Tag Archives: decolonising history

Decolonising History – What Does That Even Mean?

Actress, writer and singer,  Danusia Samal (Out of Sorts, Busking It), was one of five playwrights who took up residence in the History department of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
Danusia’s audio drama, The Museum, is inspired by what she found, having attended classes and engaged with the students and teachers. Here, Danusia shares the experiences of her ten-day SOAS residency.  

Playwright, Danusia Samal

I was thrilled when back in 2018, Tamasha invited myself and a few other writers to SOAS University to discuss a potential new project. They wanted to create a series of short audio dramas written in collaboration with the university. The theme would be “Decolonising History”.

Having recently started exploring my own cultural history, the idea of ‘decolonising’ really gripped me. Knowing family and friends who have attended SOAS, I saw it as a place where I could learn and gain access to knowledge from all over the world, to things we don’t normally see, hear or learn in traditional British education or the media. When the project was confirmed and I was asked to join in, I was over the moon. Decolonise! Smash the patriarchy! I am going to write something revolutionary!

Having trained at drama school, I’ve never done an academic degree or been part of a university. I loved having my SOAS staff pass (“look at me mum, I’m a University professor!”) and being able to use the library, explore campus, and take in the atmosphere of what I felt was quite a unique university. This must be what it’s like to be an intellectual.

As participants in the project, we were encouraged to enrol on courses on the BA History Course. We could attend lectures, access online resources, and meet and talk to staff and students. ‘Decolonising History’ was always an interesting discussion starter: “What is it? What does it mean to you?”

I became very interested in the conflicts that arose from this question – internal university politics, the struggle of being taught Eastern history by almost entirely Caucasian staff, the inherent colonialism and discrimination in academia, and what, if anything, could be done to solve it.

I also loved being able to go to lectures on things I knew nothing about, learning something completely unfamiliar. Like the other writers on the project, I threw myself into getting everything I could out of the SOAS experience. I filled notebooks with notes, took out hundreds of books, wrote questionnaires for the students, conducted interviews…

That’s when the really big question arose: What the hell am I gonna write about? A particular period in history? My own cultural history? The experience of learning history? Where will it be set? Africa? The Middle East? East Asia? South Asia? The Carribbean? Europe? Do I set it in Britain? At SOAS? And for all my research, am I any wiser about what ‘decolonising history’ actually means and how it can be done?

Like many of the other writers on the project, (I hope they don’t mind me saying this) I fretted and fretted about all of the above. Deadlines loomed nearer and I didn’t have a single idea with dramatic potential. How could I do justice to all the brilliant conversations I’d had, the books I’d read, the lectures I’d attended?

Thankfully, inspiration came. In April, I was lucky enough to attend two one-day workshops: one on writing for radio with Tamasha, and another on story structure with John Yorke. Both of these helped me massively. I began to realise the obvious – I can’t tackle every aspect of this huge issue with one 20-minute audio play. But I can try my best to tell a good story, drawing on not just what I’ve learned at SOAS, but my emotional experiences of being there. If the biography I read on Steve Biko does not end up in my Tamasha audio play, perhaps something I took from it will. Nothing I’m learning is wasted, even if the material does not end up in the final piece. But I can only write a play about ‘decolonising’ as I understand and experience it.

I began to think about storytelling, how in many cultures this is how history is shared, whereas in Britain we preserve the past by making museums and filling them with artefacts.

I then thought about classic stories: Adventures, heists, thrillers. What about exploring how other cultures handle their artefacts through one of these mediums? This is how ‘The Museum’ came about. Set between a university like SOAS and a small village in Syria, it tells the story of Rima, who believes her father’s Museum was unjustly stolen by an English professor, and what she does to get it back.

After a cobbled together draft 1, I worked with Tamasha on honing the idea and creating a dramatic conflict that would translate to audio. We had discussions, redrafts, and I continued to visit SOAS and have chats with students. I was still keen to set some of the play in a university setting.

Then came the exciting bit. After a couple of months of redrafting, we gave our finished plays to Tamasha to be recorded as audio dramas by a group of talented actors. Sitting in the studio, I was thrilled to hear the story come to life. It seemed to make sense! It seemed to contain a lot of the debates I’d had about history without having to cite reams of research I’d done! It maybe even seemed to begin to explore the idea of ‘decolonising history’… but I’ll leave it to audiences to decide that.

 

Illustration by Erin Aniker

Danusia’s audio drama, The Museum, will be played to a live audience at a gathering listening event in Rich Mix, London on Wednesday 30 October. Book your tickets now. Part of Decolonising History – a Tamasha Digital Project for SOAS.

