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'Stories To Tell': Celebrating and Honouring South Asian Heritage Month in UK

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

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South Asians
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“It's no longer about ‘if you’re Indian, then you like samosas and curries, or you listen to Bhangra music, or you watch Bollywood," affirms Jasvir Singh CBE, co-founder of South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM), which, since 2020, has recognised, marked and celebrated South Asian cultures, histories and communities in the UK. 

A nod to the immense impact Britain has had on South Asia, the month begins on the 18th of July: the date of the Indian Independence Act 1947 gaining royal assent from King George VI, and ends on the 17th of August: the date of the publishing of the Radcliffe Line establishing the borders between India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. 

Founded by Dr Binita Kane and Singh, SAHM incorporates both online and in-person events and workshops and, this year, has provided a toolkit to enable anyone to organise their event and advertise it on the SAHM website. 

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

Posters, cassette tapes and bangles are amongst many artefacts on display at the exhibition.

(Photo Credit: Hardish Virk)

The theme for 2023 is ‘Stories to Tell, inviting those of South Asian Heritage to share a story on any of a range of themes relating to their identity via their chosen medium to celebrate the community’s diversity and create a sense of unity and belonging. 
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Whilst the month celebrates a collective South Asian identity, Singh celebrates the diversity within that collectiveness.

“I feel like the way we've approached SAHM has allowed people to say, ‘Oh, I'm from a Maldivian background, my parents brought me up in East Africa, and I'm in the UK, but I'm still South Asian’. It talks about the stories of South Asian indentured labourers and their descendants in East Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. It’s the impact we've seen in Afghanistan over the last few years with the return of the Taliban. It’s the impact of climate change and the climate crisis. It’s the story of South Asia as a whole.”

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

Akademi dancers perform Pravaas on Drummond Street, London. 29th July 2023.

(Photo Credit: Akademi) 

Against an urban, concrete backdrop in London’s Euston, South Asian dancers trained in Kathak and Bharatnatyam perform a piece on the theme of climate migration of people from the Sundarbans. Meanwhile, within a 700-year-old Grade I listed building in Coventry, home to the oldest tapestry still in its original place in Britain, is a room filled with Kurtis, Bollywood vinyl sleeves, film posters, henna cones, bangles and a plethora of paraphernalia associated with being South Asian in the UK.

Whilst these moments, showcasing South Asian culture in spaces long associated with British history, are striking, they appear far less as juxtapositions when we consider the huge impact South Asia has on the UK, where roughly 7% of the population is of South Asian heritage.

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

Leading South Asian dance organisation Akademi held two slots at the festival, presenting the premiere of Pravaas, the performance piece exploring migration from the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, and a performance in collaboration with the Holborn Community Association (HCA).

(Photo Credit: Akademi) 

As part of the London Borough of Camden’s South Asian Heritage Month programme, the Regent’s Park Estate Community and Arts Festival ‘Regents Roots’ took place on Saturday, 29 July and featured performance, dance, circus, workshops, interactive art and food to celebrate its diverse community. Leading South Asian dance organisation Akademi held two slots at the festival, presenting the premiere of Pravaas, the performance piece exploring migration from the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, and a performance in collaboration with the Holborn Community Association (HCA).

Catherine Barlow, a 2nd year Art History student who grew up in nearby Islington, was struck by how the performances reminded her of the numerous peers of South Asian heritage she grew up alongside.

"I was always interested in how my Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi friends and their families celebrated their festivals in unique ways whilst I was growing up. I’ve always been fascinated by their cultures. To be honest, I didn’t know too much about South Asian performing art beyond Bollywood dancing, so the event was really eye-opening. I’m keen to find out more and would love to watch further performances or maybe even try a dance class.”
Catherine Barlow, Student

Kathak artist Jesal Patel has been working with members of the HCA as part of Akademi’s Dance Well project, which aims to aid the physical and mental well-being of older adults through the movement found in South Asian dance styles. At the festival, participants, accompanied by Patel, shared a series of co-devised short, vibrant pieces that explored Kathak, folk and contemporary South Asian dance forms.

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

Members of the HCA perform a Kathak-Flamenco piece at Regents Roots Festival. 29th July 2023.

(Photo Credit: Akademi) 

“All the participants are over 60, and I've been working with them on elements of storytelling and how a story can be told through hand gestures and movement. We have been working on two pieces. One is more of a flamenco-based Kathak piece. The other is a story that we have created to do with Radha and Krishna. There are two characters – a male and a female – and a very short story of them meeting and falling in love. We actually started working on the piece before, and it just happened to correlate with the actual event, so it has worked out perfectly!”

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It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

Patel believes that the events organised during SAHM provide an important platform for audiences to celebrate South Asian cultures, histories and communities.

