Research on early Indian migrants
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Research on early Indian migrants

Oxford University launches a research project charting the life and times of early Indian students, visitors & migrants to UK.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2007 00:16 IST

A research project charting the life and times of early Indian students, visitors and migrants to Britain such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Cornelia Sorabji and Rabindranath Tagore has been launched at the University of Oxford.

Elleke Boehmer, professor of World Literature in English at the university, told IANS: "We are particularly interested in finding out about how early South Asian migrants to Britain conceived of themselves as modern, usually urban subjects and citizens.

"We would welcome people getting in touch if they have family memories or memorabilia relating to the 1870-1920 period which speak to these ideas."

Britain attracted several bright Indians who later went on to distinguish themselves in various fields, including in India's freedom struggle. Several key leaders in the struggle had a strong connection with Britain, mainly in the field of education.

The research project will examine and chronicle the contribution made by South Asians to British cultural and political life from the late 19th century onwards - from MPs to major literary figures.

The project, called "Making Britain: Visions of Home and Abroad", will look at migrants from the Indian subcontinent in Britain as far back as 1870 and their work as writers, political activists and artists. It will examine how they saw themselves in terms of race, class and nation and the links they formed between themselves as a group.

Boehmer said: "There is a perception that Britain as a multiracial and multicultural society is a product of the Second World War. This research will challenge that view, looking at how South Asians were shaping British life and culture much earlier.

"Studying this period also shows us that the aspects of multiculturalism that attract such interest today - from innovative literature to the fear of terrorism - were with us a century ago."

People from the Indian subcontinent made a distinctive contribution to British cultural life in this period. For example, Krishna Menon studied in London in the 1920s and later became a councillor in St. Pancras and the founder of Pelican books.

Meary James Tambimuttu was a writer who in 1938 founded Poetry London, a journal which provided a platform for new writers such as Lawrence Durrell and which continues to this day.

South Asians also played an important role in politics. Dadadhai Naoroji, a businessman who came to Britain in the 1850s, was elected Britain's first Asian MP in 1892. Others found themselves in conflict with British society and joined anti-establishment groups such as the Indian Communist party. A few turned to violence, most famously with the murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie, an India Office official, in 1909.

The research will also re-assess the impact on Britain of figures better known for their role in Indian culture. These include the social reformer Cornelia Sorabji, who studied at Oxford and became the first female Indian barrister, and Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in 1913.

Boehmer said that Oxford was a major centre for South Asians during the period under study. By 1922, there were 150 students who had attended the university, which offers rich resources for the study of these groups. The research will draw on a range of sources, from historical and political archives to literature, journalism and photographs.

Sumita Mukherjee, research assistant on the project, who recently completed a doctorate on Indian students in Britain from 1900-1947, said: "Indian students had varied individual responses to British social and educational life. One common theme was a strengthening of their sense of Indian identity as opposed to specific regional identities.

"The students had an important impact on both British and Indian life - English education brought considerable prestige in India, forming the basis for great status there."

First Published: Nov 18, 2007 10:48 IST