As we dive halfway into the Indo-UK Year of Culture to commemorate the mighty occasion of India’s 70th year of Independence with an entire tapestry of planned cultural extravaganza, it may be a thought to examine the question of identity. Specifically the question of an Indian identity in the UK’s multi-ethnic melting pot. For many Indians in the UK, integration is a way of life – it enables them to work their way seamlessly into the system within an environment and culture they need to navigate daily, and defines who they are to a large degree. British culture has for decades had key important Indian props: the Indian whiz kid in school, the genial shopkeeper in the grocery store with the dried samosa and the imported cardamom and turmeric, the IT guys and the doctors, the salon lady, have all been pillars holding up the canopy for a robust British economy. These people have been and are the “enablers” of Britain and their identities are firmly rooted in a culture which really has accommodated multitudes, despite the legacy of an imperialist past.
British Indians represent the largest ethnic group in Britain (1.5 million people) and 3 of the top 6 languages spoken are Indian: Punjabi, Bengali and Gujarati. And of course the curry is Britain’s national dish! But it is only since the turn of this century that Indian culture has tightened its hold on the British skein and is now wholly par for course than “foreign”.
Indian music is unabashedly on television, on West End shows and radio jingles; contemporary British soaps mostly have a core Indian actor, bindis and henna tattoos are hip and seductive, Bollywood is big and our stars are sought after; London is a popular shooting locale for India’s mainstream cinema. Gidda and bhangra are the go-to music inBritish bars with a soul. Indian fashion is decidedly on the global catwalk with zardozi and brocade dotting award show ensembles.
Think deeply: hasn’t multicultural Britain allowed Indians to express our culture to the world in increasingly novel ways and in a wholly new idiom? And at the heart of this evolution of a unique identity distinct in its own way – neither wholly Indian and certainly not British – lies a spirit of fluid and seamless camaraderie. In a world often polarised by intolerance, it is time we acknowledge the India-UK partnership with big fat bonanza of a festival! The ethnic question may have largely been resolved by second/third generation Indians living in the UK, having not been saddled by the baggage of a wistful loneliness which was the plight of their immigrant parents or grandparents. But have the demons around the eternal, often romanticised and now “literary” anguish of the immigrant been laid to rest by those of us living outside the UK who are out of the realm of actually grappling with the question of identities and therefore quick to fall prey to passing judgement? An all-encompassing message to accentuate collaboration is perhaps an important strategy to remove an old malaise which still sometimes creeps up and which ought to be irrelevant in the modern context of a tightly wired world.