Migrant Memory and the Postcolonial Imagination project, Loughborough University

(Feature image description: a photograph from a street in Sylhet Town that we took last year during our fieldwork)

It’s been a busy 18 months for the Migrant Memory and Postcolonial Imagination project!  During this time we’ve been focusing our energy at exploring the different ways in which memory travels. In this blog we’d like to share some of the work that we’ve doing that takes up three kinds of mobile memory: transmission across generations, the experience of remembering in and over different spaces and places, and the digital communication of memory.

Generations

In exploring the way South Asian heritage is remembered and communicated across generations, the Loughborough branch of the MMPI project has been working closely the Anand Mangal Gujarati Women’s Group in partnership with the Community Curators team at Leicestershire County Council. In 2019 we conducted a wonderful project with these two organisations led by our researcher Jasmine Hornabrook called ‘Stitching Traditions’. In creative workshops and interviews participants explored the relationship between textiles and their connections to memories of migration. Talking about these objects allowed people to share significant stories relating to the changing experience of belonging and cultural identity in Loughborough. Reflections on the role of clothing, especially wearing the sari, gave fascinating insights into the ways in which South Asian cultural identities have been performed, adapted, and accepted since the ladies arrived in the UK from different parts of world including India, East Africa, South Africa and Fiji. This work culminated in the ‘Material Memories’ exhibition at Charnwood Museum in Loughborough, and the Anand Mangal ladies have been inspired to share their stories with the wider community. A collaborative project between MMPI, Anand Mangal, Community Curators and Creative Learning Services, has been launched with the aim to bring memories, stories and reflections of migration into schools. The ladies will present their stories and memories of migration, run practical demonstrations of rangoli and henna, and share with pupils the cultural relevance of different forms of South Asian clothing. The sessions will include stick dancing workshops and pupils taking part in Navratri celebrations in the same week. Through this creative approach to sharing these personal accounts, we hope to open the space for inspiring conversations around Partition and the experiences of post-colonial diaspora with a generation who otherwise would not have access to these essential histories of their community. 

Space

In order to explore the way memories move across space the MMPI team undertook fieldwork in Dhaka, Sylhet and Kolkata in January-February 2020. This gave us the opportunity to explore how (often inherited) memories of the 1947 Partition of Bengal move across borders and how people shape and are shaped by these memories. Following our networks of contacts in London and Loughborough, we interviewed friends and families of our UK research participants and explored the impact of this flow of memories on notions of identity and community. A thematic analysis of our research findings revealed a set of mnemonic themes which emerged consistently across borders. We found strong references to memories of loss and struggle in relation to Partition, both in economic terms and with reference to a common Bengali cultural heritage. However, memories and practices of remembering are inevitably affected by the movement between East and West Bengal, migration to the UK, and by the (more or less imagined) ongoing connections between these sites. For example, we found that in Bangladesh Partition is often remembered through the lens of 1971, whereas in West Bengal the emphasis was on the anticolonial struggle and, especially in the refugee colonies in Kolkata, on the movement from East to West Bengal. In the UK, memories of the 1947 Partition are more fragmented, refracted through experiences of migration, and the experiences of the 1971 Liberation War,  and experiences of inclusion and exclusion in Britain. However, our findings suggest that even if memories of the 1947 Partition of Bengal are fragmented and intersect with contemporary questions and experiences of national identity and belonging in local settings, they still offer people of Bengali heritage located in different parts of the world the resources to build, or imagine, connections between a distinctively Bengali past and present, and therefore the possibility to think of themselves as part of a wider Bengali community.

Digital Communication

Our last exploration of travelling South Asian memory relates to the remembering of the 1947 Partition online. Our PhD student, Mona Khan has entered the final year of her research project which aims to understand how and why South-Asian migrants are sharing experiences of 1947 by reviving culturally specific storytelling practices, specifically the art of Dastangoį. 

The digital age has ensured that social media is woven tightly into the fabric of our daily lives.  In the context of South-Asian history and society, the ways in which digital media, and social media in particular, can work as an expansive archive to document their unique experiences has been explored by various oral history initiatives. An increasing desire by people in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, to include stories of the Partition of British India in 1947 told through survivors, has resulted in a unique and growing community online. Formed at academic institutions and supported through funding from local communities, these archives enlist the South-Asian diaspora in the US and UK to engage with memories of Partition survivors and in turn reflect on their own understanding of migration and post-partition identity. Popular examples of such memory projects include Brown History, The 1947 Archive and Project Dastaan. 

Mona’s research focuses on this new digital form of storytelling that these archival projects undertake, and explores how they situate these stories within the traditional framework of dastangoi. In doing so Mona considers the collection, curation and documentation of Partition stories on social media sites as a new cultural form: the ‘digital dastan’. Digital dastan alludes to both their cultural specificity, form, and lineage, as well as the ways in which digital media transform traditional storytelling practices.  ‘Digital dastan’ provides an analytical framework to look at the online construction of 1947 narratives. It references a re-appropriation and reclamation of South-Asian storytelling practices to document voices of the community itself.  Mona’s work has identified a wide range of temporal, special and communicative features of digital dastans which show how narrative of Partition are not just straightforwardly transmitted via digital media, but that digital media themselves shape how these stories are configured and even the contemporary meaning of Partition itself. 

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