Black History Month 2005 - Asians In Britain At National Theatre

By Shruti Ganapathy | 24 October 2005
shows a black and white photograph of a young Asian girl in traditional dress hand dancing

© Tim Smith.

Shortage of labour at the end of World War II brought a lot of Asians into Britain to rebuild the economy. Intending to stay as short-term migrants, these people however, later sent for their wives and children and became the first community settlers.

Asians in Britain, a photo-exhibition by Tim Smith currently showing at the Royal National Theatre until November 2 2005 explores this aspect of Asian settlement in Britain and how they have managed to become an integral part of British society and at the same time retained a lot of their ancient culture and tradition.

Speaking to UntoldLondon, Mr. Smith said: “The exhibition explores culture but also the universal thing which is about people and relations.”

The pictures displayed have been taken over the past 20 years, the oldest dating from 1983 - part of a street photography project done by Mr. Smith when he was still studying.

shows a black and white phtograph of a group of young Asian girls sat on a platform together

© Tim Smith.

Over the years, his involvement with various other projects documenting the changing nature of the steel industry in Sheffield or the textile mills in Bradford, Huddersfield and Manchester, where there was a sizeable Asian population, has added material to his collection.

He has also taken a lot of pictures as part of other projects, such as a Bollywood film photo-shoot, a friend's family wedding or photographing Salman Rushdie. As a result Mr. Smith has amassed a sizeable number of pictures of the Asian community and their ways of life. This latest project he says has enabled him to 'fill in the gaps' and compile something that is kind of representative.

The resulting exhibition is fascinating. Some of the pictures really go beyond the surface and stir an emotional chord in the onlooker.

A picture of an aged Muslim man offering his prayers to the souls of the departed was one that kept coming back to me. Another was that of a medal won by a family member for his services to the Queen in World War II.

Mr. Smith admitted his favourite of the lot is a picture of a Sikh man with his two sons. Rather a mundane family picture on the surface, this picture reminds people of something more - of the father and son relationship and of family. Simply, the picture says a lot more than words could ever have.

shows a black and white photograph of a Muslim father with his son praying in a temple

© Tim Smith.

There are a sizeable amount of wedding pictures in the exhibition as well. Mr. Smith believes them to be some sort of cliché. He finds weddings as an interesting thing to photograph and with his pictures he aims to reflect the subtle differences between the Asian Hindu, Sikh and Muslim wedding.

He also aims to portray the ways in which British Asian communities have retained ties with their traditional weddings inspite of having been here for most of their lifetimes.

The stories these pictures tell talk of the extraordinary change these communities have seen during their relatively short period in Britain.

Mr. Smith said: “A few years ago, people had their places of worship at home. Now they have massive places of worship like the Gurdwara in Southall.”

He reckons that just the presence of a building like that tells the story of how these cultures have managed to mingle into the British state of affairs without compromising on their unique identity.

The exhibition is complemented by a coffee-table book that recounts all the stories that one would have just seen on the walls of the National Theatre. The foreword, by Naseem Khan, is a rather personal feature that talks of the changes Birmingham has gone through since her father moved there in 1939.

The story in a strange way mirrors the wider changes that the Asian society in Britain has undergone since then.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Shruti Ganapathy is the 24 Hour Museum Untold London Student Journalist covering heritage and diversity stories in the capital.

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