The Orient express

May 14, 2023

The newly opened South Asia Gallery in Manchester Museum offers a contemporary and captivating take on South Asian and British Asian cultures.

The Orient express


I have fond memories of seeing Stephen Frears’s 2017 British biographical historical drama Victoria and Abdul, based on the novel by Shrabani Basu. Abdul Karim, a young prison clerk from British India, is instructed to travel to Britain for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 to present her with a mohur. The gold coin has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India. The real-life friendship between the British monarch and Abdul Karim is shown in the movie. The royal court found the strong bond between Queen Victoria and her young Indian attendant scandalous and divisive. The family forced Karim out of the house the queen had given him when she passed away and deported him to India.

Many fantastic stories, spread over centuries, could be revisited, re-told and re-heard as many individuals and families from around the globe migrated to and from Britain and enriched its history. To pay homage to the people and promote inclusivity, the Manchester Museum has dedicated an engaging, modern perspective on South Asian and British Asian culture in collaboration with the British Museum in the form of a newly opened South Asia Gallery. The South Asian diaspora has welcomed this - Britain’s first permanent gallery dedicated to its experiences and contributions. The most significant South Asian collections in Manchester are now on show alongside top-notch items from the British Museum. The South Asia Gallery Collective - a dynamic group of South Asian diaspora community leaders, educators, artists, historians, journalists, scientists, musicians and students - collaborated on the design and construction of this multilingual gallery. The gallery’s design has six themes: Past and Present; Lived Environments; Innovation and Language; Sound, Music and Dance; British Asian; and Movement and Empire.

According to the 2021 census, more than 10 percent of the United Kingdom’s population in England and Wales identify themselves as Asian British. Initially, English commerce on the Indian subcontinent brought some people from India and Africa to England by sea as lascars, labourers or domestic workers. Over time, the South Asian migrants gained autonomy due to some brilliant human rights laws, allowing anyone to succeed with their ability and courage. Rishi Sunak, the current UK prime, claims Indian heritage and descent. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, belongs to a British Pakistani family who migrated to London around 1970. Humza Yousaf, recently elected as the first minister of Scotland, was born to first-generation immigrants from Pakistan.

Establishing a permanent South Asia Gallery focusing on personal stories in the form of archives — visual and oral history projects – has been a commendable effort on the part of Manchester Museum. Speaking at various platforms, Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum; Esme Ward, director of the Manchester Museum; and Nusrat Ahmed, curator of the South Asian Gallery, have been lucid in outlining their curatorial strategy. The exhibition has had around thirty co-curators and storytellers.

When we approached the Manchester Museum after parking our car not far from it, we were amazed to see the queues. Hundreds of people from all walks of life were waiting to enter the museum. Kudos to the museum staff who tirelessly managed the crowd. Once we approached the South Asia Gallery next to the Chinese Gallery on the first floor, a beautiful turquoise mural with various illustrations and images welcomed us. The wall’s title is Riches to Rags, Rags to Riches. It has been produced by the Singh Twins, globally recognised modern British painters also dubbed “the artistic face of Britain.” Their award-winning work examines significant social, political and cultural debates and challenges limiting Eurocentric conceptions of art, tradition and identity. Using three allegorical themes, the painting connects three eras of South Asian history. These are symbolic of pre-colonial India’s historical riches; the oppression and misery that the region underwent under British imperial expansion and control; and the contribution of the post-colonial South Asian diaspora to the enrichment of British life and culture.

Past helps us understand the present; it also shapes our future. For me, a student of arts and culture, revisiting the material culture from Indus Valley Civilisation was wonderful. The impact Mughals made on South East Asia, not just through never-seen-before embodiments of wealth - precious stones, metals and fine textiles - but also majestic architectural commissions, is still a wow factor in India and Pakistan.

