Susheila Nasta MBE: Indians have added spice to British life for centuries

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People of Indian heritage now form Britain’s ­largest ethnic minority but ­surprisingly little is known about the diverse history of their settlement.

In Scotland alone, a country with rich bonds to the sub-continent, more than 33,000 people identify with an Indian heritage.

Launching in Edinburgh this ­September, a major new photographic exhibition offers some ­fascinating glimpses into this multi-layered ­history, highlighting its present-day significance.

As its title suggests, the exhibition aims to bring the historic and present-day contributions of Indians to Britain’s centre stage. It derives from a ten-year Open University project, which has revealed the extent to which Indians have made substantive contributions to all walks of British life: whether in fuelling the machine of empire, providing ­military forces in both World Wars, bolstering trade, participating in ­politics, cultural life, the arts or sport.

Markers of this history are embedded in the very body of the nation: ranging from usage of Indian words like ‘bungalow’ or ‘shampoo’, to our culinary tastes (even Queen Victoria had a penchant for chicken curry), to names of streets, textile designs and architecture.

We don’t think anything nowadays for instance of going out for an ‘Indian’ or having a daily ‘cuppa’. Curated to coincide with the 2017 Year of Indian-British Culture, it is ­appropriate that the first stop of the exhibition’s three-city tour will be in Edinburgh. Not only does Scotland have large South Asian communities today but its relationship with India over more than 400 years has been particularly marked.

Some of Britain’s earliest Indian ­settlers were lascar seamen, the name given to South Asians employed on European ships as sailors or militiamen. Working under difficult ­conditions some decided to jump ship to settle in British sea ports such as Glasgow, where they later took up alternative employment, setting up lodging houses and cafés, or working as pedlars and cooks.

Other Scottish cities had major ­connections with India as well. ­Dundee was the heart of the jute trade, a natural material used to make sandbags and rope among ­other things. By the early 20th ­century, Edinburgh was home to more than 200 Indian students seeking medical, agricultural, engineering and legal qualifications. The ­earliest image in the exhibition is a well-known portrait of Queen Victoria with Abdul ­Karim, her Indian attendant.

A staged photo, it was taken at the height of empire in the 1880s. This striking image may seem to reinforce notions of the imperial exotic as we imagine Victoria as Empress of India, seated alone with a handsome ­Muslim servant. We might be ­surprised however to find the location is a cottage on the Balmoral estate in Scotland.

Most significant perhaps, is the close friendship between the Queen and the Indian man from Agra, a relationship which cut across the rigid barriers of race and class. As many will already be aware, this intriguing story played out on British soil, has caught the imagination of director Stephen Frears, and the film Victoria and Abdul will be on general release with a star-studded cast this month.

This extraordinary story will ­certainly attract much attention but there are many others which may be suggestive: audiences may be intrigued by the 1925 image of Indian ayahs or nannies walking ­Glasgow’s Great Western Road in saris with their charges, or the powerful First World War image of Highlanders and Indian soldiers sitting side-by side in a trench.

The connections between Britain and India in this exhibition are, on the one hand, a story that can be told through famous historical personalities, but important, too, are the ­snapshots of the everyday, which focus our attention on the many ways in which Indians have shaped ­British life.

Any photographic selection can only touch the edge of a much bigger story, but it reveals a snapshot that resonates today.

India in Britain: At the Heart of a Nation is a free open-air exhibition that runs from 17 September to 1 October outside The Scottish National Gallery, The Mound Precinct, Edinburgh. For further information about this project and the curatorial research team, see: http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/asianbritain

Susheila Nasta MBE is Emeritus ­Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at The Open University.