The Cultural Value of South Asian Arts

In 1976 in her seminal ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’, Naseem Khan noted that “ethnic minority arts are an energetic but struggling sub-culture. On the whole they exist for the communities alone – necessarily, since little encouragement is given them to expand” (1976:5). Writing again in 2005 Khan found that little had changed in the subsequent years and that “survey after survey of the UK arts sector has provided evidence of inequality … [in that] Black and Asian potential audiences report alienation from major arts centres” (2005: 21).

In this critical review funded as part of the AHRC Cultural Value project I will examine existing research into the place and value of South Asian arts in Britain.  I will analyse literature relating to the emergence and development of South Asian arts in Britain as well as exploring what has been written about British South Asian engagement in the arts.

My interest in the role of South Asian Arts in the UK has its roots in my doctoral research which examined religious transmission among 18-30 year old British Sikhs.  In this research I found that beyond formal methods of religious learning taking place in religious institutions and through events organised by and for young Sikhs, a number of respondents highlighted the role of the arts as a method of religious learning, in particular the role of music.  One Sikh parent I spoke to explained how his children always drew pictures of their instruments, when asked to draw pictures of themselves.  An interview respondent explained how learning kirtan (devotional music) had “brought a lot of discipline in my life – I’ve learned how to apply it to my studies and more importantly I’ve learned a lot about Sikhi through kirtan”.  Another told me how the learning of tabla at his local gurdwara had led to playing tabla on stage every week with his mother and sister also learning singing.

To date, little research has been carried out on the impact of arts which occur in places of worship, and consequently there has been little acknowledgement of the value of this engagement for members of minority ethnic communities.  As well as being neglected in research into arts and culture, Farell finds that “in sociological studies of South Asians in Britain, there is little discussion of music, despite its apparent importance as a form of cultural identity and a symbol of both continuity and change” (2005: 105).  Through a critical review of existing literature I will explore increasing evidence that the arts plays an important role for members of diasporic communities as a form of cultural identity.  Working alongside South Asian arts organisations and with those engaging with minority ethnic arts, I will also investigate how the South Asian arts scene has developed in Britain, the role played by South Asian arts organisations and the value South Asians themselves place on the arts.  It will be interesting to see if South Asians themselves are aware of any inherent value in engaging with arts relating to their own ethnic and/or religious backgrounds.

To understand the place of South Asian arts in Britain, relevant literature: research and reports published by academics, arts funding bodies and South Asian arts organisations will be explored.  In addition, in order to gather the views of those participating and engaging an online survey has been developed which will be used to gather the views of those engaging with South Asian Arts.  This survey will help uncover examples of ‘hidden’ minority arts events which are often only advertised within particular networks and which usually take place in venues owned or run for members of minority ethnic communities including religious institutions and cultural centres.  An example is the annual ‘Kavi Darbar’ (‘Poetry Symposium’) organised by my doctoral partners BECAS (Bradford Educational and Cultural Association of Sikhs) which attracts Sikhs from across West and South Yorkshire.  Disseminating my doctoral research findings at this event led me to understand how the Kavi Darbar provides value for older Sikhs by allowing them to write and publicly present poetry and also brought to my attention the fact that many minority arts events may not be billed as such and may not always take place in mainstream ‘arts spaces’.  Indeed, the fact that these arts events often take place as community/religious events has important implications for the study of these communities and cultural value more generally.

So if you participate in, or engage with South Asian arts in any way, please complete the survey available here:


Farell (2004) South Asian Music in Britain in Hae-kyung Um (ed.), Diasporas and Interculturalism in Asian Performing Arts: Translating Traditions, Routledge

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