Gender shaped South Asian politics, society and culture. It was great to see a particular focus on women of the Mughal Empire, including Nur Jehan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir, who had an enormous impact on Mughal arts and architecture. Nur Jahan was the only woman from the Mughal times to have coins issued in her name. Only during her reign were miniature artists commissioned by the royal court to paint portraits of notable women of the time. This section was co-curated by Yusuf Tai. One can’t fully comprehend the transition of artefacts from royal residences and archaeological sites to private collections and museums in Britain. These transactions redefine the surprising connections between local communities, global trade, industrialisation, colonial authority and the political struggle of South Asian people.

An interesting survey on display reveals that Gandhi had visited Darwen, Lancashire, in 1931. Gandhi had called for a boycott of British goods, particularly cotton textiles. During his visit to England, he was invited to Darwen by Lancashire mill owner Percy Davies to see the impact of the boycott on the mill workers who had lost employment. To everyone’s amazement, Gandhi was greeted with open arms by workers of Darwen, Blackburn and Bolton. An attention-grabbing poster designed in the 1920s by Keith Anderson, commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board to promote trade within the British Empire, shows Lancashire cloth being marketed to Indian customers. The British government spent £1 million yearly (£47.6 million today) to persuade customers worldwide to ‘Buy Empire’. This reminded me of the Watson Catalogues.

The Orient express

The Lived Environments segment discusses the history and shows that much of South Asia’s devastating account of exploitation can be linked to the British Empire. The East India Company’s farming and trade of indigo, opium, tea and cotton led to slavery and starvation for millions of South Asian people. The tight British control of cash crops across the subcontinent replaced more sustainable farming practices.

A quick and easy innovation involving whatever comes to hand is known as jugaar. Innovations were typically anchored in religious traditions, including cultures of caring, inventive means of resistance, commonplace inventions and ethical practices in South Asia before the British rule. A critical archive shows the farming of an indigo; the opium trade; Cooper tokens to buy tea from Manchester grocers; and the Brits’ cultivation of an American cotton plant in India – overall progress and production framed as lush and lucrative through the postcard series, photographs and illustrations. Dhaka muslin, a woven cotton fabric, has been described as Woven Air. For centuries, it was the most expensive and desirable fabric. Its declined when raw cotton was sold to British manufacturers. The weavers of Dhaka didn’t survive the shift.

We were amused to see a decorative and colourful cycle rickshaw – a type of hatchback tricycle designed to carry passengers, placed on a pedestal, most probably from Bangladesh. A dedicated Wunderkammer showed beautiful birds, butterflies and snails from Sri Lanka. A thought-provoking fact about the footprint on a sacred mountain in central Sri Lanka, commonly known as Adam’s Peak, is that it has many concurrent names and beliefs. Buddhists associate a footprint-like formation near the mountain summit with the Buddha. According to Tamil Hindu tradition, the footprint was made by Lord Shiva. In local Muslim and Christian narrative, this is where Adam first set foot on Earth after being exiled from the Garden of Eden. It is known locally as Butterfly Mountain, as countless butterflies throng to it between January and May.

Many of us were raised believing in the myth of the white male genius who achieved fundamental advances in mathematics, science and technology. The science and innovation unit demonstrates that South Asian minds had shaped our understanding of the world through their free thinking and countless inventions, from the technical innovations of the ancient Indus civilisation and mathematical developments discovered in Sanskrit texts to more contemporary advancements in theoretical physics, renewable energy and beyond. For instance, a baked brick from Mohenjo-Daro (Pakistan) shows that even in 2500-2000 BC, it was used to create flood-resistant urban living architecture. A hallmark of the Indus civilisation is evidenced by the remains of ancient buildings in sites such as the city of Harappa, where builders generally used a standard baked brick size with a 4:2:1 proportion. My mentor, Rashid Rana, frequently mentions an exciting spectacle: we in South Asia experience an interesting mix of moving vehicles on our roads while 5,000 years old, cart-on-wheels pulled by camels, bullocks, horses, donkeys and even humans and modern automobiles – a convenient mode of transportation developed in the last few centuries, co-exist.

