Get up, stand up

Thirty years ago, a violent clash with racists marked
the beginning of a political and artistic aw

In April 1979, against a background of high unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiment, the National Front staged a rally in Southall, a suburb of west London where many Asians had settled. These immigrants, mainly Punjabis, worked at Heathrow Airport, keeping London connected with the world. They were making efforts to assimilate, listening to BBC radio programmes such as Apna hi Ghar Samajhiye (“Think of it as your home”) and watching Nayi Zindagi, Naya Jeevan (“New way, new life”).

Under the banner of the Anti-Nazi League, Londoners of all ethnicities turned out to challenge the NF and its racist message. The demonstration – or uprising, as many Asians prefer to call it – turned violent when police attacked protesters and a schoolteacher named Blair Peach was killed. That event spurred British Asians to find a political and artistic voice in the wider culture, creating a legacy that’s now being celebrated in the Southall Story, a series of concerts, exhibitions and talks taking place around London.

The artist and film-maker Shakila Taranum Maan, who grew up in Northolt, Middlesex, near Southall, recalls the late 1970s vividly. She remembers the terrifying experience of seeing her mother encircled by hate-filled white teenagers. “Our days were spent dodging Paki-bashers. The [Southall] riot came as no surprise, as people were very angry, and keen to shed their passive skins. I wanted to be in Southall the next day, but my dad didn’t want me to go. I had a huge argument with him, and I welcomed the uprising, and saw the strength in a group of people which had for too long been reduced to mere shadows.”

The Southall Monitoring Group emerged in the aftermath of 1979, initially to monitor racial abuse of Asians, but soon expanding its remit. (The group was at the forefront in supporting the families of the Chinese cockle-pickers swept away by the tide at Morecambe Bay in 2004.) Another organisation to emerge was Southall Black Sisters, campaigning against gender- and race-based discrimination. Its campaigns against religious fundamentalism in the Asian community, where patriarchs have a disproportionate role in determining how their sisters, daughters and wives should dress or behave, and its unstinting care for the victims of domestic violence, have helped build British opinion against forced marriages and honour killings. These women brought family secrets into the open and refused to let “multicultural” politics become an excuse to tolerate discrimination and violence.

Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, describes the Southall Story as a timely reminder of the need for a secular approach to fighting racism and oppression. “The state assumes that racism is no longer an issue, and that the real problem is the lack of cohesion brought about [by] the failure of migrant communities to integrate. Within our communities, anti-racist struggles have been reinvented as struggles for recognition of religious identity.”

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the 7 July 2005 bombings, there has been a backlash against multiculturalism. Yet paradoxically, as Pragna Patel notes, the state, in the name of cohesion, has actually encouraged a “faith-based” approach to social relations. “We are fragmenting as a society into separate religious enclaves in which powerful and religious bodies hold sway. This is deeply anti-democratic, misogynistic and homophobic.”

Indeed, the thinking has become so warped that last year Southall Black Sisters almost ceased to exist when the local council, Ealing, decided to withdraw its funding. Ignoring language barriers and other cultural inhibitions that might prevent women of minority origin from seeking assistance from groups other than their own, Ealing claimed the group was discriminatory, in that it offered its services to black and Asian women only. A high court order kept SBS alive.

The political awakening of Southall was accompanied by an artistic outpouring, one that ultimately contributed to an environment in which everything from the films of the Bend It Like Beckham director, Gurinder Chadha, to the novels of Hanif Kureishi, to the hit sketch show Goodness Gracious Me could flourish. It mirrored the flowering of black culture in 1950s South Africa, recalled by Mike Nicol in his lively 1991 account A Good-Looking Corpse: the World of Drum – Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa. The Southall renaissance was different, yet equally sharp, according to the musician Kuljit Bhamra. “After those uprisings, there was a spirit of a bigger family; we felt we had arrived,” he says. “Old divisions reduced, some even dispersed. We felt we had conquered something.”

While groups such as the Progressive Writers Association explored expression in the Punjabi language, Bhamra himself experimented with music, expressing the community’s confidence through the folk beat of bhangra, blending this with rock, reggae and other forms to create a uniquely British hybrid. Other bands – Heera, Premi and Alaap – emerged; Indian Record House and ABC Music established their own labels, distributing home-grown rhythms that prefigured the work of 1990s pop acts such as Nitin Sawhney and Apache Indian.

In the art world, Shakila Taranum Maan’s performance piece The Bride attacked the way in which Asian women were often left at the mercy of husbands and in-laws. “The aim was to provoke,” she says. The piece brings a bloodied and bruised bride on stage, and many in the audience were appalled. Maan’s other projects have included stories about sex workers and interracial relationships. Over the years, she has perceived a softening of attitudes in the community, but, like Pragna Patel, Maan believes that splintering into religious groups has strengthened conservative elements. Indeed, since the violent protest by Sikhs in Birmingham that disrupted the opening night of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti (“Shame”) in 2004, Maan admits she has shied away from overtly political work.

Yet politics still matters. The Southall Story celebrates a community’s struggle and search for identity, asserting its complexities and challenging the idea that minorities must remain a city-within-the-city: what Salman Rushdie described in The Satanic Verses as “the city visible but unseen”. As Maan says, “Our aim was to transcend race – but on our own terms.”

“The Southall Story” is being launched on 24 April at the Dominion Centre, Southall, Middlesex. For more details about the season, log on to: www.thesouthallstory.com