– project that I’m working focuses on the ways in which these are mobilised by South Asian communities living in the UK now with these complex relationships to the end of empire.
OK, so the research questions that inform the projects are what memories of Partition circulate within South Asian communities living in Loughborough and London, how are these memories communicated over time and space so we’re doing some work with people from back home, families and friends of people living in Tower Hamlets and Loughborough. How do social practices and processes of remembering partition inform the reconstruction and idea of community itself, as well as inter-communal identities, and what is the role that these memories in the articulation of a sense of identity and belonging in relation to labels such as British Asian, but also in relation to a sense of Britishness itself. So we were interested also in the emergence of national and subnational identity.
So the particular methodology that we’re using is a three-fold methodology which draws heavily on ethnographic methods. So we’re starting off and I’ll talk about the main project to start with. We’re starting off with community activities. The project is based on partnerships with existing community organisations.
So in Loughborough, we worked with an organisation called Equality Action, and in Tower Hamlets, we worked with the council. And using those two partners, we sort of migrate out into joining different community organisations, literary organisations, social clubs, religious organisations, those kinds of things, and work with these groups to develop community activities where people can articulate their memories.
So the idea is that these are code-designed activities. And to date, we’ve got a range. We’ve used film-based activities film screenings, sharing with the large groups, small groups, working with people to talk about those films and how they’re significant. And I’m going to use this as an example in a moment if I have time. We have storytelling workshops.
We’ve had photography workshops where some of our groups have photographed their local environments, talked about their memories of that local environment, brought in their own personal photograph collections, made exhibitions and shown them at the local mela and things like that. We’ve done timeline-based activities. So we’ve looked particularly at textiles and Indian fashions and the ways in which those have changed over time and used that as a basis for workshops.
We’ve done cooking sessions because food is so intimately connected to memory. Dance workshops and also animation workshops where people have been able to create photographs that they wish they’d had that they don’t have either ones that have gone missing or been lost, or fantasy photographs that they never had in the first place and animating those in various ways.
So these are all arts-based, largely, research. And we’re conceiving of this in the same way as Jones and Levy in a quite general sense that ‘any social research that adapts the tenets of the creative arts as a practice of the methodology, the arts may be used during data collection, analysis, interpretation and/or dissemination’. That’s how we’re interpreting art space research. So these are our creative methods.
And from these community activities, we’re obviously doing participant observation all the way through. Some of them involve recorded conversations as part of the activities themselves, but then these also move into more traditional ethnographic methods like interviewing. So pulling people out, asking them about it, and then getting them to reflect more autobiographically on their experience. And sometimes we do that in family groups or small groups as well depending on the activity and the people that we’re working with.
– like to do now because I think I’ve got enough time is just spend a bit of time talking about one case study or one strand of work that we’ve done through this project. Has anyone seen Viceroy’s House, the film? One, two, oh, a few. OK, that’s great.
OK, so one of the things that we did was run a film screening of Viceroy’s House. In fact, we didn’t run one film screening. We ran about eleven or twelve of these film screenings with different community groups across our two research sites. We showed the film and then provided food, got people to start talking about the film, their thoughts on it, how they felt about it, linking it into people’s own autobiographical experience. And then we also at the same time have done a textual analysis of the film, understanding how it operates.
Viceroy’s House is made by the filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, who is sort of a self-labelled British Asian filmmaker. Her career sort of emerged in that kind of Britpop/New Labour high point in the mid to late 90s. And she made this particular film, Viceroy’s House, that portrays events surrounding the partition of British India into Pakistan and India. And it’s an Upstairs, Downstairs take. So it’s actually very much like Downton Abbey in that regard.
So you get the sort of elite-level representations focusing on the Mountbattens, for example, and Nehru Jinnah Gandhi. And then you get the sort of downstairs perspective that looks at the servants in the viceroy’s house at this moment of high political drama.
So what did our respondents make of this? I’m going to try and sort of whip through this relatively quickly. We had a huge diversity of groups. We had Sikh groups, Hindu groups, Muslim groups, We had Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian groups, and people belonging to different generations as well. So we were trying to get as many different responses as we could.
But one of the most interesting findings was that all groups initially said that they enjoyed the film. I mean, our reading of this film is very much that it does reproduce a colonial nostalgic perspective, and this is deeply problematic. But in the first instance, everybody said there was something nice about this film. They liked it. It was a feelgood film.
And one of the most favourable readings were made by the older female group of Gujarati women that we spoke to. Participants in our Gujarati focus group picked up on the benign characterisations in the Mountbattens, who in the film, serve as the face of British colonialism. And they say they feel sorry for the viceroy, which was quite a surprising comment to us. You know, all they were trying to do is sort it out properly, but there were barriers in the way. He must’ve lived with that guilt all his life. Which kind of surprised us, you know. This kind of very generous, I would say, reading of the film.
They loved the beginning because of the unity between the different communal groups. In the beginning, everybody was equally discriminated against. And they compared this with living in the UK now, which they feel mirrors this communal harmony. And certainly this came from one of our midlands groups, who were very invested in the idea of a contemporary multicultural discourse.
The older Gujarati Hindu women in this focus group also interpreted Chadha’s British Asian perspective in the same way that Chadha herself describes her intention to present a balanced film that promotes understanding and reconciliation. You know, they agree that she was trying to portray all three major religious communities and she wasn’t trying to push her own particular religious perspective. So in this sense, the women interpreted it an attempt to be even-handed in the representation of the various groups involved in partition is bound up with a specifically British Asian perspective, that this was characteristic of being British Asian.