(Photo Credit: Akademi) 

Patel believes that the events organised during SAHM provide an important platform for audiences to celebrate South Asian cultures, histories and communities. “The impact of these experiences leads to a greater appreciation for, recognition and understanding of South Asian identities in the UK, embracing both the past and present cultural landscapes. From arts to history, to fashion to cuisine, SAHM shines a light on the richness, influence and value of South Asian culture in the UK, inviting people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to learn and take part.”

The exhibition in Coventry’s St Mary’s Guildhall for SAHM explores South Asian culture and heritage and how it forms an important part of British history through fabric and textiles.

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

‘What We Wore: Stories of South Asian Textiles’ curator Hardish Virk.

(Photo Credit: Dav Kaur)

‘What We Wore: Stories of South Asian Textiles’ is curated by Hardish Virk, an artist and archivist, inspired by his ‘Stories That Made Us’, an archive featuring audio recordings and writings from the archive of his mother, the author, activist and radio broadcaster Jasvir Kang, as well as, a huge range of artefacts documenting the experiences of South Asians in Coventry and beyond. It includes selected artefacts from Virk's and Kang’s archives, pre-recorded audio of Kang’s poem, “My Mother’s Sari” in Punjabi, new artworks created in response to the archive as well as digital artworks by visual artists Tejal Gohil and Daya Bhatti.

An interactive living museum will be created, allowing the audience to engage with the exhibition via touch, sound and smell. Alongside the exhibition, a number of other events responding to the artefacts and works have been organised, including an upcycling workshop with Bhatti and talks with local cultural practitioner Mehru Fitter.

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

Record sleeves & magazines for the South Asian community on display at the exhibition.

(Photo Credit: Hardish Virk)

After being approached by St Mary's Guildhall about working on an exhibition about South Asian textiles for SAHM, Virk was eager to jump on board as it would allow him to talk not only of the diversity of South Asian textiles but their influence on music, film, fashion, literature and journalism whilst allowing part of his archives to be put in the public domain within a historically important space.

“The exhibition stands in its own right within that space. I have already had people telling me that they were overwhelmed by what they heard, what they smelled and what they saw in this historic space.”
Hardish Virk, Artist
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It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

The exhibition features numerous pieces of South Asian clothing. A statue of Coventry icon Lady Godiva sits between digital art by South Asian artists.

(Photo Credit: Hardish Virk)

With the exhibition, Virk aims to highlight just how long the South Asian community has been present in the UK and how they have been proactive in contributing towards every aspect of British life whilst laying the foundations for future generations of South Asians to recognise their parents’ and grandparents’ presence in Coventry. He also hopes to showcase the craft and personship behind the items and the exhibition and promote upcycling and recycling.

“There is a mass production and consumption of clothing and fashion around the world which puts a lot of toll on the people who make these garments in factories whilst also contributing to pollution. There is, therefore, a lot of emphasis on upcycling and recycling in the exhibitions.”

It runs from 18 July to 17 August each year. The co-founders of SAHM are Jasvir Singh and Dr Binita Kane.

A display at the exhibition showcasing South Asian textiles & artefacts.

(Photo Credit: Hardish Virk)

Reflecting on SAHM, co-founder Singh finds a fitting analogy for South Asia in the Kohinoor diamond. “You do not describe it as being Indian. It has to be described as being South Asian because it belonged at various stages to the Vijayanagara Empire in South India, to the Mughal Empire in Northern India, to the Durrani Empire in Afghanistan for a period of time before returning to India to the Sikh Empire and now being part of the British Crown Jewels. It's a story of South Asia’s connection to Britain itself. That diamond perhaps represents why South Asian heritage month exists today. Because of that story, the interconnectivity of South Asia and its relationship with Britain is closely intertwined, so much so that the history, culture and heritage of South Asia is actually part of the history, culture and identity of Britain today.”

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Though Singh is pleased about the reach and trajectory of the month over the past four years, his ultimate goal is for society to reach a point at which the month is no longer needed. 

“I always describe SAHM as a month which has an inbuilt obsolescence. I don't want it to exist, I  don't want it to be here, and I don't see why we need to have our history, heritage and identity limited to a single month. This month's work, however, really has an impact, and until such time as society has changed in the UK and elsewhere and we no longer need this month, this month will exist. I look at the Black History Month that's been in the UK for the last 36 years and is needed now more than ever. And sadly, I see South Asian Heritage Month taking a similar journey, but for however long it's needed, we will be here to ensure that it continues to grow more and more. And really, I want people engaging with it but then using it as an opportunity to engage with increasing their awareness of South Asian identity in Britain throughout the year. That's how I see it. I see it as a hook upon which to hang the cloak of South Asianness, and the goal is to make sure that the cloak of South Asianness goes far wider than that hook.”

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