This project is supported by: Heathrow Community Trust, Wellington Management UK Foundation, Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, and Cockayne

Introduction to Motherland by Project Director, Sabita Kumari-Dass

Heritage Focus

Our heritage focus is the cultural traditions, belief systems, folklore, songs, superstitions and stories of first generation Indian women who arrived to England in the 1960’s. These rites and customs were important in sustaining a collective memory around which the community was able to focus its cultural development, as they settled into their new lives in the UK. These traditions were passed on by women, mainly the elders who had learned it by rote, from their elders in the villages of the Punjab. This undocumented transmission of culture is important because, contained within its narrative are the early experiences and aspirations of the largest flow of Commonwealth immigrants to the UK. Their songs and stories became a vessel for Indian women to express their emotions, share their fears and ensure that they, and their families, stayed connected with their Indian traditions and values as they formed their new, fused, Asian British identity, and a community from which they grew their strength and became prominent in the post-war economic and cultural success of the United Kingdom.

We, the daughters and granddaughters of these women, feel it is important to identify, explain and publish this heritage because it captures a unique moment in time that has had far-reaching repercussions in the story of Indian settlement in the UK. Protégé’s team includes second-generation Asian women, and recently arrived migrant women for whom the themes of migration and displacement are directly relevant. Also, as skills practitioners we teach young people who are geographically displaced because they are refugees and migrants, but also emotionally/socially displaced because they have faced multiple disadvantage in their young lives.

This project aims to break down barriers to cultural inclusion and the notion that some heritage is better than other heritage. The activities will deliver heritage awareness and skills development in a sociable environment, enhancing cohesion, learning and attainment without being intimidating and ‘institutional’. The sentiments and stories explored in the singing workshops will enable disaffected young people to see their own marginalization from a different perspective, to share their vulnerability, fears and hopes and to widen their networks for their future personal growth and career progression.

Why this heritage is at risk

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BL immigration from india
Indian-Visitors-012 - 1935 General Photographic Agency Getty Images
From left- Sheela Banerjee’s mother Tripti, with her aunts Bhaiti and Apa on Sheerness beach, 1969. Photograph- courtesy of Sheela Banerjee
Glasgow-Nursemaids-001 - Paul Popper Getty Images
1958- Pritam Singh Sangha’s daughter, Guddi (left), and mother outside the family shop. Below- Pritam Singh Sangha - Panjabis of Southall project.
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Image credits: British Library / General Photographic Agency / Sheela Banjaree / Paul Popper / Punjabis of Southall Project

In the 1960’s when Indian women arrived in this country their lives remained largely hidden from public view. Behind closed doors their culture and traditions were fragile, struggling to remain relevant in the face of transition and trauma. However, over 60 years, and with regular ‘practice’ their customs survived.

Now, this culture is again fragile, threatened, firstly because the bearers of this heritage are themselves disappearing one by one from this world, and secondly because these cultural traditions have not been documented.

Few people realise that alongside Bhangra heritage there exists a women’s ‘equivalent’ called Boliyan – a folk tradition that is in danger of dying out with the generation of women who have kept it alive in this country (now in their 80’s and 90’s). One of the reasons for the elusiveness of Boliyan, (outside the Indian community), is that it was often performed behind closed doors, once the menfolk retired to the front room for cigarettes and whisky.

The improvised storytelling traditions of Boliyan often happened in a clandestine fashion and this has led to their invisibility in the public domain. The songs and couplets are rich in narrative depicting joys and sorrows; they talk about family feuds and land disputes, marital duties and wedding day rituals, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamics being oft-repeated themes. The songs are sometimes illustrated by hand and eye movements, a skillful visual shorthand to make suggestions about love, relationships, intimacy.

It’s important to address this accident of history because Boliyans reveal the more intimate stories and experiences of a generation of women whose voices have not been heard other than as women whose husbands achieved extraordinary success as entrepreneurs, doctors and more recently tech billionaires.

Boliyans often articulated the unspoken truths that while this generation of women were supposed to feel lucky about their new life in England – in reality it was cold, lonely, challenging, they were not always well supported by their menfolk, and their personal dreams and ambitions were set aside so their sons and husbands could fulfil theirs. The fullness of their migration stories deserve to be recorded with these truths spoken by the women who experienced the hopes, fears and displacement on their journey to becoming Asian British.

Supported by heritage experts who have lived and breathed this heritage, Young Historians will develop skills to create a project that is respectful to elders and responsive to the curiosity of youth. The content they create will be the first, contextualized collection to share the narrative of the internal, private world of the immigrant Indian women in their own words and language, as understood and expressed through their own traditions, superstitions, storytelling and songs.