Next, there was a homage to a few brilliant mathematicians like Srinivasa Ramanujan, who worked out infinity to the next level. Some pages on display contain mathematical formulae written by Ramanujan in the final year of his life. Satyendra Nath Bose is the fathers of quantum statistics. Bose-Einstein statistics has helped physicists understand the world of the ultra-small and the beginning of the universe. This work includes superconductivity, super-fluidity and the Higgs boson sub-atomic particle.

A mathematical text in Sanskrit found in Peshawar contains one of the earliest known uses of a zero symbol – a dot – that could be used like other numbers in calculations. According to the co-curator, numerous civilisations have used circular symbols to represent infinity since they have neither beginnings nor ends; throughout history. Later, this dot evolved into the zero sign used today. The binary language of 0s and 1s used to programme modern computer processors offers endless links and possibilities. Another dossier exhibited at the gallery recognises the legacy of Anna Mani, a gifted physicist and meteorologist who developed many ways to measure and understand the weather. She established meteorological stations around India to track solar radiation on the ground and developed India’s first Ozone Sonde, which analyses atmospheric ozone. These developments now assist physicists in comprehending the effects of solar energy on our planet. Saira Qureshi, a co-curator of this fragment, says that it’s been important to show more and more role models for women in the sciences, especially in South Asia.

I couldn’t resist looking at the gigantic projector screens where various forms of expression through sound, music and dance were played in a loop from everyday South Asian life in Britain. In the past, musicians were essential to the art of storytelling in South Asian royal courts and community settings. As a result, first-generation South Asian immigrants in Britain kept in touch with their cultural origins back home through records, recordings, the radio and performances. Young, second-generation British Asians found new outlets for self-expression in discos and raves. The identity of the global diaspora is now communicated through digital playlists, movies and live streaming, opening up new avenues for collaboration.

Most diaspora sound artists and musicians translate South Asian folklore and tales into universal anthems that stir emotions and may even be able to cure the body and spirit. Some adhere to traditions; others defy those to develop new forms of expression. For many British Asians, the different forms of sound, music and dance are essential links to their heritage, which go beyond language and borders. Amidst tablas, brass gongs and beaters, conch shell trumpets, cymbals and a demon mask, the most mundane object caught my attention. It was a CD placed in a glass cabinet that carried Lahore to Longsight, a debut album of a British Muslim musician Aziz Ibrahim. The title describes his family’s journey from Lahore, Pakistan, to Longsight (his birthplace) in inner-city Manchester, where he still lives. Ibrahim’s Desi GuitR method of guitar-playing led to his Asian Blues sound, reminiscent of classic South Asian instruments like the sitar and santoor. Ibrahim is also a co-curator of this segment in the portion and tells his story. As a South Asian, becoming a musician was fraught with prejudice. He was pejoratively called a mirasi (a north Indian performer frequently seen as having a low social rank). However, there is a long history also of mirasi musicians, singers and genealogists connected to the Mughal court. This record is an effort at self-expression. Ibrahim’s guitar allowed him to make noise, occupy space and defy prejudices at a time when he couldn’t be seen or heard.

The Orient express

A life-size mannequin lookalike wax statue of a kathak dancer could have been done better. Many other notable singers and musicians are mentioned using multimedia outlets, including Abdul Wahab, known as UK Apachi; Surinder Rattan, pioneer of a new genre, the UK Garage Bhangra; Metz N Trix, a rap duo who fused bhangra with Rap vocals, Vedic Roots from Southall and Daytimers from Bradford were all mentioned. Looking at the last framed set of images in this section, I first thought this was the advert for packaging the usual mix of spices; we regularly use in Desi cooking nowadays—it was a curated compilation of edits by DJ Manara, The Ultimate Spice Mix. An affinity for Desi music enhances the British-Pakistani DJ’s sets. She draws on the abundant power and pain harnessed by Hindi and Punjabi vocals. Another glass box on display is dedicated to Lata Mangeshkar, Muhammad Rafi, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen with their photographs, vinyl covers, illustrations and postage stamps. A still image from an iconic Bollywood film Pakeezah reminded me of some of its melodious soundtracks.

