As the Knights of the Raj comes to an end at the Birmingham Museum on January 14th, our curator Mohammed Ali reflects on the emotional journey that is Knights of the Raj.
I often reflect back on sitting at table number 16 in my white shirt and black tie, with my dad sitting at the opposite end of the table. The routine was the same every day, we would wait for customers, on some days whole evenings would go by without a customer. Whilst we waited, my dad would read his paper and I would always be sketching something on paper. It was the late 80s, I was obsessed with Hip-Hop, and into graffiti.
My dad would frequently reminisce on the old days having made the journey from Bangladesh to England. ‘In my time, we had it hard, 4 of us sharing one room…’m, we would even have shifts of sleeping in beds, whilst one was working, the other would sleep in your bed. “
I had heard it all before, many times. If truth be told it went in one ear and out the other. I was a 13 year old, it just didn’t interest me. I didn’t even want to be in the restaurant, sitting there with my dad, whilst all my friends were out having a laugh. Life wasn’t fair. At the time I found solace in my pen and paper and my artistic creations, which my father took no interest in either.
My dad passed away in 2009, we buried him in Handsworth Cemetery, he had arrived in England from Bangladesh in 1957. Birmingham would be his final resting place. 2009 was also a year of regret for me. When you lose someone you love, your heart yearns for those precious memories and stories, the same stories I was oblivious too as a young 13 year old. I felt regret and wished I could turn back the clock to be back at table number 16, only this time not only would I listen to my dad’s stories, I’d have questions, lots of questions. I would listen at that table. I would take in every word, I would write it down, I would record it, film it and ensure it was preserved for future generations.
As a father I now realise the true value of stories and traditions, how do I remind my three children of their roots and ensure they are aware of the sacrifices and hard work of their grandparents that has provided the bedrock for what they have. What will they know about their grandfather? What do they need to know about him? And just as importantly what didn’t I know about my dad?
I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back I now know that the seeds for Knights of the Raj were planted back in 2009. I wanted to know who my dad was and how the restaurant trade had influenced and impacted him, and if truth be told how it had impacted and shaped me.
It seems ironic that through the medium of Arts, Culture and Heritage I can honour my dad and his generation of restaurateurs. As my passion for art grew I became disconnected from the trade, now my art has fuelled a reconnection with the trade I grew up in and away from.
The Knights of the Raj exhibition is my attempt to tell the extraordinary story of my parent’s generation and to narrate it in a new way that connects with their children and their grandchildren but also the hundreds and thousands of customers across the country who continue to flock to Indian restaurants up and down the country every evening. I wanted to take family, friends and customers on an immersive journey that for the first time took them beyond the table covers and kitchen and into the lives of the individuals that brought out their favourite dishes to them.
Stories cease to exist when you have no one to tell them. For every story we’ve been able to capture through Knights of the Raj I’m acutely aware of the stories we were unable to capture. Countless restaurateurs like my father have passed away before I started my quest to document their stories. Some have survived through speaking to family members who have been able to relay them in absentia.
Knights of the Raj has also reconnected me back to a heritage and culture that had, if I am being honest, become lost to me as I embarked on my own professional career as an artist. Rather than being recognized as Mohammed Ali, the artist I was struck by the fact that people knew of me simply as the son of Watir Ali. The warmth that people have embraced me with, the trust they have put in me to narrate and present their stories comes from the love and the respect they held for my father.
Looking back over the past 18 months of recording interviews, combing through archives and collecting objects and artifacts from restaurants to finally unveiling the exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for the world to see and experience I’m struck by what we have been able to achieve. We have preserved stories so that they will survive for future generations to absorb. We’ve restored pride in our roots and heritage and most of all we have honoured a generation that deserves greater recognition than it has been given.
The Knights of the Raj exhibition is a celebration, a celebration of our culture, our tradition, our parents, our food and the rich contribution they have made to life in England. Knights of the Raj has only just started. There will be more exhibitions, there will be more immersive cultural experiences planned, the archive will grow, books are being printed, films are being made, more stories will reveal themselves. We have plans to take it to different places both nationally and internationally.