BrAsians: Looking Beyond Culture Clash

By Aisha Mazhar.

The history of South Asian migration to Britain begins during the colonial period when India was a British colony; a trickle of South Asian students, sailors, governesses and housemaids settled in Britain. The most significant waves of South Asian migration were following the Second World War when Britain was faced with labour shortages; the partition of India and the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda. Today the South Asian diaspora inBritain represents over 3.9% of the population, amounting to just over 2.3million people according to the 2001 census.[1] Despite the historical lineage of the South Asian presence in Britain, the South Asian experience has often largely been overlooked or confined to the periphery of Britain’s national narrative. If the South Asian diaspora has been the subject of interest, it has been analysed through tropes such as ‘culture clash’ informed by categories of analysis which overwhelmingly focus on religion, culture and tradition. Diasporic identities according to cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, ‘are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference’. Despite the hybridity and adaptability of South Asian diasporic identities, they have been portrayed as static, steeped in values seen as distinctly ‘other’ in contrast to western,‘British values’. Through a variety of different cultural mediums, South Asians have rearticulated what it means to be British by accommodating, re-interpreting and fusing strands of various cultures, experience and identity. The director Pratibha Parmar, aptly stated in regard to the South Asian diaspora, ‘we have been changing the very heart of what constitutes Englishness by recoding it with our diasporic sensibilities’. [2]

Image credits: National Army Museum 

BrAsian; The term in some ways, captures the essence of Parmar’s articulation that the South Asian diaspora has ‘recoded’ Englishness in certain ways. BrAsian dispenses with categories which stress the nation or ethnic minority framings of identity. Both ‘British’ and ‘Asian’ are accommodated in the term but not left unaltered; they are fused to create something new altogether. The term ‘BrAsian’ was introduced in A Postcolonial People; an anthology which explores the multi-faceted experience of British South Asians.[3] The term also stresses the need to re-narrate the South Asian experience, not on the basis of national identity but with an understanding of the exchanges and nuanced experience that ‘BrAsian’ implies. Above all else, ‘BrAsian’ is a means of illustrating that identities can seldom be decomposed into neat categories; It demands looking beyond the notion of ‘culture clash’, which fails to account for the richness and multiplicity of British South Asian identities.

Credit: Peter Nicholls, Reuters 

One way of engaging with a more nuanced understanding of British South Asian identity, is to provide platforms for people to tell their own stories and experiences. Cultural mediums, such as art can be useful and effective modes of expression, which can capture the multifaceted nature of identity. A number of British South Asian artists have done just that. TheSingh Twin’s, are a British artist duo comprised of sisters, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, their work explores themes of identity and cultural prejudices amongst others.  Upon first glance, the Indian influences in the Singh Twin’s painting EnTWINed are most apparent; It is painted in the style of a traditional Mughal miniature and features important Indian historical figures such as Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sophia Duleep Singh. Yet upon further inspection, there are very clear British influences evident throughout the piece in the form of landmarks and cultural references. In fact, the painting itself is a reinterpretation of the Victorian painter, Nelson O’Neil’s paintingsEastward Ho (1857) and Home Again (1858). Eastward Ho depicts British soldiers boarding a ship bound forIndia to quell the ‘Indian mutiny’; Whilst, HomeAgain portrays the return of the soldiers having quelled the ‘mutiny’.  EnTWINED subverts O’Neil’s narrative of courageous British soldiers’ participating in supressing the rebellion of 1857; This time, the heroes are those who fought for Indian independence. The painting further features references to both historical and contemporary figures and motifs; the twins themselves are illustrated, wearing the Scottish tartan alongside shalwar kameez. Entwined is the artistic manifestation of BrAsian; synthesising both British and South Asian history and culture, to produce a nuanced piece which unsettles traditional narratives and celebrates the influence that SouthAsians have had on Britain.  The twins have asserted their ‘right to define our own culture and artistic individuality in a way that is meaningful and true to whom we are as British Asians’.[4] When British Asians are given the platform to tell their own stories, perhaps we will eschew reductive narratives which seek to posit a narrow and selective definition of what ‘integration’ and ‘British’ looks like. 


[1] http://www.movingpeoplechangingplaces.org/migration-histories/south-asians-making-britain.html

[2] E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze (Routledge, 1997), 20

[3] N. Ali, V.S. Kalra, S. Sayyid eds., A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, 2005

[4]  http://www.singhtwins.co.uk/INSPIRATION.html

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I RISE Magazine is an online platform dedicated to showcasing the stories, talents and trials of women of colour and non-binary people of colour in educational institutions. Our aim is to collectively represent, lead the way and inspire ourselves and future generations.

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