More than 400 years of history tying together Britain and South Asia have been collated, curated and put on display at Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition organised by the Library of Birmingham and British Library in the UK. Connecting Stories is a part of Utsav, a celebration of the contribution South Asians have made to Birmingham.

The exhibition memorialises South Asia’s role in forming Britain, from the trade links to the migration, but also reveals dark narratives – such as South Asian ayahs or nannies brought to serve British families being ill treated, or seamen who were forced to sell tracts to earn their way back.

British Library curator Penny Brook who worked on creating Connecting Stories said: “This exhibition has told the story of Britain’s close connections with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It starts in the year 1600, when the East India Company was founded. This prompted close trade links with these three countries and influenced food, what we wear and our culture and language as well. We think this made us who we are as a nation today.”

Children of Sir John and Lady Login, their ayah and Indian playmate, c. 1846. Watercolour on ivory by an unknown Indian artist. Image courtesy of the British Library Board.
Children of Sir John and Lady Login, their ayah and Indian playmate, c. 1846. Watercolour on ivory by an unknown Indian artist. Image courtesy of the British Library Board.

Interlinked histories

Tea is one of those links. Animals are another.

“We found a story about a cheetah who was sent to the royal menagerie in London,” said Brook. “We have a 17th century map of the East Indies, the muslin material used in dresses that came from Bangladesh.”

To make history interesting, the exhibition chronicles individuals, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the social reformer, and Cornelia Sorabji, the first Indian woman to study law at a British University.

Sophia Duleep Singh The Suffragette, April 18, 1913. Image courtesy of the British Library Board.
Sophia Duleep Singh The Suffragette, April 18, 1913. Image courtesy of the British Library Board.

A rare 19th century board game reflecting Britain’s trading interests in Asia and elsewhere makes an appearance alongside pictures of South Asians who came to Britain. The first Indian man to play cricket for England, a suffragette princess and Sake Dean Mahomed, who set up the Hindoostanee Coffee House in London, are some of the figures chronicled.

“These brought together the most important collections in the country relating to South Asian people,” Brook added.

The India Office records of the East India Company used to be under the care of the Foreign Office in the UK. Since 1982 these have found home at the British Library. As a result, a letter by Gandhi pledging support to the British government for their efforts in the First World War in 1914, is one of the prized artefacts on display. A number of Indians in the UK, including Sarojini Naidu, signed the letter.

An image from the Dyche Collection. Credit: Library of Birmingham: MS 2912 1950 – c.1975
An image from the Dyche Collection. Credit: Library of Birmingham: MS 2912 1950 – c.1975

“It’s surprising as most people think of Gandhi as being against the British government in the fight for freedom,” said British Library curator John O’Brien who has worked on the project. “Here he is pledging his support and this challenges your preconceptions. Gandhi believed that after the First World War, the British government would respond by giving Indians more freedom. Their support to the government wasn’t appreciated and that affected Gandhi, strengthening his fight for freedom. The letter marks an important point in his political development.”

Tagore’s painting Zoomorphic Head, which was displayed in Birmingham in 1930 when he visited the city, has also been included in this exhibition. The exhibition coincides with India’s 70th year of independence.

Sake Dean Mahomed, traveller and businessman. Image courtesy of the British Library Board: T 12646
Sake Dean Mahomed, traveller and businessman. Image courtesy of the British Library Board: T 12646

Passage to Great Britain

Servants of the East India Company started coming to the UK in small numbers from the year 1600. Ayahs were among the first of them because they accompanied British families. Some were abandoned, others were mistreated. In the late 19th century, a home for ayahs was set up in London, so that they would have somewhere to go if they were dismissed.

From the 17th century onwards, an increasing number of Indian families as well as musicians, entertainers, traders, language teachers and seamen travelled to Britain.

An image from the Dyche Collection. Image credit: Library of Birmingham: MS 2912 1950 – c.1975
An image from the Dyche Collection. Image credit: Library of Birmingham: MS 2912 1950 – c.1975

“In the period after the partition of India, many of those who were displaced sought a home to England,” said O’Brien. “When South Asians were expelled from Kenya and Uganda in the 1970s, UK allowed people to come here. Post World War II there was a demand for labour, and yet more people settled all over the country. Birmingham became one of the most important hubs for South Asians.”

A poster for a daily exhibition at Langham Place, Regent Street, London, 1886. Image courtesy of the British Library Board: Evan.2591
A poster for a daily exhibition at Langham Place, Regent Street, London, 1886. Image courtesy of the British Library Board: Evan.2591

Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage is on display at the Library of Birmingham till November 4.