In December 2020, we announced the launch of the first Citizen UK project, a partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive to commemorate 50 years of the independence of Bangladesh.
Since the project's launch, volunteer Citizen Researchers from the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets have been delving into their local archives to explore the role people in Tower Hamlets played in the independence of Bangladesh and the legacy of the events of 1971 on the local community.
As part of the Citizen UK project, the researchers are helping to identify people missing from our Collection who have made an impact on British society and are relevant to their communities. Drawing on their research, family histories and generational reflections, the project will culminate in the creation of collaborative artwork, which will be displayed locally in Spring 2021.
Citizen Researcher Sabiya Khatun tells us what drew her to the project, and what her research means to her.
Firstly, tell us about yourself, and what interested you in this project?
I have always been interested in the history of decolonised nations, having studied the rise and fall of the British Empire at college and university. Whilst I found the narrative very thought-provoking, especially my discovery of the trauma and injustices that echoed in many decolonised states, I always wondered about my own country’s birth and its absence and marginalisation in history books.
It felt like Bangladesh was always destined to be a footnote in the grand history of “British India”. This project gave me an opportunity to finally learn, in detail, about the events of the 1971 Liberation War and the experiences of my ancestors who travelled to Britain during and after the Second World War. It helped me to uncover a rich cultural and literary legacy which I am now excited to share with others.
‘Rice Paddy fields at Sunset’, 2019 by Md Abdul Jalil. This scene reflects the flag of Bangladesh – the green fertile landscape and the red hot sun.
What has been your role in the project?
As a Citizen Researcher, my role has involved gathering material for the project by collecting images and sounds from my own personal collection, interviewing members of the Bangladeshi community and delving through material at Tower Hamlets Archives. I have enjoyed this process immensely. It has been an incredible learning journey, unearthing the painful and beautiful parts of my country’s history which has led me to reassess the immature generalisation of Bangladesh which I grew up with, and sadly also perpetuated.
Areas of research that I have found particularly fascinating include: the Bengali squatting movement, which was integral to newly arrived Bengali families finding accommodation in the face of racist housing policies in the borough; Bengali poetry and the disappearance of the written form of Sylheti – Sylheti Nagri; and the untold personal history of Altab Ali as shared by my parents, his close friends. Altab Ali was a Bengali textile worker whose racially motivated murder in 1978 sparked a movement which helped to galvanise the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community into taking a stand against racism.
‘Learning our letters’, 2017 by Sabiya Khatun. Teaching my one year old son the letters of the Bengali alphabet.
What have been your highlights from the project?
My biggest highlight from this project has to be the personal journey that I have undertaken. Unearthing details about my parents and their initial journey from Bangladesh to London, “across seven seas and thirteen rivers” was unexpectedly moving. Listening to their struggles and their experiences as new immigrants in a foreign land humbled me. The way my parents spoke of their yearning for home and for kinship in a new land was very poignant and I am glad that I had the chance to have these conversations with them, and to see them in a different light.
Uncovering details from my family tree has also been amazing. Through conversations with my father, I was able to piece together a family tree spanning many decades. Together we were able to document ancestors travelling between Bangladesh, Calcutta and London prior to and during the Second World War. Hearing my father retell his great uncle’s stories of his voyages as a fireman on the ships of the British Merchant Navy was captivating.Having this opportunity to record the names of ancestors with attached personal stories has been so rewarding, and is an experience I will always cherish.
I now feel a much stronger connection to my ancestors compared to the tenuous link I grew up with. Their journeys and struggles are real and so they have become a tangible memory to me, a memory which I am now keen to share with my children.
Have there been any challenges? If so, what were they?
One of the challenges I faced early on in the project was the fact that I was interested in far too many research topics. I found that I was enthusiastic about many different issues and I was finding it difficult to narrow my focus. As I took time to process the new information, I was gradually able to prioritise the areas of research. This has left me with a long list of subject matters which I am excited to research independently in the future.
‘Back Home’, 2019 by Sabiya Khatun. The idea of what home means to me has changed over the course of this project.
What have you taken away from your experience?
My short answer to this would be roots. The Citizen UK project has helped me to grow, develop and strengthen my roots.
I feel that growing up as a second generation British Bangladeshi in Tower Hamlets; I had a very simplistic understanding and appreciation of my country and its struggles and customs. Visiting the country as an adult did help to go some way in developing this relationship. It is hard not to be enchanted by the Bangladeshi way of life – the slower rhythms, the lush greenery, the heavy monsoon air, the sound of chickens gently waking you up in the morning and the glittering night sky.
This project helped to highlight the fact that although I understood I was Bengali, had visited the country and spoke the language, something was missing. The instinctive love and allegiance to the land was missing. I would hear people speak of “back home” with such affection, whilst I had grown up feeling disconnected and aloof. But this has finally changed. Through learning the history of Bangladesh, from the centuries of exploitation through the East India Company to the fragile democracy it is now, it is hard not to fall in love with this green and verdant land.
The love of a country, like all loves, must be nurtured, and I feel that this project has helped to unlock this missing piece in my journey to finally understand and appreciate my Bangladeshi heritage. It has helped me to feel rooted in history: my country’s history and my familial history, and for that I will be forever grateful.
By establishing these roots, I now feel firm in my conviction when I speak of my ancestral home. I have also come to the conclusion that without strong roots it is quite difficult for a person, and for a country, to blossom and bloom.
‘Sunrise in Bangladesh’, 2019 by Md Abdul Jalil. This image evokes a sense of hope and peace. It reminds me of what our ancestors fought so hard for during the Liberation War.
Part of the National Portrait Gallery’s transformational Inspiring People project, Citizen UK is a collaborative programme of activity that will see the Gallery work with Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives; the Ealing Local History Centre Archives; the Museum of Croydon and Wolverhampton Arts & Culture to explore post Second World War migration and British citizenship in these areas. Each site will create an exhibition or online display, working with an artist, and local participants, recruited as ‘citizen researchers’. The citizen researchers will help to identify people missing from the national Collection who have made an impact on British society and are relevant to their communities, and the Gallery will acquire new works as a result.
Funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund