Bradford’s a wonderful place to be a photographer. I arrived in 1985 thinking I’d stay a year or two, but three decades later I’m still here. The city remains both a home to me and a source of much of my work, and it’s full of people with extraordinary life stories that connect where we live to the rest of the world.
Exploring stories of migration remains a recurring theme for me. I’m fascinated by individual life stories that often depend on chance and circumstance, but are also shaped by the broad sweep of world affairs. The First and Second World Wars, the Partition of British India and the break-up of the Soviet Union are a few examples of global events that have had a profound effect on our city and its cosmopolitan communities. I’m particularly interested in how the textiles industry and international networks created via trade and the British Empire have brought many people to Bradford, as well as other parts of Britain.
The ambition of much of my work is to weave together the historical narrative with personal stories, whilst exploring connections between Britain and overseas. Photography, film making and oral history (recording people’s stories) are great tools for this, and act as my passport. I’ve had the privilege of photographing many remarkable people who have shared their own lives and those of their communities, both here and overseas. Conversations started locally have often been continued in eastern Europe – on islands in the Caribbean, in west Africa, east Africa, and in India and Pakistan.
My most recent journeys took me to north-western India where I spent nine weeks working in the state of Gujarat and in Mumbai, India’s biggest city still known by many locals as Bombay. The resulting exhibition, India’s Gateway, can now be seen at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery and the University of Bradford as part of a national tour to six different towns and cities, funded by Arts Council England and supported by Bradford-based Oriental Arts.
The show weaves together photographs, film and people’s stories to explore the history of Gujarat and Mumbai as age-old centres of global trade and migration. It also focuses on their remarkable relationship with Britain, showing how this changed the region and its people, who in turn have profoundly altered the face of modern-day Britain. People of Gujarati heritage make up around half of the 1.5 million Indians and British Indians now living in Britain. The port of Bombay, once part of Gujarat, was for centuries the sub-continent’s main maritime link with Britain and played a fundamental role in the migration of Gujaratis, as well as many of those who laid the foundations of Britain’s Punjabi and Pakistani communities.
By the time sailing ships from London reached Surat in 1608, marking the first point of contact between Britain and the subcontinent, Gujarat had been a centre for international trade for over 3,000 years. Its ports along the Arabian Sea connected northern India with the outside world, and were the crossroads for sea routes between Arabia, Africa, southeast Asia, Indonesia, and China.
Trade brought people from overseas and from other parts of Asia to Gujarat. Control of the region’s ports and trading routes made many local communities very wealthy. People from Gujarat also traveled widely and settled in many parts of the world, from East Africa to the Pacific Ocean, and eventually found their way to Britain. India’s Gateway aims to tell this story by reflecting the region’s vibrant diversity of cultures, using photographs and people’s stories to reveal glimpses of contemporary life acted out in a landscape shaped by a rich history of trade, seafaring and migration.
Gujarat is about the same size as Britain, with most British Gujaratis originating from the coastal belt which runs from Kutch in the north to the southern areas closer to Mumbai. Different towns and cities in Britain have close links to particular regions over there and I met, photographed and interviewed many people from Britain during my trip. Most of Bradford’s Gujaratis trace their roots to southern parts of the state, around towns such as Surat, Navsari and Valsad.
One of several stories featured in the show is that of Kaushy Patel, who grew up in the Navsari area and will be known to many readers as the founder of Prashad, the award-winning local restaurant which serves some of the best vegetarian Gujarati food. Prashad have also sponsored the India’s Gateway show and the book that accompanies it. The exhibition and book show that Gujarat is home to people with a vast range of lifestyles, but one thing that unites them all is a love of good food. They aren’t the only ones – Gujarati cuisine is now enjoyed all over the world, and that includes me, and Bradford.
The main part of the exhibition will be shown at Bradford’s Cartwright Hall Art Gallery from 20 March to 3 July 2016. Gallery II at the University of Bradford will also be displaying the section of the show exploring the textile industry in Gujarat from 24 March to 2 June. Please check their website for opening times.
The India’s Gateway book is published by Northern Arts Publications and available from all the usual outlets, local bookshops and online. Find out more at www.indiasgateway.org