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20th Century Asian Britain in photographs

Updated Friday 21st February 2014

Fascinating and rare stories of Asians’ contribution to British society are brought to life in a series of rarely seen photographs collated by The Open University

Asians have been living in Britain for more than 400 years, yet this is rarely reflected in mainstream accounts of British history.

Now The Open University's Professor Susheila Nasta has brought together images and stories of the Asian contribution to British society in a captivating photographic history of Asian Britain.

She hopes these stories of individual lives will connect with the larger history of Asians in Britain, and "create a sense of heritage and being part of Britain that is often denied".

Her painstaking research in the British Library and other archives has unearthed many photos and stories which are being published for the first time.

Kumar Ranjitsinhji Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Courtesy of British Library Board Kumar Ranjitsinhji

Kumar Ranjitsinhji was the first Asian to play cricket for England. A Cambridge student, he played for Sussex and was selected for the England team in 1896.

Suffragettte Sophia Duleep Singh Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Courtesy of British Library Board Sophia Duleep Singh

Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of a Maharaja and god-daughter to Queen Victoria, was a high-profile suffragette activist, pictured selling copies of The Suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace in 1913.

The world wars

Over 1.4 million Indian troops participated in all the theatres of the First World War, with 138,000 fighting alongside British soldiers in the trenches of the Western Front. The war encouraged the British public to recognise the bravery and sacrifices of the Indian forces but also pointed to the sharp racial divisions and inequalities.

Wounded Indian soldiers at Brighton Pavilion, 1915 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Courtesy of British Library Board Brighton Pavilion, during the First World War

Wounded Indian soldiers were well cared for in special military hospitals like this one at Brighton Pavilion, which even had separate kitchens catering for Hindu, Moslem and Sikh diets. But such was the fear of racial mixing that the soldiers had to be escorted each time they ventured outside the hospital precincts.

2.5 million India troops fought in the Second World War. India’s global involvement helped ensure Britain’s contribution in defeating Hitler and the Axis powers.

Pilots selected by the Government of India to help the RAF overcome a shortage, 1942 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Courtesy of British Library Board Indian Pilots

Pilots selected by the Government of India joined the RAF to alleviate the shortage of British pilots following the Battle of Britain (1942)

On the home front, Asians contributed at all levels of society. Workers in the factories in Bradford, Leeds and Coventry produced essential wartime resources. In the area of civil defence, many Asian doctors, nurses and students worked for the India Ambulance Unit.

 Auxiliary Ambulance Volunteers take part in a gas mask drill, 1939 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Reg Speller/ Fox Photos/Getty Images Gas mask drill, 1939

These Auxiliary Ambulance Volunteers are taking part in a gas mask drill at their station in St Pancras, 1939.

About the book's author: Susheila Nasta

The cover of the Asian Britain book Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: by permission of The Westbourne Press Susheila Nasta is Professor of Modern Literature at The Open University, and is a critic and literary activist, editor and broadcaster. She is founding editor of the internationally distinguished literary magazine, Wasafiri, one of the first magazines to promote African, Caribbean and South Asian writing. She was awarded an MBE in the 2013 New Year Honours List for services to Black and Asian literature.

She initiated some of the first courses in the UK in the postcolonial literatures, and currently contributes to the OU modules A430 Post-Colonial Literatures in English: Readings and Interpretations, A215 Creative Writing, A300 Twentieth Century Literature: Texts and Debates; and the MA in English.

Also at the OU, she led a three-years Arts and Humanities Council research project on the Asian impact on British life called Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections.

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