The Asian archive that exists at Hounslow Libraries is miniscule relative to the borough’s Asian population. It consists of unrelated content added over time, and therefore difficult to construct accurate historical or social narrative from. It contains one small booklet written in 1993 by Hounslow librarian Neil Chippendale consisting of a handful of reminiscences with Indian men and women. The interviews were conducted in English, without any translation support, and it seems that much of the nuance was therefore lost. As an ‘outsider’ Chippendale himself acknowledges this did affect his access, as well as having an influence on the quality of his observations and report. The Hounslow archive also contains some interesting black and white photographs (uncredited) from the late 60’s, which are at risk of damage as they are not stored in sleeves, and have not been digitised.

Young Historians learn skills to document and make visible this heritage

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Ugandan Asians arrive at Stansted airport, October 1973. Photograph- E Hamilton West
Ugandan Asians arrive at Stansted airport in 1972 © Rex Features
Immigrants-At-Heathrow-003 - 1968 Evening Standard Getty Images
Ugandan asians getty images
My grandmother Vijayalakshmi Pillay on her arrival to Britain on the Union-Castle Line from Cape Town to Southampton, 1953. - Arran Parry-Davies
1920px-Aziaten_die_Oeganda_uitgewezen_zijn_op_Schiphol,_groep_Aziaten_na_aankomst,_Bestanddeelnr_926-0503 - Bert Verhoeff : Anefo
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Image credits: E. Hamilton West / Rex Features / Getty Images / Arran Parry-Davies / Bert Verhoeff | Anefo

In this project excluded young people, many of whom will be migrants and refugees, will train in heritage skills to become ‘Young Historians’ to document the disappearing cultural traditions of the Asian communities.

Supported by the Protégé team of artists and migration historian, Professor Dhillon, these young people will create their first heritage project. Their focus will be first generation Indian women who settled in London/Hounslow) in the 1960’s. The migration experiences of these women, and their unique legacy of silently embedding their Indian cultural traditions are not documented in any British archive.

Young Historians, supported by Protégé artists, will attend Oral History training and learn to arrange Reminiscence workshops at the British Library for Indian women elders who wish to share their cultural traditions, such as Boliyan (storytelling, folklore, songs) and Bhajans (devotional songs). They will document how these women kept their traditions alive and meaningful for the cultural identity of their children and grandchildren growing up negotiating their ‘Britishness’.

Through befriending and empathy, Young Historians, supported by heritage and media experts, will create a unique body of work to document this fading heritage, engaging the community of Hounslow and beyond. The project outputs will include:

  1. Monsoon Memories Exhibition at Watermans Arts Centre (Video Profiles, Photography  & Art) Launch Event
  2. British Library Exhibition & Event
  3. Digital Gallery/new website to make the project content and resources available beyond the physical life of the project
  4. Exhibition Book: Intergenerational Narratives
  5. Permanent Digital Archive / Adding to Hounslow Library Archive

Why Now?

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Indian-Film-Fans-004 - Southall 1980 Evening Standard Getty Images
Indian Workers Association election campaign in Southall, April 1968. Photograph- David Newell Smith:The Observer
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Image credits: Getty Images / David Newell Smith

This project needs to happen now because the women who have first hand experience of protecting and passing on this heritage of Indian cultural traditions, including Boliyan and Bhajans (folklore, songs, stories, devotional songs) are elderly and frail, and with each year that passes their ability to remember these oral traditions and participate in an intergenerational heritage project are at risk from their immobility and ageing.

This project presents an important opportunity for this heritage to be documented in these women elders own words, enriched by their memories so it can be brought to life in Video Profiles, and made accessible in digital formats, for the direct descendants of this heritage, and for wider audiences, academics, researchers and other communities of interest.

Currently this heritage is invisible in the local collections of Hounslow’s four libraries, and even in the UK’s national institutions like the British Library, it is not adequately documented.

Memories, Customs & Traditions – why are they relevant to young people today?

This project has been co-developed with excluded young people who are excluded from mainstream education and struggling to find their place in society. Having experienced exclusion from school they have become isolated from aspirational learning opportunities and somewhat predisposed to apply the lens of rejection to their interactions and experiences. Our cohort includes refugees and recent arrivals, and those with EBD/SEND certification (Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties/Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) who for different reasons feel disaffected and displaced.