OK. Then later on in the conversation, the violence of the colonial enterprise emerged as the topic. I asked the women whether they thought the film should have focused more attention on this, there’s hardly any violence shown in the film at all either perpetrated by the British or inter-communal violence. They responded that they thought it shouldn’t, specifically drawing attention to the ways in which telling particular histories can impact on contemporary experiences and relationships.
And there was this focus on keeping it in the past. They didn’t want it intruding on the present. They wanted to move forward.
So at first glance, this appropriation of colonial nostalgia seems rather surprising in the sense that we hadn’t anticipated this idealised representation of colonialism and it being seen in a positive way by any of our South Asian communities in the UK.
‘When we’re looking at recent theorisations of nostalgia, there’s an increasing recognition that idealised pasts have the potential to actively stimulate progressive orientations to the present and future. Indeed, the women suggested it’s precisely these kinds of positive portrayals of the past in which nostalgic longing relies which afford these possibilities in relation to their contemporary experience.’ So you can see that they’re talking about needing to work together, that everybody’s human.
They creatively use the universalist discourses from the film to construct an imagined multicultural present and future in which differences are flattened out. They felt only the positive presentation of the past could achieve this. A more critical representation, which they were clearly aware could have been made, was actively rejected as potentially undermining this creative use. So they were using the film as a staging point for their articulating their desire for an experience of a somewhat idealised cosmopolitan social life in which inter-communal tensions are consigned to a past somewhat disconnected from the present.
Of course, it is also the case that Gujarat wasn’t partitioned and that many of these women came through East Africa. They had a very different relationship to empire and colonialism and partition itself. So they weren’t in India when it was partitioned, although they did have very deep familial connections at the time. But all of these women experienced expulsions from East Africa. And in interviews elsewhere, they drew on the direct parallels between their parents experience of partition and their subsequent expulsions from Zanzibar, Uganda, and other places.
The positive response to the film and the mobilisation of the nostalgic representations of empire in the interests of a multicultural future by this group are also at least in part explained by the fact that many of the participants had enjoyed a middle class lifestyle in East Africa before migrating to the UK. While various family members had been affected by partition, their relationship to the colonial administration was far more complicated.
The investment in a narrative of continuity from communal harmony under colonial rule to communal harmony in a former colonial power with partition violence as a discreetly bounded aberration served them well. As a sanitised depiction of empire, the film becomes a pedagogic tool in the interest of suppressing dissent and disunity in a contemporary context.
How am I doing for time? I’ll just give one other example from the focus groups before I pull it together. We had hugely different readings of the film from our Muslim focus groups, both Bengali Muslims and Indian Muslim groups Bangladeshi and Indian Muslim groups- in a contemporary context. And they read the film as deeply, deeply Islamophobic. ‘And their relationship to colonial nostalgia, as it’s configured in the film, is fundamentally different.’
In contrast to the Gujarati group, Bangladeshi and Indian Muslim groups were more complex. They also said that they like the film, it was light-hearted, there was a romance, it was nice, you know, all the rest of it. But underneath that, as conversations emerged, they vehemently rejected the film as balanced, this idea of that balanced. And there was a group of Pakistani Muslims in particular in their late 20s and 30s who felt that the film presented Muslim characters in an overly negative light.
And this is contested in the critical literature on Viceroy’s House as a film. You know, one of the particular things that she says is, ‘It doesn’t surprise me; I’m used to it now. You know, forget Hollywood in the history books. It’s in what we read in the media and everywhere. But it still disappoints me. It disappoints me because we’re meant to be the enlightened part of the world. We’re meant to be no, but it’s true, were meant to be impartial, and we say so many things, yet we’re not.’
There’s this idea that in the UK, this shouldn’t happen because we claim this status of impartiality that Chadha herself is claiming in positioning herself as British Asian. And they feel that that claim is not made good. ‘So the accusation of insincerity is directed at Chadha for clearly not stating that she was making a film from an Indian perspective and instead claimed to provide a British Asian take on partition.’
When asked what perspective the film did provide, they specifically said Hindu and British. This criticism conflates being anti-Muslim with anti-Pakistani and results in the most oppositional reading of the film that was made across all of the groups.
The Indian Muslim group also perceived the same anti-Muslim tendencies within the film, but perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, were more circumscribed in their assessment, saying there were times during the film that it seemed maybe that the Muslim men were more angry and causing the problems. And we felt that, oh no, not the Muslims again.
You know, there was this feeling of having to kind of not be too aggressive in the rejection of the film. But they were unwilling to criticise Chadha personally for this. They insisted that the film was still good, and one participant said that Chadha was just making the film from her own perspective and background and she shouldn’t be blamed for that.
As British Indian Muslims, their own sense of occupying competing sociocultural positions is keenly felt, and may to some degree explain a reticence to criticise Chadha’s own attempt to navigate such a challenge. The universalising discourses that underpin colonial nostalgia in the film were again interpreted from the contemporary reality of the women’s social and cultural experience. As Muslim women, this group are more structurally marginalised and politicised in the UK than the Gujarati women, and they read this marginalisation in the film rather than focusing on the universalist frames that it employs.
The British Indian perspective is presented in and around Viceroy’s House, which flattens out differences between various communities implicated in partition. It’s clearly not so easily inhabited for these women.