The year is 1988 and the British film director, Gurinder Chadha, of Punjabi-Sikh, Kenyan South Asian descent, walks through the streets of Southall, a working-class town on the outskirts of West London, United Kingdom, home to a large South Asian community that first began taking shape in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sporting a leather jacket over a patterned dress, with matching boots displaying Union Jack socks, Gurinder twirls a red umbrella while bringing her British bulldog Monty along for the stroll.
The camera follows Gurinder as she stops on the way to greet street vendors, gently pushes past elderly Aunties wearing salwar kameez suits buying fruit from the stalls, and walks past store front signs and terraced houses. As the scene unfolds, Gurinder also begins to directly talk to us, the viewer, about a film she made which seeks to capture the lives of the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants, and how these lives have with fused with British identity. The final shot shows Gurinder disappearing with Monty into the now iconic Tandoori Express/Jalebi Junction bazaar. As the screen fades to black, the title sequence begins with a hand scribbling in I'm British But… and Chadha's documentary begins.
I first watched this film in the late 2000's when I was in my late teens, going through my undergraduate program at Western University in London, Ontario. I remember viscerally how profoundly shaken I had become, when I watched Gurinder's film for the first time. The material depicted stories that were so familiar to me: the formation of South Asian youth culture, radical nightlife and club culture, and the haunting legacies of racism and imperialism that forever mark a community.
Every couple of years, I would review the documentary and different moments would resonate with me. Sometimes they would be pedagogical moments, such as learning about the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 through the moving voice of Jabeen Mohammed or discovering the music of Joi Bangla, Nirmal, and San-j Sanj. Other times, the film would be more of a mirror for myself, as I began to see my own dreams as a story teller reflected within it. My own desire to document diasporic communities, and my love for oral history and the archive that was beginning to flourish and blossom.
…time is never something that is linear, but hauntingly cyclical.
As the years went on, I arrived in Providence, Rhode Island, to pursue my graduate studies in painting. By this point, I had steadily developed a deep interest in the archive. I had begun utilizing it as a tool to study diasporic South Asian history, and ultimately I used the archival historical research as an entry point for my drawings. In graduate school, I worked with professors and mentors spanning the entire kaleidoscope of the campus. I learned to engage in theory and criticism ranging from topics of history, the archive, identity and race. I learned to develop and hone my oral history skills, to push my craft as a draftsman rooted in drawing, and immerse myself in learning how to write about my work.
It was also during this time that I began to revisit I'm British But… this time through the lens of unpacking it through my research as an artist building my archive. My connection with Gurinder also began here, where we corresponded through email, where I was immediately moved by her generosity in allowing me to use stills from her documentary to be published in my thesis. As graduate school ended, I next found myself living in London in the United Kingdom pursuing a fellowship at the Slade School of Fine Art, where I was finally able to meet Gurinder.
In the fall of 2016 nearly 30 years after I'm British But… was released, I arrived to my new art studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts where I was now a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.
From discussing our respective works in my Bloomsbury studio, to driving through Southall together where, I was given the chance to interview her; from her showing me various aspects of where I'm British But… was shot, to me getting the opportunity to meet her 90 year old mother who had come to England in the 1950s; my experience and travels with Gurinder gave me further nourishment and comfort as an artist that I hadn't experienced before, allowing me to connect even more intimately with her film.
In Provincetown, I began to—for the first time ever—visually chop up Gurinder's film into over 100 different stills. I had determined then that it was time for me to use the visual palette of this film as an entry point for my own work. I began to see the need to resurrect the stories found in Chadha's film through my chosen medium of drawing. Perhaps it was the Brexit gloom hanging over my summer in England, or the unexpected and volatile political climate that had gripped the United States, or my own position of being the children of immigrants who himself has been transformed into an immigrant being in the spaces of the United States and the United Kingdom. A need to freshly visit Gurinder's documentary again, this time after having spent time with her and the urban landscape of England, suddenly seemed more urgent and more necessary.
