The Empress

Tanika Gupta's new play explored the relationship between three characters - Queen Victoria, Abdul Karim her servant and Rani Das an Indian nanny.

The Empress was directed by Emma Rice, Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre. It played in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from 11 April to 4 May 2013.

The story of The Empress

Tanika Gupta's new play The Empress begins in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, when Rani Das and Abdul Karim step ashore onto London's Tilbury Docks after a long voyage from India.

Rani has to battle a society who deems her a second class citizen, while Abdul forges an entanglement with the ageing Queen who finds herself enchanted by stories of an India she rules but has never seen.

The play blends the true story of Queen Victoria's relationship with her servant and 'Munshi' (teacher) Abdul Karim, with the experiences of Indian ayahs who came to Britain during the 19th century.


Ankur Bahl - Gandhi
Dom Coyote - Singer/Lascar
Vincent Ebrahim - Dadabhai Naoroji
Beatie Edney - Queen Victoria
Rina Fatania - Firoza
Tamzin Griffin - Lascar Sally/Mary
Kristin Hutchinson - Lady Sarah
Japjit Kaur - Ayah/Singer
Tony Jayawardena - Abdul Karim
Emily Mytton - Georgina/Charlotte
Aki Omoshaybi - Serang
Ray Panthaki - Hari
Anneika Rose - Rani Das
Ed Woodall - Captain/Sir John Oakham/William


Director - Emma Rice
Designer - Lez Brotherston
Lighting - Malcolm Rippeth
Music - Stu Barker and Sheema Mukherjee
Sound - Jonathan Ruddick
Fights - Terry King 
Director of Puppetry - Sarah Wright
Video - Maxwell White
Bharatanatyam Choreography - Ankur Bahl
Company Movement - Emma Rice

Who was Abdul Karim?

Born in India in 1863, Abdul Karim was selected to be a servant to Queen Victoria. He was brought to England and presented to the Queen by the Viceroy of India.

He continued to serve the Queen throughout the final 15 years of her reign, quickly becoming a favourite of hers, which caused friction amongst her other attendants.

Karim began his career in the royal household by serving breakfast to the Queen, but was promoted to be her teacher or 'Munshi', teaching her Hindi.

What are ayahs? 

Ayahs were Indian nannies largely employed by English families living in India to care for their children. From as early as the 1700s, many accompanied their employers back to Britain for personal and financial reasons.

Various lodging houses in the East End of London were the only accommodation available to ayahs other than staying in their employers' homes. These lodging houses were generally disreputable, overcrowded and expensive.

The Ayahs' Home 

Ayahs were employed by individual families so there was no legally binding contract. This meant they were potentially open to exploitation and maltreatment. Though many employers did honour their agreement, instances of abandoned and destitute ayahs could be found begging on the streets and residing in poor houses.

To address this issue, the Ayahs' Home was set up in 1825 in Aldgate as a private charitable organisation.

Over the years, demand for lodgings increased, especially towards the end of the 19th century when the British Raj was at its peak and more families were travelling to and from India.

The London City Mission 

In 1901 the Home was relocated to larger premises in Hackney which could accommodate up to thirty ayahs at any one time and was funded by the London City Mission (LCM).

The LCM was a Christian missionary organisation that aimed to convert people to Christianity as well as generally assisting the poor and destitute across London.

The LCM was happy to fund the Ayahs' Home as it fulfilled its charitable and humanitarian mission, whilst providing opportunity to offer Christian guidance and instruction to the ayahs.

How the Ayahs' Home worked

Ayahs from various backgrounds; Singalese, Chinese, Japanese and Malay, stayed at the Ayahs' Home, although the majority were from the Indian sub-continent. They remained at the Home until they could arrange a return passage.

Ayahs who regularly travelled between Britain and India used it as a stopover between jobs, but occasionally destitute ayahs turned up in the middle of the night seeking refuge after being deceived and abandoned by their employers.

Travel to India was largely seasonal so an ayah could stay in the Home for months at a time, free of charge.

The Home helped ayahs return home by securing employment for them with families travelling to India, usually through newspaper adverts. Once a return journey had been secured, the ayah would be accompanied to the dock or railway station to ensure a safe passage home.

Over the years, the function and operation of the Ayahs' Home had evolved to such an extent that it was described as 'a sophisticated network equal to any modern-day employment agency' (Rozina Visram - Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History).

The Ayah's Home was hugely successful and it continued to provide refuge to vulnerable and often destitute women until the early 1940s. Its closure was a result of changes in society; increasing resistance towards the British Raj from natives in India, and the outbreak of the Second World War.

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