Being British Asian can represent numerous identities and a sense of belonging. This involves a variety of experiences, values and complex and varied adventures. British Asians frequently deal with terrible pasts due to colonialism’s consequences. By expressing alternative histories and rejecting assumptions of what it means to be a British Asian, an increasing number of individuals are embracing the ideas of decolonisation and claiming new space. The land of Britain has been challenging yet convivial for South Asian immigrants. This project will allow all its people to celebrate the range and richness of self-definitions to create a renewed sense of belonging. This includes recognising hidden and forgotten voices, including those of women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ communities. A soft board full of South Asian LGBTQ+ magazines, postcards, newspaper cuttings and community announcements, as British Asian LGBTQ+ organisations provide important advocacy, awareness and support, holding inclusive club nights as safe spaces for joy, solidarity and fundraising.

A massive oil painting by a multidisciplinary artist, Azraa Motala from Lancashire is hung on the wall next to the soft board. Motala combines South Asian imagery with the Western tradition of oil painting. She examines her identity as a young British South Asian Muslim woman while disentangling culturally inherited expectations through photography and painting as techniques of self-expression. She is wearing a red bridal dress with a headscarf, very casually sitting on a Victorian sofa chair. She also wears Nike sneakers and a black tracksuit with three white stripes synonymous with Adidas branding. In this work of art, the artist examines the clothing as a symbol of identity in a culture where South Asian Muslim women are frequently viewed as props in political arguments or depicted according to certain stereotypes.

Eight annas and Kacha Bacha (Urdu/ Hindi meaning half-baked kid) were taunts used often against Anglo-Indians during the British era (1858–1947) in India, signifying that they were of poor worth or ethnically demeaned. A dedicated exhibit at the gallery explains how the term “Anglo-Indian” was initially used to refer to British residents in India. It has now come to mean someone of European and Indian ancestry. Their existence is intimately related to South Asia’s colonial heritage, which dates back to the arrival in India of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498. The British did not view Anglo-Indians as social equals and the native populace did not accept them either. As a result, Anglo-Indians and their rich cultural legacy have been frequently overlooked. The East India Company announced in 1687 that it would provide one pagoda coin to every father of a kid of mixed origin on the day the child was baptised as an Anglican. Indian women bred the mixed-race population needed by the British to sustain their colonial endeavour. However, they used this financial inducement to ensure that the kids adopted their father’s religion and beliefs. Majid Sheikh, a Pakistani writer and journalist, mentions his memory of twelve (12) houses on Masson Road, Lahore, with Anglo-Indian people during his adolescence. His further had told him that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim reminded him of this. An important collage by Michelle Olivier, which focuses on those of mixed heritage, was also hung as a noticeable piece.

Separate glass cabinets showed displacement due to partition in 1947 through newspaper archives, photographs and other materials of paramount significance — in the movement and empire section. Everyone knows that migration, whether forced or voluntary, affects our identities and sense of place. Through their histories, possessions and movements, South Asian and British populations still feel the effects of the British Empire. We have witnessed or read about two World Wars, the fall of the British Empire, the emergence of contemporary nation states, and large-scale migration in the last century. All of that redefined identities and boundaries. Multiple posters on the wall told a tale of the recruitment campaigns of sepoys from the Punjab. At last, I observed an exciting mannequin sporting a World War I uniform that belonged to Subedar Mohammed Ali, the great-grandfather of journalist Talat Farooq Awan standing in a corner of the new South Asia Gallery, a reminder of the soldiers from Britain’s colonies who fought in Europe’s major 20th Century conflicts. It is crumpled, smudged and worn but otherwise well-preserved. On a trip to his father’s village in Pakistan, Awan came upon the outfit when his uncle took it out of an old trunk. Awan states that while Sikh contributions to the British war effort are much more well-known, it’s essential to bring to the forefront the stories of Muslim commissioned officers and their sacrifices for the cause at that time.

I conclude with a Birmingham-based visual artist, Faisal Hussain’s typographic work. It says, “We are here because you were there.”

The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

The Orient express