Growing up, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was a place my mum would drag me and my little sister to occasionally. In all honesty, as a kid, it never really ‘spoke’ to me. But that all changed recently, when I entered the Knights of the Raj exhibition a few weeks ago. Suddenly, I was immersed in an extraordinary story about local people. A story that was rarely talked about. A story focused on the inspiring Bangladeshi restauranteurs in Birmingham, who championed the British curry, making it a national treasure. Through fascinating visual displays, audio and interactive technology, Soul City Arts have rocked the boat once more, radically changing whose story we represent in British history and culture on the walls of a museum.
As an ethnographer, I was immediately drawn to the personal stories told by Bangladeshi families who’d been involved in the curry industry. Scattered around the exhibition rooms are listening posts, where snippets of interviews reveal insightful memories of culinary innovations and the difficulties of working as immigrants in the Indian restaurant business.
I met with curator and passionate advocate of the exhibition, Mohammed Ali to find out more about the inspiration for such a unique project. He revealed that his dad, who’d worked in the curry restaurant industry himself, had been a huge source of inspiration and motivated him to capture the stories of his dad’s generation before they disappeared. The result has not only succeeded in reviving and retelling an unknown local history of the curry but created a fantastic and much-needed space for the Bangladeshi community to celebrate their own identity within Britain.
Knights of the Raj is a significant contribution to a new narrative that begins to bring working-class immigrant voices away from the margins of history, and into the forefront; the Bangladeshi community are no longer historically muted. Through creating such a subversive discourse, Soul City Arts challenges the white hegemonic production of knowledge by focusing on curatorial and participant voices that come from the Bangladeshi community itself. This is something to be celebrated and duly was during a special viewing of the exhibition last week. As Mohammed emphasised during his introductory speech, the project has given agency to Bangladeshi’s living in Birmingham, encouraging them to tell their own stories, saying:
‘hear our story [which] for too long we’ve suppressed. We are insecure about who we are. It’s about saying “this is who I am in Britain. We contribute.”’
This was empowering to say the least. Despite not being Bangladeshi myself, I felt proud to associate myself with a city that has been culturally shaped by such a diverse community, including the Bangladeshi community. Let’s celebrate their immense contribution to our city and national cuisine. The exhibition is on at the BMAG until 7th January 2018