These young people question their belonging to society, some struggle to understand what their personal heritage is and why it is valid, and how it fits into a broader sense of British heritage. We work with an extremely diverse group of young people – however, what they have in common is that they live in and around the borough of Hounslow. And so, as they negotiate their individuality and commonality and consider how they can belong and contribute to their community and economy, there is a need to develop creative, practical ways for them to engage with the relatively abstract, but important concept of their personal heritage and a shared heritage.

We have learned from previous inter-generational projects (with different cohorts) that learning alongside elderly people, sharing experiences, vulnerabilities and wisdom can remove the phobias of institutional learning and provide a more relaxed, nurturing learning environment for young people, some of whom have missed out on good parenting, or felt the absence of parents and grandparents to guide them.  Protégé’s own research and experience over ten years, and ongoing research by Professor Jaswinder Dhillon, University of Worcester and the Institute for Education, confirms that if these needs are not addressed, young people can become withdrawn and untrusting, under-attaining relative to their true potential, repeating negative behaviours that can spiral out of control.

Salem 16: “I arrived here as a refugee from Sierra Leone. I was good at Art and English but I struggled to fit in with other girls at my school. They bullied me on my Instagram and pushed me down the stairs at school. In the end I stopped going to school and finally I got permanently excluded. I feel rejected. I have no mother, aunt, grandmother here to talk to. I learned in school about the word ‘displaced’, I think that’s how I feel all the time. I have helped design this project because I would enjoy learning from older women. In my culture we respect old people, they’re so wise, they’ve survived so much change, they just know things. I could learn from their experiences about how to be less angry, make the most of my life here without losing my cultural identity”

James Marshall, Local Studies and Archives Manager at Feltham/Hounslow Library confirms there is no adequate archive in Hounslow reflecting the immense contribution of Indian women to the cultural and economic life of the borough. Hounslow has the 2nd largest Indian population in London (after Harrow) with 23% of this population now physically frail and fragile in their memory. Any work that seeks to provide an accurate historical/social survey of Hounslows heritage must take into account this segment of the population before it is too late. This needs to happen while they can still participate, recollect and play a part in shaping their own narrative to enrich the demographics and statistics that currently ‘represent’ them.

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Indian in Southall The Guardian, 14 September 1961
18 southall broadway circa 1977 - Punjabis of Southall Project 01
Market day in Wolverhampton, July 1958|© TopFoto
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Image credits: The Guardian / Punjabis of Southall Project / TopFoto

Project Partners

Professor Dhillon, Professor of Education and Migration Studies at the University of Worcester confirms this undocumented heritage is at risk of dying out with this generation of elderly Indian women. She has taught migrant women in community and adult education settings, trained teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and published interview-based research in international journals. She is passionate about documenting the realities, complexities and vulnerabilities of women and migrants as she shares a personal history of migration and has lived and worked in multi-ethnic, multicultural neighbourhoods all her life. Her interest and contribution to this project stems from two main reasons. Firstly, that the voices of first generation elderly migrant women from India remain largely undocumented and ‘silent’ in terms of their presence and contribution to the UK. Secondly, her personal experience as a second-generation Indian migrant who came to settle in the UK in the 1960s in a poor working class neighbourhood gives her cultural insights that would add depth to the interpretation of the life histories and family trajectories of migrant women from the Indian subcontinent (letter attached).

Alex Whitfield, Head of Learning at the British Library confirms this work would support the strategic ambitions of their ‘Everyone Engaged’ and ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ initiatives, by increasing the profile, diversity and reach of their learning activities, engaging and inspiring new audiences with their collections and developing new skills that support research and learning.

James Marshall, Local Studies and Archives Manager at Hounslow Libraries confirms this heritage is not adequately documented in the tiny collection at Feltham Library which was archived in 1992 and has not been updated. He confirms there is considerable interest in this subject from local schoolchildren, Asian families, researchers and media. They are not currently able to meet these needs, therefore, the collection would be well used, and demand for it is likely to increase in the future as the first generation of women who are the bearers of this heritage are no longer present to shape and share this narrative.

Jan Lennox, Director & Vikki Moorhouse, Head of Participation at Watermans Arts confirm the need for enjoyable heritage activities for groups that are under-served by public funding, both as audiences for heritage/cultural events, and as participants leading such projects. Watermans are providing generous in-kind support to increase impact and visibility borough-wide.

Young People have advised how we can make the project welcoming and accessible, and why the experiences of elderly migrants are relevant to themselves and other young people who are disaffected and/or displaced today. The fact that these elderly women managed to protect and practice their customs and traditions over so many years, even without a formal education, will resonate with young people who themselves are missing their schooling, adrift from their families and negotiating their cultural identity with questions about their belonging and acceptance. The cohort’s views have directly influenced our aim to make the activities sociable and non-institutional, but also suitably structured to deliver heritage learning, workplace skills and signposting to careers in heritage/culture/digital sectors.

