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2017: the year South Asian culture finally gets celebrated?

In a post-Brexit, post-Trump landscape, South Asians across the UK are starting to embrace their heritage and duality in an unprecedented way

It might seem unremarkable to you that a load of your brown mates have celebrated Diwali this weekend, but for most second and third-generation South Asian immigrants, identity is a nuanced thing. Celebrating cultural differences can be a bit unwieldy when there’s a perpetual balancing act between accepting the customs and traditions of your family’s world, while simultaneously wanting to blend, unnoticed, into the local culture. The latter has often overtaken the former since “immigrant” became a dirty word and brownness became synonymous with “terrorist”. Seeming “normal” by white standards became increasingly important to a generation. In 2017, however, this is starting to change: in a post-Brexit, post-Trump landscape in which racism is becoming increasingly rife, South Asians across the UK are starting to embrace their heritage and duality in an unprecedented way, be it through social media, zines, art, or even LGBT nights.  

Obviously, there is no singular South Asian diaspora experience in any given country, but many aspects of British Asian experiences have gone undocumented for a long time, in spite of their uniqueness (the stories of daytimer raves because the girls couldn’t go out at night are the stuff of quiet club legend). You might dispute this invisibility – maybe you’ve seen Diwali celebrations took place in your local park this weekend, or you remember growing-up with seminal TV shows like Goodness Gracious Me, and films like East Is East. That Riz Ahmed, the coolest brown guy on the planet, has just won an Emmy seems emblematic of some successful progression of representation among this ethnicity group.

But it’s telling that Ahmed’s success had to come in the United States, where Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling have also broken through in the past few years, with shows in which their ethnicity is both incidental and integral to who they are.

In the UK, our screens and zines historically haven’t been showing these kinds of people: mainstream brown identity gets reduced to stereotypes, or is plain non-existent. The narrative largely remains of the double lives seen in Bend It Like Beckham: playing the shudh desi kids at home, while secretly pursuing “modern”, Western dreams. But, for an emerging group of British Asians, that’s not the case. In 2017, there are more and more people exploring and embracing what it means to be both British and South Asian.

“The narrative largely remains of the double lives seen in Bend It Like Beckham: playing the shudh desi kids at home, while secretly pursuing 'modern', Western dreams”

Take Simran Randhawa (pictured above), assistant politics editor at gal-dem, and also a model with 98.2k followers on her Instagram at the time of writing. She’s previously given an interview to Vogue about “decolonising your wardrobe”, and on her socials, Randhawa posts Bollywood memes, images of chaat, and pictures of herself wearing traditional Indian jewellery - and, very often, a bindi. This might not seem that radical, but to a generation who have been taught to be embarrassed about their familial culture, who have quietly let white girls co-opt something they themselves are too awkward to wear, there’s something genuinely inspiring about Randhawa’s aesthetic – especially given that she wasn’t always this way.

“For the longest time I rejected my culture and heritage,” Randhawa explains over the phone, “But going to uni really triggered the realisation that all my comfort was in my culture.”

As someone who had long been into style and fashion, bringing traditional Indian accessories into her everyday wear was a natural progression in expressing the duality of her identity, but one that she also considers to have been important for others: “The reception was so heartwarming and humbling,” she says, “And I don’t want to sound full of myself, but I think wearing the bindi and that kind of thing, it’s been validating for other brown girls.”

“There’s something genuinely inspiring about Randhawa’s aesthetic to a generation who have quietly let white girls co-opt something they themselves are too awkward to wear”

Certainly, the importance of seeing someone reclaiming their heritage cannot be underestimated. Randhawa is one of many young creatives who is embracing their Asian heritage having previously pushed it away. For filmographer and photographer Vivek Vadoliya, who grew up in a predominantly white area just outside of London, it was in moving away from home that he felt the need to reconnect with his heritage.

“I had moved to Berlin, and kind of missed home – having a big family, going to a family function with at least 30 or 40 people,” Vadoliya explains. “There wasn’t much of an Asian community in Berlin, and I started coming back home more often. It was basically a stupidly obvious epiphany I had having gone freelance, trying to figure out what I wanted to do – ‘what’s my voice?’. And it came down to the realisation that I should really try to explore my South Asian background. I want to interrogate that identity.”

Vadoliya has various projects related to South Asia and its diaspora on the go, most recently documenting Southall’s Punjabi community in a film marking 70 years since the partition of India.

“When I was growing up, I was a classic ‘coconut’: I felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere – you belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time, so it’s really surreal,” says Vadoliya, “But now I realise what an advantage it is that I can speak to both – I can celebrate that.”

The celebration of identity is something that’s on Ryan Lanji’s mind too. The Canadian-born curator and event manager of Indian origin runs Hungama, an LGBT, South Asian night - the last one was themed “Gay Sweat In A Bollywood Discotheque”. Taking place in Dalston, the night finds hipsters and drag artists of all ethnicities dancing all night amid gloriously tacky decorations to hip-hop interlaced with Bollywood – it’s been Lanji’s attempt to host an event that represents all the facets of who he is.

Given the taboo nature of homosexuality within South Asian culture, the significance of a night like this in a public space is huge. “It was really difficult to start doing advertising about a gay Bollywood night,” says Lanji, who moved from Canada partly so his parents wouldn’t have to explain his sexuality to relatives, “On Facebook I have all these aunts and uncles following me, and they’re snoopy as hell – they like everything, they see everything. But I embrace that now - ‘yeah, this is who I am!’.

“I couldn’t imagine getting to this age where I’ve found peace with who I am, but having cousins or nieces or nephews too scared to break the mold: I want to show that you can follow your dreams and achieve a level of contentment and success, and be who you are – and how that can still bring you back to your culture and a place of acceptance within that.”

