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Culture and Festivals
South Asian life in England is not the same as life 'back home'. Life as an ethnic minority has its own unique character and migrants adapt their familiar ways to the host country. Deeply held faiths and identities do survive the journey to a new and sometimes hostile country but they are also changed by that journey. Both the migrant and the host community discovers what can be comfortably compromised and what cannot; for Sikhs the right to wear turbans at work was a defining moment; for Muslims, the bid to extend British blasphemy laws.
The generation of South Asian migrants who arrived after the Second World War are often surprised by how much the home land of their youth has changed in the years since they left. These memories were particularly significant between the 1950s and 1970s when phone calls and flights home were prohibitively expensive and racism at its most naked. When the thirst for familiar smells, sounds, faces was so acute, festivals, recitals, weddings and ceremonies were a welcome opportunity to re-create the feeling of 'home' intensely.
For the post-war generation of migrants, working long hours in factories and foundries, there was little spare time or cash available for leisure activities. Traditions were kept alive in the home through food, and within the community through religion. The Asian community established itself and with greater prosperity came distinctive expressions of culture in other fields.
The role of religion in defining South Asian communities cannot be ignored. Surveys suggest that South Asians seem to attach greater significance to religion than any other section of British society. However, the picture is far from uniform, with distinct differences emerging. While approximately three-quarters of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis consider religion to be very important, a much lower percentage, 43% of Hindus and 46% of Sikhs agree with the statement.
There are roughly 400,000 to 555,000 Hindus, 25,000 to 30,000 Jains , 1 to 1.5 million Muslims, 350,000 to 500,000 Sikhs and 5,000 to 10,000 Parsis.
There are also small communities of South Asian Christians including Catholic Goans. Although some groups, such as Sikhs, are likely to be almost exclusively of South Asian origin, British Islam is more diverse with non-South Asian followers.
Within all these religions are a spectrum of different beliefs and practices. Muslims are split along Sunni and Shia lines. However, there are further subdivisions even within these groups traditions, including the Barelvi and Deobandi schools and Sufi orders as well as unorthodox sects such as the Ahmadiyyas. Hindus are divided by caste, sect and regional traditions, including followers of Swaminaraya, Arya and Hare Krishna.
Parsis are a small but significant South Asian religious community in England. In 1861 the Society of Zoroastrians was founded with its Communal House in Kensington. The first Gurdwara was established in London in 1902. The first purpose-built mosque, the Shah Jehan Mosque, opened in Woking in 1889 and there are now approximately 1,500 mosques in Britain. The opening of the Swaminarayan temple in Neasden in 1995, the largest in Europe, marks a move towards a more public expression of Hindu devotion, although for many practising Hindus and Buddhists daily worship tends to be more located within the home. In March 2002 a Buddhist Temple run by Sri Lankans was opened; the fifth such temple in Greater London. Read the stories of famous Sri Lankan's, Mutu Coomaraswamy and Ananda Coomaraswamy who came to England.
The main religious festivals celebrated in Britain by South Asians are:
The flavours and smells of home were keenly missed by newly arrived South Asians abroad, so as soon as communities started to develop, specialist food shops and butchers were established.
British food has been enlivened by the introduction of South Asian flavours and ingredients both in restaurants and in the home. 'Curry' has become part of British cuisine and the uniquely British Asian hybrid, 'chicken tikka masala' has emerged as the most popular meal in Britain.
On Sundays, in those days, in the middle of this city of white people, many hundreds of our men gathered, walking and talking and mixing freely in front of the cinema. Whatever we liked we wore on this day, shalwar kameez, kurta, chaddar, turban, lungi, anything. Loudspeakers played our songs at full volume.
Emigre Journeys by Abdullah Hussein (Serpent's Tail, 2000, London)
By the late 1960s, South Asians had bought up to 2,000 cinema houses that were being closed down or demolished in places like Manchester, Gravesend and Glasgow, in order to show imported Hindi films.
According to Ajit Rai, the Indian Workers Association would rent a cinema every Sunday in Southall. It was an occasion to socialise with other Indians. Download and listen to his memories of these Sunday screenings and read the Indian Workers' Association application for an entertainment licence.. For South Asians who came from rural backgrounds, often with a poor grasp of English, English-language films had limited appeal and these occasions were embraced as social events and a chance to reconnect with 'home'.
Cinemas devoted exclusively to 'Bollywood' films have increased since the 1960s and remain a popular social venue for families. The availability of Hindi films led to high rates of video ownership among British South Asians and family gatherings often featured a screening of the latest imported release.
Special seasons at the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank have showcased the films of critically acclaimed Indian directors such as Satyajit Ray since the 1950s. And now both Bollywood films and features by British Asian writers and directors, such as East is East and Bend it like Beckham are screened in mainstream cinemas on general release.
