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South Asian Heritage Month: Commemorating culture, history, art and entrepreneurship

The inaugural South Asian Heritage Month has brought together an inspiring mix of artists, designers, filmmakers and writers, along with entrepreneurs who shared stories and business insights. 

Last updated: 16 Sep 2020 6 min read

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Presenter, comedian and writer Zara Janjua will host a roundtable to close the first South Asian Heritage Month on 17 August.

South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) is proud to support the thousands of UK entrepreneurs who have emerged from the vibrant South Asian community.

SAHM, supported by Royal Bank of Scotland, runs until 17 August, marking the first time the event has been held in Britain.

As well as commemorating and celebrating the cultures of the South Asian nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – SAHM coincides with two historically significant dates for South Asian nations: SAHM began on 18 July, the date the Indian Independence Act gained royal assent from George VI in 1947, and ends on 17 August, Partition Commemoration Day.

SAHM was founded by Jasvir Singh OBE, a barrister and activist, and Dr Binita Kane, a respiratory consultant at University Hospital of South Manchester. Singh says the idea for the month came up in 2017. “It was the 70th anniversary of the events of 1947,” he explains. “I wanted people to mark the events in their own way through commemoration or celebration.

“We wanted to see what we could do to help people understand partition and embrace the beauty of the culture and history. It has been an incredible success. We’re excited to have a month that isn’t connected to religion or festivals but identity, culture and heritage.”

Kane adds: “There are 3m South Asians in the UK – that's one in every 20 people who can trace their roots back to one of the eight countries of South Asia – as well as millennia of history linking Britain and South Asia. This relationship has influenced every aspect of British life.

“South Asian Heritage Month does just that: it creates a space to celebrate, commemorate and educate. We had always planned to launch in 2020 as there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be done, but it feels particularly poignant to be launching this year in view of the Black Lives Matter campaign and the moment in history that we find ourselves in.”

Sharing experiences

To mark the final evening of the inaugural SAHM on 17 August, Royal Bank of Scotland held a virtual round-table event featuring a panel including celebrity chef and restaurateur Tony Singh MBE; hip-hop musician Raj Forever; and author and women’s advocate Pinky Lilani CBE.

The round table, Coffee & Chai with the Multicultural Network, was hosted by Scottish-Pakistani presenter, comedian and writer Zara Janjua, with panellists being invited to share stories about their own lives and heritage, as well as any barriers they have faced in their careers, and the role models who have made the greatest impact. You can watch it below.

Raj Forever, who has a Sri Lankan father and Jamaican mother, says: “I love how colourful life is because of my mixed heritage. Food, music, clothes, conversations – everything is rich and vibrant and that energy influences me as an artist.

“In some eyes I look like a young Black boy, but I have South Asian infusions, which creates confusion for some people. I have experienced prejudice and barriers, but with music, my heritage is power – it opens doors.”

Pinky Lilani adds: “It’s important to celebrate South Asian heritage because we all live in this global mix and we sometimes don’t know what the characteristics of people from different countries are. But by understanding these characteristics, we can get positive energies and learn from what others do well.”

“We’re excited to have a month that isn’t connected to religion or festivals but identity, culture and heritage” Jasvir Singh OBE, co-founder, South Asian Heritage Month

South Asians are typically under-represented in the UK business community, says Shamraz Begum, global co-chair of the Multicultural Network and co-lead of the BAME taskforce at Royal Bank of Scotland. “This is a feature we have in common with other ethnic minorities in the UK,” she adds. 

“Recent data showed that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] people hold just 4.6% of the UK's most powerful roles. Within business and finance, only 5% of the most senior roles are held by BAME people. That means, ultimately, that business is lacking in the strength that diversity brings. This presents us with a great opportunity to be more representative of our diverse communities and champion the potential of under-represented groups in the UK.”

Begum adds: “The bank has a large and thriving South Asian community thanks to our presence in India, as well as our South Asian colleagues in the UK and elsewhere. It’s so important to recognise and celebrate each other’s heritage, to help us all to learn about each other and understand our cultures.

“My parents came to the UK from Pakistan, and, of course, my roots go back to India. I’m a British Asian with proud South Asian heritage so it’s great to celebrate with my fellow South Asians and share our history with my colleagues.”

Parm Bhangal, managing director of Bhangals Construction Consultants, says his South Asian heritage was one of the decisive factors in becoming an entrepreneur. “I think a lot of people with our background tend to own businesses – my uncles and other family members have businesses – so, growing up, it was natural to be steered towards doing that.

“I got a lot of advice from my family network – and I still do. It is a very supportive community, including business owners who aren’t friends or family.”

Bhangal believes this entrepreneurial spirit can be linked to the history of South Asian immigrants. “My grandparents always owned their own land, for example, so you often find people with Asian backgrounds in the UK are looking to buy property because that is the way we have been brought up in India and so on. Owning your own business is a logical extension of that.”

Encouraging lasting change

The inaugural SAHM has been a resounding success, says Kane, although there is still work to be done. “If we have learned anything from the past four weeks, it's that there is still a lot of work to do for people to feel their voices are being heard, to educate people about Britain's colonial past and to tackle difficult issues within South Asian cultures head on,” she says. 

“We hope SAHM will allow British South Asians to reclaim their history and identity.”

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