“LGBT, South Asian night Hungama finds hipsters and drag artists of all ethnicities dancing all night amid gloriously tacky decorations to hip-hop interlaced with Bollywood”

Lanji also curated the Beauty of Being British Asian exhibition, run by Burnt Roti magazine (a publication by and for South Asian people) back in August. Inspired by Nikita Marwaha’s emotive essay of the same name, the opening-night queue was over two hours long, winding around the edges of Brick Lane.

“The reaction was astounding,” says Burnt Roti editor Sharan Dhaliwal, “With the queues, the amount of people who spoke to me saying 'thank you so much for doing this', the people who were laughing, reading the essay and screaming 'YES I KNOW!' - it was a beautiful moment for me.”

Dhaliwal is a content designer and video producer who created Burnt Roti after having a lot of conversations about the beauty expectations tied-up in her heritage and identity. Having something like Burnt Roti is important, she says, because it creates a platform for people to have these conversations: “We realise that things like having turmeric-stained hands aren't something to be ashamed about, because there's a lot of people out there with the same stains and there's nothing wrong with it,” she says, “It helps break down barriers that some people have built for themselves – when people realise that there are like-minded people, who they can relate to, make jokes with and speak in their language with, it creates comfort. It's something we're all looking for [...] The dual identity of being British and South Asian is so incredibly fascinating, because it’s not just a culture clash, it's a whole new space.”

Dhaliwal is conscious that there may be shortcomings with Burnt Roti, in that most of the contributors are North Indian and Hindu. But even while she works to be more inclusive, other platforms are being created all the time: Khidr Collective, for example, is a zine launched earlier this year by young Muslims, seeking “to create and support work which responds to the social and political climate of today [while also] digging deeper into our own faith,” says co-founder Zain Dada. The first issue included essays and poetry on subjects as far-ranging as security and, of course, biryani.

“We realise that things like having turmeric-stained hands aren't something to be ashamed about, because there's a lot of people out there with the same stains and there's nothing wrong with it” - Sharan Dhaliwal

Also launched this summer was Makrooh, a project run by siblings Saima and Shazad Khalid that offers everything from spoken word, filmmaking workshops, colouring sessions, and even pakoras and Kashmiri pink tea – again, with the aim to explore the duality of British Muslim identity, having grown-up feeling no real sense of belonging to any place or culture. This aim feels particularly salient when Shazad describes standing next to a stranger at a bus-shelter a few days after the attack at London Bridge this year, only to have the person start running away, never breaking fearful eye contact. “I remember when the attack had happened, thinking - like everyone else of our skin tone - ‘shit, I hope he’s not brown, and I hope he’s not Muslim’. And it’s frustrating because we all felt the same way about those attacks – this is our city, it’s an attack on our people.”

Shazad has noticed a growth in events catering to the British South Asian experience in the past year, and notes that every one of these events he’s attended has been “wall-to-wall” – indicative of a space that’s been a long time coming. With Makrooh, they wanted to keep the momentum going, providing a place for people to speak their truths and reclaim the narrative surrounding British Muslim identity: “We’re creating an atmosphere of belonging and acceptance – the rise in Islamophobia means a lot of us are trying to understand our heritage so that we can have those conversations on a wider scale – there’s a responsibility to be able to defend our families,” he says.

“I remember when the London Bridge attack had happened, thinking - like everyone else of our skin tone - ‘shit, I hope he’s not brown, and I hope he’s not Muslim’” - Shazad Khalid

Although this influx of British South Asian spaces might seem a recent thing, for journalist and British Values zine founder Kieran Yates, this is a conversation that starts earlier: “Post-9/11, there was a real cultural shutdown of brown representation and visibility thanks to a fear of a brown planet,” she says, “So we’ve been operating under that as a social and political backdrop. But what followed has been greater visibility on social media, which has meant not only creating safe spaces, but – for South Asians particularly – an opportunity to articulate that experience of being second and third generation in new ways. I think the internet gave us confidence to make jokes, to be satirical.”

On the subject of safe spaces and how these social media communities are turning into real life communities, Yates adds, “It’s not that we should only have spaces for ourselves and that's that, but that vulnerable spaces are used to articulate yourself, and then when you feel confident, open that up to the mainstream. And URL always moves into IRL eventually.”

Whether it’s being inspired to wear a bindi without being embarrassed, drinking pink tea over chats about religion, pretending you know Bollywood moves in a gay bar in Dalston, or engaging in BBC radio debates about the future of British Asian music – the space that was borne out of the internet is getting non-virtual legs.

“Post-9/11, there was a real cultural shutdown of brown representation and visibility thanks to a fear of a brown planet” - Kieran Yates

For Aria Alagha, a British-Iranian creative director who runs blog and radio show It Came From Swagistan, and who has been heavily involved in the British Asian scene since Riz Ahmed introduced him to Bobby Friction and Nihal, what’s happening now is just the start: “The Asian scene is only just beginning with people like Ryan, Sharan, gal-dem, and everything post-Trump. Before that no one really thought it was that important, no one really felt their identity was worth celebrating, or more importantly that it was under threat – not in the way they do now.”

But while the reasons for it might be a reaction to Trump and Brexit and tackling the fears surrounding brownness, it doesn’t make what’s happening in the British Asian community right now any less beautiful and moving. Seizing control of the narrative and touching base with their roots, this is a group carving out a necessary, comfortable space for themselves – as Ryan Lanji puts it, “We’re P.o.C. – people of colour, yes, but also people of change.” For these young British Asians, change is finally embracing the duality of their identity and telling the country: we’re here.