Mainstream television was slower to reflect the lives of ordinary South Asians with few presenters or actors visible before the 1980s, and even fewer programmes based on lives of immigrants. The representations of Asians all too often fed into and promoted negative stereotypes in the national consciousness.
Possibly the worst of the 1970s 'comedies' about difference was Mind Your Language (BBC1, 1976), a series set in an English language class, which exploited every racist stereotype imaginable in an effort to turn a cheap laugh.
Black and White Media by Karen Alexander (1996, Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd.)
The satellite and cable boom in the 1990s, though, provided opportunities for channels dedicated to serving the South Asians all over the world. Just under half of Britain's South Asian population have access to satellite and cable television channels such as Zee TV, enabling them to keep in touch with news from the Indian subcontinent and follow the latest trends and fashions.
The first generation of settlers were already familiar with BBC World Service through its overseas Asian language programmes but in time local South Asian radio stations developed which attracted large audiences. The internet is proving a useful tool for connecting the South Asians all over the world and sites such as www.clickwalla.com have become very popular.
Once it was introduced to the Indian sub-continent by the local British colonists, Asians had to fight for the right to participate in this game classed a gentleman's sport. Now, in the 21st century, it is the number one sport in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These countries have produced some of the world's most talented players, and paved the way for other Asian countries like Bangladesh.
During the colonial era the cricketing prince, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, achieved phenomenal popularity in Britain and abroad. Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers have played county cricket in England and Asians have established a large number of cricket clubs in areas like West Yorkshire where many play in the Quaid-I Azam League. Yorkshire originally had a policy that players had to be born in the county but this rule was dissolved when Sachin Tendulkar played for the team in the 1990s. The real breakthrough was made when Indian-born Nasser Hussain became captain of the England cricket team.
Squash, badminton and hockey are also particularly popular national sports in Asia. British Asians are notably under-represented in professional football and critics argue that authorities have not tackled racism on the terraces. See this web-site on the subject of racism in football.
More than three-quarters of the people living in the world today have had their lives shaped by the experience of colonialism ... Literature offers one of the most important ways in which these new perceptions are expressed and it is in writing (by contemporary peoples), and through other arts such as painting, sculpture, music, and dance that the day-to-day realities experienced by colonized peoples have been most powerfully encoded and so profoundly influential.
The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (Routledge, London, 1989)
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was one of the first composers of Indian origin to make a mark on the world of English classical music. Composer, pianist and critic, he produced over 100 works between 1915 and 1984. Other Indian names in the field of classical music and opera include the harpist Shaila Kanga and Wasfi Kani, founder of the Pimlico Opera.
In the 1970s the west was introduced to Indian classical music through Ravi Shankar who collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin and was mentor to George Harrison of the Beatles. His older brother Uday Shankar, the renowned Indian classical dancer had performed in Britain in the first half of the 20th century.
A confident new generation of innovative British Asian dance music has evolved. Bands such as Fun^da^mental and Asian Dub Foundation marry popular success with politically conscious lyrics. Award-winning musicians Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney have received critical acclaim and crossed over into mainstream culture. Read more about Bhangra and other forms of British Asian music.
The tradition of Indian classical dance has been kept alive in Britain by organisations such as the National Association for South Asian Dance (AdiTi) and individuals like Vasu Pillai of Croydon.
"Sister India are one such example (of touring DJ sets with live musicians and dancers). Led by DJ Ritu, the band includes club and kathak dance, live percussion, string players and vocals. A product of the Asian club scene, Sister India have taken this aesthetic, in its particularly Asian and female form, to a range of national and international contexts, from Womad to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. "
From an article by Shiromi Pinto in Extradition, the South Asian Dance quarterly (Issue Summer 2000, published by AdiTi)
Theatre companies such as Tara Arts and Tamasha have sought to reach out to the established South Asian communities by staging an eclectic mix of updated classical South Asian drama and new plays. During the 1980s the Greater London Council was one of the main funders of British South Asian Arts organisations. Read more about British Asian theatre.
British Asian writers, such as Meera Syal and Hanif Kureishi have drawn on the rich tradition of authors like Rabindranath Tagore who wrote in English about India, to explore the post-colonial, migrant South Asian experience.
Infamously, in September 1988 The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published in England leading to a call by some muslim leaders for it to be banned and Rushdie to be prosecuted for slandering Islam.
"The writer in me had every sympathy for Salman Rushdie whose novel has been turned into a political football, whose life had been placed in jeopardy (a sacrifice no writer should have to make) whilst the human being in me could also see the deep hurt of the community to which I had belonged."
From In Search of a Talisman by Rukhsana Ahmed as re-printed in Voices of the Crossing (Serpents Tail, London 2000)
Creators: Dr. Shompa Lahiri, Satinder Chohan
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