South Asia makes up part of the world’s largest continent, Asia. It was once home to ancient civilisations and is now populated by over 1.89 billion people. South Asia includes countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. It is a dynamic mix of cultures, economies and different art forms.
Leeds has a well-established and diverse south Asian community. Many came here to work from India and Pakistan during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Asian restaurants and fashion outlets, faith and community centres, are all highly visible in Leeds, particularly in Harehills, Beeston and parts of the city centre. Festivals such as Eid ul-Adha, Vaisakhi and Diwali are celebrated annually.
Leeds Museums and Galleries cares for over 1,200 south Asian objects, from the unique to the everyday. They are the result of Leeds people travelling and working in Asia from the late 18th century onwards during the time of British colonial rule, collectors in the UK buying Asian art, and through people of south Asian heritage donating their personal items. The latter is often expressed through religious objects, clothing, food utensils and family or community photographs.
Objects from India represent the greatest quantity (over 1,000), followed by Pakistan (over 100). This is due to India’s size, the connections between Britain and India which were established during the presence of the East India Company in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1600s and early 1700s, through to the reign of Queen Victoria (declared the ‘Empress of India’ in 1876), and most recently the growth of Indian communities in West Yorkshire, particularly Sikhs from the Punjab and Hindus from places such as Gujarat and Delhi.
The oldest items from South Asia in Leeds are a group of Palaeolithic stone hand axes from Madras (now Chennai), donated to the museum in 1963. They were formerly owned by the famous archaeologist Mr Heywood Walton Seton-Karr (1859-1938), together with two Neolithic hand tools from Banda in Uttar Pradesh. Seton-Karr, a soldier and game hunter, was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) where his father was in the Indian Civil Service. The objects are important as they show the presence of prehistoric people in India, over a million years ago.
There is also a large collection of Hindu and Buddhist bronzes in Leeds. They were collected by Sir Stuart Mitford Fraser (1864-1963), a high-ranking Civil Servant in India. He was a resident in Mysore, 1905-1910, and British Resident in Kashmir, 1911-1914. He collected bronzes from India, Nepal and Tibet which show the sharing of techniques, styles and symbolism across the region.
From the late 1900s, Asian residents of Leeds and surrounding places such as Bradford and Dewsbury have also donated or loaned items to display. These include textiles and clothing such as a burka and a salwar kameez (the national dress of Pakistan), examples of silk, mirrorwork embroidery (shisha) and significant religious items such as a model of the Sikh faith’s holiest place, the Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar.
Cooking utensils such as a tava pan, used to make a commonplace unleavened flatbread (called chapatis (or roti) also demonstrates how south Asians in Yorkshire express their heritage.
Today, Leeds Museums and Galleries works with an advisory network of members of Leeds’ South Asian community and University contacts to assist with choosing display topics and events. Recent projects include the Voices of Asia Gallery at Leeds City Museum, for which this film about a jewellery shop in Harehills was commissioned and the installation of a Sikh Solider statue commemorating south Asian soldiers who fought for the British in the First and Second World Wars. In future we will be working with the Leeds Muslim Youth Forum to explore Pakistani heritage in Leeds.
By Adam Jaffer, Curator of World Cultures