Upasthi - A History Of Asians In Harrow

By Helen Samuels | 06 November 2006
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photo shows nineteenth century indian youth in Harrow uniform

Jawaharlal Nehru, the future Prime Minister of India during his time as a schoolboy at Harrow.

Harrow Museum and Heritage Centre at Headstone Manor is hosting a collaborative exhibition, Upasthi – Asian Presence and the Harrow Connection running from 12 October to 12 November 2006.

Helen Samuels went to see the four concurrent projects: The Harrow Asian Archive Project, the Sangat Centre’s The History of Asians in Harrow, Liverpool Museum’s Indian Presence in Liverpool and From Soho Road to the Punjab from Punch Records in Birmingham.

The ongoing archive project aims to encourage a more active dialogue between the Museum and Heritage Centre and Harrow’s Asian community. “The collections and public archives have been unrepresentative of this community in the past, and we want to promote an awareness that Harrow Museum belongs to them as much as anyone else,” explains Mary Hesling, the curator.

Harrow is one of the most ethnically diverse districts in London, and more than half of England’s 290,000-strong Hindu population live in and around the area. The “Goodwill to All” pub en route from the station to the Heritage Centre gives an upbeat message of cultural integration, its sign depicting a multi-racial trio of arms toasting each other’s health. If this is an accurate reflection of the current status quo, immigrants to Harrow have certainly not always been greeted with such welcoming sentiments.

Material on display from the Sangat Centre sets the scene for the influx of Asian settlers arriving in the area from the sixties onwards – many of them forcibly expelled from Uganda, Kenya and Malawi. Oswald Mosley, MP for Harrow in 1918 and founder of the British Union of Fascists, promoted the resettlement of these immigrants in the 1960s, and in a similar vein the Harrow Conservative Association condemned the government’s acceptance of the refugees. A less inviting political climate is hard to imagine.

However, statistics from the archive show the sharp increase of registered Asian voters in Harrow at this time, the figure jumping from 42 in 1960 to 1,040 in 1970 and climbing steadily to 30,382 in 1994. These figures are perhaps better appreciated in the context of the Asian community’s struggle to embrace its potential political leverage. “Mr Anthony Grant’s majority at the 1974 elections was 2,068 – the number of Asian voters in his constituency is well over 3,000,” Kanti Nagda, founder of the Anglo Indian Circle, points out in a 1979 news article.

photo shows hindu temple neasden

The Hindu temple in Harrow

Much of the Sangat Centre’s material testifies to the misunderstanding, hostility and suspicion entailed in the cultural confrontations arising from immigration. “Patients’ lives could be at risk,” claims a spokesman for Northwick Park Hospital in a 1986 piece, voicing fears that the planned Shri Swaminarayan temple could generate unacceptable levels of local traffic congestion.

The spectacular Hindu temple finally opened in 1995 in defiance of many such reservations.

This triumph, and stories of equally successful endeavours on the part of the Asian community to carve out its own niche, provide the exhibition with an uplifting counter-narrative. From the first ever celebration of the festival of Navratri in England at the Wealdstone Labour Hall in 1970, and the 1982 election of Harrow’s first Asian councillor, to the conversion of Warren House in Wood Lane into an Islamic Centre for the Khoja Shia Muslim community in 1987, there is significant documentary evidence of a steady and determined movement towards tolerant coexistence.

The eye-catching saris, jewellery and handmade wedding decorations on display offset the deep-rooted sense of Englishness evoked by the Tudor tithe barn surroundings of the Heritage Centre, as do as the colourful Bhangra-themed banners constituting the Soho Road to the Punjab part of the show, and the Indian Presence in Liverpool banners, which illustrate in text and photography the journeys of individual families from the sub-continent to new homes and lives in that city.

This informative and thought-provoking exhibition should appeal to anyone with an interest in the rich, complex and sometimes divisive interactions between disparate cultures that typify British history and inform so much of our contemporary socio-political scene.

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