgrounds alike are discovering common causes to which their parents were blind. Asian Rock's songs about their peripheral minority status are in terms long familiar to West Indians; the MAAS Movers' performances are a blend of Afro jazz, ballet, and modern dance; the Cypriot theatre produces plays about small local sweat-shops in which so many of their communities work, and the way in which 'immigrants' are portrayed in the national media.
Not surprisingly, ethnic arts have been treated in an ambiguous, confused, and confusing way by their host society. When I started investigating this area in 1974, few local authorities or arts organisations supported ethnic arts' activity. Some even claimed that by not funding it they were taking a stand against ghettoisation and racism. As Professor Roy Fuller, poet and one-time member of the Arts Council in Britain, wrote in 1976: 'I feel that the encouragement of ethnic minority arts ... is socially divisive, likely to be politically slanted, and in the last analysis pointless, for the conditions which led to the rise of those arts are not and will not ever (one hopes!) be present in Britain.' One wonders whether he would have objected to the funding of brass bands in the north of England or of Scottish dance troops in Edinburgh for the same reasons. The fact is that people, whatever their background, have different cultural needs - and it is divisive to deny any group of people equal means to express themselves.
But some eyes have been opened, and the Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) established in 1976 now has a steady stream of requests for 'ethnic' performers. But they are seldom accorded the respect given to western artists and it is all too clear that a sizeable majority sill regard minority arts just as decorative exotica - mere window dressing for the 'multicultural society' - and often expect them to be performed for free. Perhaps its safer that way - to exclude, contain, and neutralise the threatening strangeness of such a powerful creative force.
1981 is a bad time for the arts in Britain: economic cutbacks have made a barren breeding ground for new ventures of any kind. But this is familiar territory for the ethnic arts. They have survived and quietly developed in decades of neglect without the benefit of subsidy. And they will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Naseem Khan is the author of 'The Arts Britain Ignored', published in 1974, and was the founder of the Minorities' Arts Advisory Service at 91 Mortimer Street, London W1. She works now as a freelance journalist writing about the arts.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7