Much before actor Shah Rukh Khan or “Shami Kaboor” (as actor Shammi Kapoor was called in the Gulf) took Bollywood to the world outside, there was Sabu. Sabu was India’s first international star after his debut in Sir Alexander Korda’s Elephant Boy(1937), and went on to get leading roles in British cinema, including The Drum, The Thief of Bagdad and Jungle Book.
A Taj Mahal-like building in Brighton, UK, called the Royal Pavilion, became a space for exhibitions of Indian handicrafts and food. Rumour has it that the building was a favourite of Adolf Hitler’s, which is why he never bombed Brighton!
A picture of Sabu atop an elephant and an advertisement for a British Empire exhibition at the Pavilion from 1924 are among the memorabilia on display at a forthcoming exhibition of facsimiles. Beyond the Frame: India in Britain 1858-1950, organized by the British Council, excavates the untold histories of Indians in Britain, and their work in shaping not just Indian, but British, history. Using reproductions of photographs, posters, diaries, pamphlets and other records stored in The British Library and the National Archives of India, the exhibition is part of a larger three-year project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. “Orthodox historical narratives examine Britain’s (well-documented) role in India, and the idea here is to swivel the lens and examine India’s role within Britain and trace the complex realities of both countries’ intertwined histories,” says project director Susheila Nasta.
“The diaspora is not a post-1950s’ phenomenon,” says Nasta. As early as 1887, several Indian servants arrived at Queen Victoria’s Balmoral Castle— among them was 24-year-old Abdul Karim. Karim, promoted as the Queen’s most trusted adviser, soon became quite a scandal in political circles because of his alleged relationship with the queen. Artist Jacob Epstein’s illustration of a woman from 1910-11, displayed at the exhibition, bears a striking resemblance to the sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark and Gwalior. Indian art had begun to have a powerful influence on British modern art after the UK-based art critic A.K. Coomaraswamy pointed out its aesthetic value over its archaeological value. In 1913, when the Suffragettes marched for their right to vote, an Indian princess, Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, was photographed selling copies of The Suffragette.
International aide: Mulk Raj Anand in London, circa 1930s. Courtesy Mulk Raj Anand Centre, New Delhi
During the inter-war years, Indian presence in British political and intellectual circles became even more apparent. London of the 1930s and 1940s was an exciting place with a rich group of intellectuals, like the elite Bloomsbury group consisting of literary giants Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. But the group wasn’t—as is popularly believed—entirely British. “The group was based in central London, and had plenty of young Indian scholars and intellectuals engaging with it. Among them was Mulk Raj Anand, who befriended and worked with these writers,” says Florian Stadtler, who collaborated with Nasta on the project.
In 1942, Anand was hired as a programme writer by the BBC at a time when it—headed by George Orwell—was looking to engage Indian intelligentsia in Britain to counter the anti-British broadcasts of Subhas Chandra Bose from Germany. An iconic image from Anand’s Voice, displayed at the exhibition, features Venu Chitale (assistant producer), J.M. Tambimuttu (Sri Lankan poet and editor of Poetry London), T.S. Eliot, Una Marson (poet and producer of Caribbean Voices), Anand, C. Pemberton (BBC staff), Narayana Menon, and George Orwell, Nancy Parratt (secretary to Orwell) and William Empson. The original caption lists the names of all those present in the frame, says Nasta in an article in Wasafiri magazine. When reprinted by The Times Literary Supplement in 2000, “in what was already the so-called historicist era of post-colonial studies”, the caption “wipes out all the colonials” and reads “among others—T.S. Eliot, George Orwell and William Empson”. The work of the “colonials” in Britain was already being taken out of historical meta-narratives.
Beyond the Frame: India in Britain 1858-1950 will run till 30 December at the National Archives of India, Delhi. It will travel to Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai through January and February.