As historians have shown, Britain has had a migrant South Asian population for over 350 years, since its early trading encounters with India. But the perception that a homogeneous British culture only began to diversify after the Second World War persists, and research into the South Asian diaspora in Britain has focused predominantly on this later, post-independence period. While this diasporic population has become increasingly numerous and influential since the end of empire, Asians in Britain were in fact engaging with and challenging canonical culture well before this time.
By focusing on the early presence in Britain of South Asians, and on the numerous modes in which they inflected ideas of Britishness and laid the ground for the construction of new multiple identities, Making Britain heightened awareness of the breadth and depth of South Asian contribution to British culture
Building on historian Rozina Visram’s seminal work Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, as well as scholarly initiatives by leading members of the core and advisory teams (see People), this collaborative, interdisciplinary project sought to uncover and examine South Asian participation in intellectual and literary networks, art movements, and activist groupings during this under-explored period of Britain’s multicultural history. To date the contribution to British modernist movements of writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and J. M. Tambimuttu has been largely overlooked, despite Anand’s close links with the ‘Bloomsbury group’ and Tambimuttu’s editorship of the influential magazine Poetry London. While the British ventures of political figures such as M. K. Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru have been well documented, yet to be explored in depth is, for example, the impact on British cultural and political life of Krishna Menon, Labour councillor for St Pancras and founding editor of Pelican Books. Earlier still, sisters Cornelia and Alice Sorabji and travel writers B. M. Malabari and T. N. Mukharji were producing a range of narratives commenting on Britain and refracting dominant perceptions of the nation’s culture; while Syed Ameer Ali, founder of the Muslim League’s London branch, was campaigning for the political and cultural rights of Muslims in India and Britain. Letters, diaries, newspaper articles and photographs record the presence in Britain of lascars, soldiers, ayahs and other working-class South Asians, and reveal their contribution to the creation of a dynamic ‘contact zone’ at the very heart of empire.