As an artist, drawing has become my primary medium. I see it as a mediator, unifying all the threads of my work, without hierarchy. I use a variety of materials, including water-soluble pastels and watercolours, graphite powder, charcoal, gesso and pencils, to render imagery with loose washes and agitated mark making. The quiet surface of paper echoes the fragility of the documents I work from. It was this beloved medium that proved to be most apt in recreating my vision of I'm British But…
From scenes of the now disappeared store-front, Ajanta Footwear, in which the band, Kala preet performs their politically charged, anti-colonial, anti-racist song Us Pardes Ki on the rooftops, to the young group of teenage girls who dance in furious enthusiasm to the liberating lyrics; from scenes of a woman wearing a grey trench-coat as she walks down the streets of the South Broadway, to the diptych of an elderly Muslim man who stands in front of the various shops; from white-gessoed sheets of paper that depict archival newspaper texts unveiling the stories of the racist murders and killings that surrounded the town of Southall in the late 1970s, to the quadriptych series done in a palette of reds, blacks, yellows and blue to create an atmospheric mood of the night-club scenes in which young South Asians would dance to the beats of bhangra music, I sought to depict every nook and cranny of this film, scribbling in my own text and interpretation it, through drawing. This intense scrutiny of I'm British But… also allowed me to become aware of thinking about how time is never something that is linear, but hauntingly cyclical.
The political climate of 2016 forced me to dwell on the rise of fundamentalism and right-wing xenophobia, which in turn once again brought forth new moments of poignancy in Gurinder's film. I chose to do one more drawing of another scene: three people standing on a crowded summer day in Piccadilly Circus. The people–ranging from a Caucasian white male, A Sikh man donning a turban and a beard, and one of the interviewees Apala Chaudry, a young Bengali Woman. Their bodies clung to each other as billboards and street-signs glowed in the background, and in that moment, the 2016 drawing of a 1988 scene presented a cosmopolitan, post-nationalistic, post-thatcher, diverse Britain.
In an era of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Racism, Nationalism and Fascism, I decided to scribble into the drawing the text: Attention Mates! Why is our Paki-Nationality not an outdated concept? 1988/2016. The text in this drawing, carved out behind the figures in the Piccadilly lights, acts as a warning to reveal that time does not move in a linear, straight, way but is truly cyclical. It makes this drawing, derived from a photograph in 1988, present the past as something that has become ominously futuristic.
My deeply meditative experience with Gurinder Chadha's film I'm British But… and the profound impact it has had on me continues to unveil new lessons for me as a time pushes me forward as an artist.
As I pondered on how to articulate my intimate experiences with this film from drawing into writing this text, it shifted framework and began spending time with another archive: that of Rungh, which gave me the tools to make that shift.
In the inaugural 1991-1992 issue of Rungh, I was astonished to uncover an entire generation of South Asian artists–Prem Khallat, Sunil Gupta, Pratibha Parmar to name a few – who were making experimental, groundbreaking work that also came of age in the 1970s-1990s. This discovery has long since become a solemn reminder to me and my generation–the millennial– of the importance of dismantling our heroic individualism and bravery when thinking about the foolish ways in which we seek to pioneer racialized spaces for South Asian voices in the art world. So often we our blinded by our privilege, being the children of South Asian immigrants coming of age in the 2000s and 2010s with having the gift of pursuing the arts, that we forget an entire generation of South Asian artists before us have been already doing this work: of breaking down the many doors for us to exist in these spaces. The archive, which has become such an important medium in contemporary art, reflecting how historical knowledge and memory are collected, stored and covered can teach us so much. We have much to learn, and sometimes doing this type of learning really requires us to take a good hard look at the past, and really see just how many stories and artists that were/are radical and futuristic in their visions, are becoming dangerously unrecognized, ignored, and swallowed up.