In the 1990s, the Ismaili Centre, London hosted two major theatrical productions: Conference of the Birds, based on the fable by celebrated Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar, and Island of Animals, adapted from the Epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safa, an encyclopaedic work by a group of 10th century Muslim intellectuals.
“Conference of the Birds was an opportunity for cross cultural collaboration, to work with a company of professional actors, to create a beautiful work of art and storytelling,” says Salima Bhatia, one of the performers. She recalls with pride how the Centre was transformed with lighting, sound and theatre seating, as stories from Muslim culture and heritage were shared with the wider community. “It was ground breaking – we had never done something like this before, and it opened up the Centre in a whole new way.”
But it wasn't the first time that the grounds of the Ismaili Centre had entertained thespian ambitions. In 1937, the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee acquired the island site upon which the Centre is presently built, for the purpose of constructing a National Theatre.
Situated at Cromwell Gardens in South Kensington, the parcel of land – which was described to be “shaped like a bay window” – had also been in danger of becoming a petrol station. “Are we to have petrol pumps on this site – within the shadows of the three Royal Colleges of Music, Science and Art, the National History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum?” a Kensington resident is reported to have asked in 1937.
The history of the site can be traced back even farther to the early 1860s, when John Spicer had designs on building “first-rate” houses on the site. His land and plans were curtailed somewhat by neighbouring residents, who secured the right to keep the eastern apex of Spicer's triangular plot free of building – it would eventually become a public garden. Nevertheless, by 1867 seven houses – dubbed Cromwell Gardens – were erected on the site, one of which was occupied by Spicer and his family.
By 1912, heavy traffic surrounding the property made the private residences unattractive. They were purchased by the Office of Works, with a proposal that they house a new Royal College of Art. That plan never materialised and in 1920 the houses were leased to the Institut Français, before being purchased for the National Theatre project.
The great British architect Sir Edward Lutyens and Cecil Masey were appointed to design the theatre building to be housed on the 16,000 square foot plot of land. A building committee was also established, and counted among its members the English actor and theatre director Sir Lewis Casson. Incidentally, it would be an architectural firm bearing his name and established by his nephew, Sir Hugh Casson, that would eventually design the Ismaili Centre.
The title deeds of the Cromwell Gardens were presented to the National Theatre Committee in 1938 by Bernard Shaw as part of a custom known as The Ceremony of the Twig and the Sod. In keeping with ancient tradition “a sod of Kensington earth and a twig from a Kensington tree” were given over with the deeds.
But the theatre was never to be built on the site. The Second World War broke out in 1939, delaying the project. In time, it was realised that the site was too small for the ambitions of a National Theatre, and in 1942 the land was exchanged by the National Theatre Committee in favour of a site on the South Bank of the Thames.
By the time Mawlana Hazar Imam had secured the land in the late 1970s for the establishment of the first Ismaili Centre in the Western world, it had become a derelict site, hosting a car-hire depot and a pre-fab office. Yet, according to journalist Christopher Long, the land between Thurloe Place and Cromwell Road was “arguably the most prominent and prestigious plot of development land in West London.”
Even after the Centre's Foundation Ceremony was performed by Lord Soames, the Lord President of the Council, in 1979, the site's development continued to face challenges. Construction involved digging six metres into the ground, and attracted the attention of the palaeontology department of the Natural History Museum down the road, whose scientists would conduct weekly site checks. An archaeological find of any sort would have brought construction to an abrupt halt. Fortunately, the only bone to be found was brought in by a worker, who had rolled it around in the dirt and used it to play a practical joke on the inspecting scientists!
A more serious matter was securing acceptance by the local residents for a Muslim community centre to be built on such a prime piece of London real estate. But from its inception, the Centre was conceived to foster greater understanding between peoples.
“When this Centre is completed,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Foundation Ceremony, “it will be, both by its presence and the function it fulfils, an important addition to the institutions of London, a source of pride to all who took part in its creation, and a pledge and token of understanding between East and West.”
Since its opening in April 1985, the Ismaili Centre has been fulfilling that pledge. Architecturally respectful of its surroundings while emanating a distinctly Islamic character, it reaches out to Londoners and invites them to contemplate a thinking and thoughtful Muslim community, one that is rich in history, culture and ideas, and has many stories to tell.
It is not the National Theatre, but the Ismaili Centre has become a place where stories are told – a stage for fostering an ever greater understanding between East and West.