BHARAT BRITAIN: SOUTH ASIANS MAKING BRITAIN, 1870–1950
13/14 September 2010, British Library Conference Centre, London
In what ways did South Asians impact on Britain’s cultural and political life between 1870 and 1950? To what extent did South Asian intellectuals and activists interact and exchange ideas with their British counterparts? What are the legacies of this early diasporic community?
This conference will explore the manifold ways in which the presence of South Asians in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries impacted on Britain and influenced the shaping of the nation. It will map out the various networks and affiliations South Asians and Britons formed across boundaries of ‘race’, ‘nation’ and ‘class’. These can be traced in different areas of cultural and political life, from the elitist literary and artistic circles of Bloomsbury where friendships were forged between poets and painters; to the anticolonial organisations which brought South Asian and British activists together in the lead up to Independence; to the battlefields of the two world wars where Indian sepoys and volunteers fought alongside Britain’s youth. Yet these interactions were also, at times, marked by hierarchies and dissent, with South Asians facing barriers in this chapter of their journey to negotiate the peripheries of Britain as well as its ‘centre’. Whether through riot, strike or petition, they struggled for their rights as imperial citizens, shifting ideas of ‘Britishness’ in the process.
Held in partnership with the British Library, the conference will address the ways in which South Asians – whether writers, politicians, students or lascars – positioned themselves in Britain during this period, and, in turn, how they were depicted by the British public and in British culture. Further, it will examine the significance of their activities and their influence on the cultural-political make-up of Britain, the ways in which their interventions challenged the national imaginary, and how debates about citizenship and Britishness during the period continue to resonate with contemporary preoccupations regarding Britain’s multi-ethnic identity.
Invited plenary speakers include: Humayun Ansari, Antoinette Burton, Chandani Lokugé, Nayantara Sahgal, Amartya Sen, A. Martin Wainwright, Rozina Visram, with more to be announced.
We welcome academics and practitioners from across the disciplines to excavate and examine the position, production and reception of this nascent South Asian diasporic community. Contributors are invited to consider the following – by no means exhaustive – questions:
How did South Asian writers, artists, intellectuals and travellers participate in re-imagining the nation in their work? In what ways did they help to shape debates around the nature of modernity?
In what ways did South Asian dancers, musicians and actors impact on British culture? Who were their audiences, and how were their performances received? Is there evidence of hybridized cultural forms dating from this period?
How were South Asians depicted in cultural, legal, state or media discourses? In what ways did ‘race’, class, gender or religion inform these depictions, and how did South Asians respond to or subvert them?
How did South Asians help shape Britain’s political culture? What modes and discourses of resistance did they use in their struggle for Indian independence? In what ways did they mobilize for equal rights and/or minority cultural rights?
How did South Asians – British subjects and citizens of empire – position themselves in Britain? In what ways did class and gender impact on their position? How did mixed-race subjects identify, and how were they perceived by mainstream British society?
Were religious identities prominent among South Asians during this period? In what circumstances did they come to the fore? Was religion practised in the public sphere, and if so, how did the British public respond to this?
What was the extent and nature of cross-cultural exchange and interaction among South Asian and British (as well as other minority) intellectuals, activists and workers? Were these exchanges shaped by hierarchies or conducted on an equal footing? Were they marked by collaboration or dissent?
What traces of the South Asian presence in Britain can be found in vernacular language sources? How did translations between English and other South Asian languages facilitate cross-cultural dialogue and the exchange of ideas?
In what ways did South Asians contribute to the two world wars? Did their role in the wars impact on their position within – or their perception of – the nation? Did it disturb the national imaginary – and if so, how was this disturbance managed?
How else did South Asians contribute to the ‘making of Britain’ – for example, through sport, science, education or cuisine; within the public sphere or the domestic sphere?
Which of their contributions have been silenced or ‘written out’ of the history of Britain, and why? What are the methodological issues and questions raised as we attempt to unearth their narratives and weave them back into the story of the nation?
How might this early presence of South Asians in Britain illuminate and/or disrupt contemporary understandings and theories of migration, diaspora or hybridity, for example?
This conference arises out of the 3-year AHRC-funded project ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’. Please see the project website for further details: www.open.ac.uk/arts/south-asians-making-britain
Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to Dr Florian Stadtler on firstname.lastname@example.org, with ‘MB conference’ in the subject line, by 30 September 2009.
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