Susheila Nasta's book explodes myths about Indian migration to the U.K.

Think of the early Indian travellers and immigrants to Britain and the images that come to mind are those of princes and nawabs. But there is a rich history of “subaltern” immigrants that is seldom talked about. In fact, the first wave of migration was led not by well-heeled globe-trotters but by ordinary working-class people such as ayahs, cooks, domestic servants, petty traders and seamen.

“There are a lot of myths about Indo-British migration and the biggest is that it started after World War II. But actually it goes back 100 years before that,” says Susheila Nasta who has compiled what is claimed to be the first most comprehensive illustrated history of Indian migration to Britain, Asian Britain: A Photographic History.

Few know that there was an Ayahs’ Home right in the heart of London. There is a picture of a group of ayahs standing outside it. The building in Hackney, East London, still stands but is now “just a number on the street”.

Most of the nearly 300 photographs in the book are published for the first time. Many of these were used by right-wing newspapers and political groups at the time to “warn” against “exotic’’ foreigners “flooding” Britain and had racist captions. They had to be re-written for the book to avoid causing offence. In a sense, it is a subversive work in which the original purpose for which these pictures were taken has been turned on its head.

“The original motivation behind these images was not, as intended here, to broaden knowledge and deepen understanding but, rather, to distance and typify the ‘Asian’ as ‘outsider’, the object and signifier of cultural difference, a marker against which the ‘pure’ identity of the white British nation could be measured,’’ says Nasta, Professor of Modern Literature at the Open University and editor of Wasafari literary magazine.

Asked whether re-writing the captions did not amount to a version of re-writing history and whether wouldn’t it have been better to retain the original captions as well to give a flavour of the period, Nasta said, “No, I don’t agree. There was no space to have two captions. We only had this much space to work with.’’

The book, which has a preface by art historian and broadcaster Razia Iqbal, came out of a bigger project “Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections” aimed at heightening public awareness of the scale of South Asian contributions to contemporary British life.

“Asians have been living in Britain for over 400 years yet surprisingly little is known about the long history of their settlement,” said Nasta. The book documents what she describes as the “forgotten story’’ of Asian settlement in Britain from 1858 to 1950 about which there is little public knowledge or debate.

“People only talk about the post-1950 migration — so we have reversed the timeline to show when it all began.” The pictures, she says, are part of a “much bigger story” of India-British connections. “They offer a partial window on a history that still remains incomplete.”

According to Razia Iqbal — who was eight when her family moved to Britain from Kenya in 1970 — the photographs evoke memories of her own experience of settling down in a new country, and the often “painful” racial prejudice she endured.

“My family came to London from Nairobi in 1970. We had some relatives here already, but the shock of the new still feels tangible in my memory, and the sometimes painful hostility with which I was confronted has never left me: the kids at school who wanted to give me an English name, ‘Debbie’, because they found mine hard to pronounce; the laughter at my fluent English, spoken with an accent; the boy who told me I would be quite nice-looking if I had blonde hair and white skin,” she writes in the Preface.

Among the photographs that particularly moved her was one of an Indian family enjoying an outing in Blackpool. “It took me back to my own family driving up from London in the early 1970s and eating our Indian picnic food on the beach.”

Other powerful images include those of Indian ayahs, many of whom were later left to fend for themselves; and Indian soldiers who fought for the Raj. “There are photographs in this book that illustrate how war was a leveller, but also expose sharp racial divisions and fears of miscegenation.”

The book’s cover depicts two men and a child of Asian origin standing alongside white Britons outside Westminster Hall in 1952, to mourn the death of King George VI representing what Iqbal calls “a fully functioning part of a grieving nation.”

She may be reading too much in the picture for, as one critic pointed out, the Asian family may have joined the crowd simply out of curiosity rather than with the intention of mourning a British king. But, as Nasta points out, that is the significance of photographic history. Every photograph is open to a subjective interpretation even as it captures an objective reality.