Royal Geographical Society's Archives Reveal Punjabi History

By Culture24 Staff Writer | 09 September 2008
An old black and white photograph of men dressed in Punjabi traditional dress

Courtesy Royal Geographic Society

Photographs of the Punjab taken by Royal Geographical Society (RGS) members during the late 19th and early 20th centuries go on show today (September 9) at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, London.

The exhibition, which runs until November, is called The Punjab: Moving Journeys and has been devised following consultation and workshops with different Punjabi community groups in the UK.

These groups included Cartwright Hall Young Ambassadors (Bradford), the Muslim Women’s Welfare Association (Ilford), the North Hertfordshire Sikh Education Council, the Satrangi Group (London), adults and elders from the UK Punjab Heritage Association and the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail.

The RGS images provide a glimpse of the Punjab province through the ages, capturing the changes brought on by different empires and the impact of internal and external migration.

To help interpret the pictures, the exhibition also makes use of travelogues collected and written by RGS members during the colonial period.

In addition to the RGS photographs and records, during October and November, Rashid Rana and Sophie Ernst will be displaying artwork that explores Partition. Short films under the heading Britain, India, Pakistan will also be shown throughout September.

While many of the images reflect the often brutal and chaotic history resulting from legacies of empire and imperialism, the quality of the photographs and the range of subject matter makes for broad appeal.

An old black and white photograph of two men dressed in PUnjabi traditional dress

Courtesy Royal Geographic Society

Dr Pippa Virdee, Fellow in South Asian History at De Montfort University in Leicester helped to develop the exhibition. She said: “The exhibition works on multiple levels providing something for children, those with a general interest in history and also those who may have some knowledge of the region. The RGS has worked extensively with community groups and they have woven this into the exhibition.”

The images record a wide range of events in the Punjab’s past and reflect the way these were linked to British history. For instance, during both World Wars, over 50 percent of the Indian Army was recruited from this region. Workshops held with Punjabi veterans of military service for Britain were consulted and their testimonies have been used to interpret this aspect of Punjabi history.

India and Pakistan’s stormy relationship is traced in images relating to 1947’s Partition when over 500,000 people died in the violent upheavels and the region saw 15 million people migrate.

Talks and events related to the exhibition, including school workshops aimed at Key Stages 2 and 3, are programmed during the run. Talks include, Ancient Traditions in a Modern World – The Spiritual Warriors of Punjab on September 17. This will focus on the the semi-nomadic lives of the Punjab's Nihang Singhs. Exploring the Society’s Collections with Irna Qureshi and Parminder Chada takes place on October 8. Both of these events begin at 6.30 pm.

It is hoped the exhibition will tour the country after its initial London run.

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