Heart of the nation

IMAGERY: Radical Sista DJing at a daytimer in a club in Bradford, from 1988. Photo by Tim Smith.
IMAGERY: Radical Sista DJing at a daytimer in a club in Bradford, from 1988. Photo by Tim Smith.
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A touring photography exhibition which celebrates the shared heritage of India and Britain arrives in Leeds next week. Serina Sandhu reports.

India is not the place Arun Gandhi hoped it would become after his grandfather led the country to independence 70 years ago.

He was just a teeanger when Mohandas Gandhi, widely known as Mahatma, was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu extremist who was upset at the ‘Great Soul’s’ tolerance towards the country’s Muslims. Arun Gandhi, who now lives in New York, went on to become a political activist himself, channeling his grandfather’s message of non-violence through his speeches and books. He fears the world is becoming smaller: “If we start building walls and judging people and keeping them apart, then we have all the problems we are facing now with discrimination and oppression which has led to terrorism.”

After India gained independence in 1947, many Indians emigrated to Britain – and their part in British life is being celebrated in a photography exhibition which has been on display in Edinburgh and London and comes to Leeds next week.

At The Heart of the Nation: India in Britain, which opens at Victoria Gardens on Monday, documents the diverse histories which make up the shared heritage of India and Britain from 1870 to the present day and coincides with the India-UK Year of Culture for 2017.

Some of the older exhibition photos date back to the British Raj, before independence, and feature Mahatma. Recognisable in one 1931 image by his small frame and traditional clothing, he is surrounded by the smiling faces of women working at a textile mill in Lancashire. Tension had been high before this meeting. The British Government was afraid of the reception Mahatma would get and had tried to prevent him from visiting the workers. Gandhi had launched a boycott of British cloth in India because the UK was taking their cotton, processing it in England and sending the cloth back thus destroying the hand loom industry in India. The boycott led to British textile workers being laid off but when Gandhi went to speak to the workers he won them round. “He was very open and nice. Finally they all embraced him and loved him. I think that turned the tide in Britain. A lot of people put pressure on the Government to give independence to India.”

India’s independence has enshrined Mahatma’s legacy – he is often referred to as the Father of the Nation – but his grandson had hoped his philosophy would have influenced India’s top administration. He says his grandfather wanted politicians to live like “common people” to make them more accessible. He wanted the estates the British created to be converted into schools and hospitals for the public. “But what we did in fact was get rid of British imperialists and install Indian imperialists,” he says. “We are gaining materially but morally we are going down the drain. My grandfather used to say materialism and morality have an inverse relationship. When one increases, the other decreases.

“We see that happening more and more. We need to be more compassionate and understand that the security and stability of any country depends on the security and stability of the whole world. If we don’t work to create that kind of security and stability, we will never be living in peace.”

At Victoria Gardens, Leeds, October 16-26. The exhibition is supported by The Open University, Indian High Commission, Nehru Centre and University of Exeter.