Our consultation with Surya Didi, theologian/priestess confirm this project meets a need amongst elderly Indian women in Hounslow to see their existence and contribution validated both in experiential ways and in official collections and historical archive. This has informed our activity plan to ensure we design stimulating activities that empower elderly women to be active participants in creating this unique social history resource.

The stories we are on the brink of losing

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Jayaben Desai proclaims her defiance during the strike at the Grunwick film processing plant in Willesden, north-west London. Photograph- Graham Wood:Getty Images
Peter-Singh--002 - Swansea 1989 Terry Smith Time and Life Pictures Getty Image
Thatcher-In-Finchley-008 - 1983 John Downing Getty Images
Opening of Indian Workers' Association offices, 18 Featherstone Road, Southall, in 1962 (Courtesy of digital-works)
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Image credits: Graham Wood / Terry Smith / John Downing / Digital Works / Getty Images

Elderly Indian women have inspired and informed the development of our heritage focus. Brief case studies of three women follow:

Jagdish Kaur (aged 97) I had no idea what to expect when I came to this country. My children were small but we needed money so I had to work night shifts. My daughter left school early to work with me at Trebors sweets factory. I later worked at Smedleys and she studied evening classes and got a place at teacher training college. While she was there she met a black boy, Jamaican, and told us she liked him – you know, in ‘that way’. My husband slapped my daughters face and threw her out of our house. He refused to let her come back home ever again, not even to see me. I was heartbroken – this pain has remained with me since then and I have never recovered from the guilt of the rejection we forced on our daughter. Every weekend we would go to the Sikh gurudwara and we would sing kirtan songs giving thanks for all that we had, after all, we were the lucky ones who left the Punjab and found a new life here, with education and jobs for our children. But, while other women around me sang and clapped their hands in praise with the harmonium, I would cry for the cruel way in which we had turned our back on my daughter. My heart aches for the two grandchildren I have never been allowed to love. This continued into my recent life. When my husband passed on ten years ago I finally saw my daughter again. I could see that our rejection had taken her youth and inner peace away from her – it was like looking in a mirror of my own grief. Yes, I will try to sing the songs that other women sang with joy, but for me those songs, although beautiful, will always be bitter sweet.

Sarla Dutt (aged 92) arrived with her five sons in 1965. She became pregnant soon after arriving here but lost a daughter. She recalls songs and stories about her fears that her sons would marry outside their culture to ‘white girls’. ‘My sons were good-looking boys and all the English girls would wait outside our rented house. From our front room we could hear them talking about which of my sons they fancied the most – and then they would mimic and laugh at our Indian accent. I felt trapped in my own home. We used to watch Indian films like Purab aur Paschim (1970) which means ‘East and West’, it was a great film, it truly expressed our fears of losing your culture when you give up your motherland for a so-called better life in England. We used to gather together every Sunday – we’d start off singing devotional songs, but as soon as the men left for their whisky, it would become less ‘well-behaved’ and we sang films songs and folk songs. I loved those days and I really want those songs to be better known by my grandchildren because they are so important to our early life here. I can still sing, I have a good voice so I am happy to have it recorded by young people for this project.

Leela Sharma (aged 87) arrived in the UK in 1964. Her husband came three years earlier to work in a paper processing plant and find accommodation. Once settled he sent money for airfares for Leela who followed with their three sons, leaving a daughter behind in India who came later in 1974. Leela has a beautiful voice and sings songs that nobody else can remember the words to. She is happy to share these songs with Young Historians in this project

Migrant DNA

Through our research we are uncovering and sharing the stories of the children of migrants that have grown up in between cultures. These sons and daughters, despite displacement, have hard fought success. These are their stories.

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Nitin Sawhney Migrant DNA 2
Meera Syal Test
Angela Saini Test2
Ajaz Ahmed
MIA Migrant DNA
Gurinder Chadha Migrant DNA - corrected
Rishi Sunak Migrant DNA
Karan Bilimoria Migrant DNA
Madhur Jaffrey Migrant DNA
Asha Bhosle Migrant DNA 2
Surinder Arora Migrant DNA
Shabana Azmi Migrant DNA 2
Priyanka Chopra Migrant DNA
Lakshmi Mittal Migrant DNA
Lata Mangeshkar Migrant DNA
Akram Khan Migrant DNA
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Learn more about them by visiting the Migrant DNA section.