Seema Hari often gets messages asking her to “stop whining” about colourism since “it’s not a problem anymore”. What’s wrong if South Asians want to “make their skin light”, the Indian-origin activist is asked?

An exasperated Hari puts the question down to the “long history of human rights abuse and discrimination against dark-skinned people – especially in the South Asian diaspora community”. “Unless we start having these conversations around colourism and work towards amends, we’re going to be stuck in the same cycle where people are shamed for talking about dark skin,” she said.

Hari is a software engineer and leading South Asian activist against colourism who models part-time to showcase the beauty of dark skin. She was speaking on July 27 at a virtual panel discussion titled Colourism, the Sister of Racism as part of the first South Asian Heritage Month in the United Kingdom. The initiative, which ran from July 18 to August 17, was aimed at celebrating and commemorating South Asian history and culture and educating people about what it means to be South Asian in Britain today.

“We wanted people to talk about things they traditionally wouldn’t within South Asian circles,” said Jasvir Singh, the co-founder of South Asian Heritage Month, “such as the continued use of skin-lightening products, the emphasis on lighter skin in South Asian culture as well as LGBTQ+ and mental health issues.”

Nayantara Parpia explores the traditional classical Indian dance Kathak and demonstrates some basic moves as part of the South Asian History Month.

Binita Kane, the other co-founder of the project, agreed. “As a doctor, I see the huge unmet need for mental health awareness among the South Asian population,” Kane said. “We often aren’t equipped to understand the cultural issues that can feed into mental health.” A July 30 panel titled Heritage, Identity and Influence in Mental Health tackled just that. “We talked about the stigma around miscarriage, the specific issues women face and the relationship between faith and mental health.”

The story behind the project

The project first began taking shape in 2018. Singh, who lives in London, was looking for ways to take forward an existing initiative, the Grand Trunk Project, marking the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. Kane, who had recently returned to her home in Manchester from present-day Bangladesh, the place her ancestors fled in 1947 during Partition, wanted to raise awareness about South Asian history and its link to Britain.

“We wanted to make it about much more than Partition – not just the history – and actually celebrate South Asian heritage and culture through a number of ways,” explained Kane.

Singh grew up a stone’s throw away from Southall and was fully immersed in Punjabi culture and in tune with his British-Indian identity from a young age. But for Kane, the connection to her South Asian identity came much later. Born in Wales, she grew up in a predominantly white community. “I was one of the few Asians in my school and I just wanted to fit in,” she said. The negative rhetoric around immigrants in the UK, she said, made her want to dissociate with her immigrant identity and cling to the parts that made her a “young and proud British woman”.

Over the years Kane spent time educating herself about race, identity and history and came to the realisation that if stories of South Asian history and identity weren’t kept alive, they were in the danger of being lost.

‘Decontextualized’ understanding

People in the UK, said Singh, aren’t fully aware of the over 400-year-old link between Britain and South Asia that began with silk and spice trade. “We’ve always been seen as communities that are ‘well integrated’, that are British,” he said. “We’re not seen to have our unique identities as people of South Asian heritage. It’s almost a case that there are small pockets of understanding within Britain, but not a wider picture.”

Even the limited understanding of South Asian culture, from fashion to food, is always decontextualised. The paisley pattern – a teardrop-shaped motif with a curved upper end – for instance, is really popular in the UK. “Paisley is actually ambi design, which is well known in Indian textiles,” said Singh. “Even when it comes to food, people in Britain have an understanding of tandoori cuisine. But they don’t necessarily know about the wider Indian and culinary delights that exist.”

The South Asian Heritage Month aimed to help change that – and the response, the co-founder said, was overwhelming. Apart from South Asians around the world joining in to celebrate art, culture and history, the British community pitched in as well. One of the events was even hosted by white British people for white British people. “They wanted to embrace South Asian Heritage Month and acknowledged that they didn’t know much about diversity and wanted to learn more about it,” said Kane.

At the start of the session, which was aimed at school students, Kane conducted a straw poll to find out how many of them were aware that a little over 70 years ago, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one country. “Most of them didn’t even know that basic fact,” said Kane. “Why would they? No one taught them or spoken to them about it.”

The South Asian community itself tends to exist in silos. “We exist in our own individual pockets and we don’t necessarily mix,” said Singh. “These events gave us the opportunity to learn from each other and be a resource for others.”

A virtual celebration

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic requiring all events to be held virtually, Kane said the project had a real feel of a festival. While the initial plan was to do physical events in London and Manchester and then let the initiative grow organically, the virtual proceedings allowed them to reach a national audience.

“It’s definitely been a blessing,” said Singh. “To compare the about 15 events we were going to have physically versus the over 100 we’ve ended up doing virtually.” The only drawback was that the organisers weren’t able to raise funds. “But if we can achieve all of this without a single penny, I’m sure that next year when we’ve got a bit of money behind us, we can do something even bigger and better,” Singh added.

According to Kane, even though they covered some “thorny and difficult topics, it overall felt like a real celebration”. “I think that’s important because you don’t want to just always talk about the difficult things,” she said. “SAHM has given us a space to talk about the difficult things in a more positive environment.”