 


Decolonising History: A Student’s Perspective

Decolonising History, a Tamasha Digital project for SOAS, is a thrilling collection of audio dramas created to analyse the concept and viability of decolonisation, as well as SOAS’ history.
Through its efforts to decolonise its curriculum, as well as by contributing key voices in debates regarding the subject, SOAS has led the charge for decolonisation for a long time. However, this is also due to its past as a training college for officers of the British Empire – its own contribution towards colonialism. This series of plays challenges SOAS to look at its own past, so that it can look to the future. One student involved with Decolonising History is Indira Varma, who has just graduated with a BA in History and South Asian Studies. Here’s her experience of working with Tamasha on this project, as well as her time at SOAS.

Indira Varma

The narrative through which the South Asian diaspora has engaged with their history has often been deeply skewed and biased.

Often, the understanding is that the Empire enriched and benefited South Asia in the long term – something which a lot of Indians today believe. My own father even believes that without the British and their infrastructure, South Asian development would have been slowed by 100 years, even though there is significant proof to show that pre-colonial Indian legal and governing systems were much more diverse and advanced than their Western counterparts.

Media has also played an important role in this narrative; films like The Viceroy’s House and shows such as Indian Summer whitewash and glorify the history of the Empire to the general public, usually only providing one perspective on the matter and altering the stance many Brits take towards colonialism and the British Raj.

There is a lack of accountability and honesty in Britain’s mainstream representation of the Empire. This is why it is extremely important for the playwrights from Tamasha to bring historical debates outside of an academic setting – above all, to give an honest reflection on British rule. Being able to have engaging and insightful discussions with Satinder and Guleraana (Decolonising History writers Chohan and Mir) outside of a classroom setting was a very interesting way to gain new perspectives on South Asian history.

A desire to study a decolonised history is one of the main reasons why myself and so many other South Asians have chosen to study at an institution like SOAS. Honest about its own involvement in the histories of colonialism, SOAS has provided me with a multi-dimensional and intimate learning experience. Ranging from the variety of how history is taught to the perspectives from which history is seen, there is no other place that could have taught me about my own country in a more personal and honest way.

Only through the decolonisation of history and acceptance of Britain’s role in many atrocities committed throughout the colonial era, can there be a deeper understanding of the multifaceted and diverse South Asian subcontinent.

Illustration by Erin Aniker

The five audio dramas will be playing to a live audience at ‘gathered listening’ events in theatres and cultural spaces across the UK. Full dates and information

 


“Both fascinated and alarmed by Britain’s collective historical amnesia, I had to be involved in a project that sought to ‘decolonise history’.”

Journalist turned playwright and writer of Tamasha’s Made in India (2017), Satinder Chohan was one of five playwrights who took up residence in the History department of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
Satinder’s audio drama, Scar Tissue, is inspired by what she found, having attended classes and engaged with the students and teachers. Here, Satinder shares the experiences of her ten-day SOAS residency.  

Playwright, Satinder Chohan

Back in the ancient period of my University of London student days, I regularly used to retreat to Senate House to study, then occasionally hang out at SOAS, whilst sneaking in some Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Paul Gilroy as I swotted up on the Western literary canon as an English Lit student. Decades and hazy student memories later, I returned as a writer for Decolonising History, a project for SOAS by Tamasha Digital.

Five writers from diverse backgrounds were in residence at SOAS, sitting in on BA history classes of their choosing for ten days over two months to inspire ideas for five short audio dramas, seeking to interrogate the teaching of history in British schools and universities and to write untold stories from a non Western perspective.

Even in those ancient student days (and still now), I would get into heated arguments about Britishness and British history, for not supporting the English at football or cricket, for recoiling from the loaded Union Jack and Rule Britannia.

I have never felt comfortable being British in a Britain that frequently whitewashes the darker aspects of its imperial history.

Through my family and immigrant community, I learnt about the contributions of my grandfather and his generation to the British war effort, my immigrant parents’ contributions to the rebuilding of post-war Britain, about Partition and the horrors of profiteering British exploits throughout its Empire, but rarely saw these taught at school or discussed and even acknowledged in the nation at large. Both fascinated and alarmed by Britain’s collective historical amnesia, I had to be involved in a project that sought to ‘decolonise history’.

At SOAS, I took classes and lectures around Partition, including ‘Introduction to the History of South Asia’, ‘Histories of Partition: India and Pakistan 1947’ and ‘Colonialism and Nationalism’. Years ago, I read Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, a ground-breaking, visceral work that uses oral histories to tell the untold stories of Partition survivors, the smaller, invisible players whose experiences were largely silenced in the grander political game-playing history of Partition. Sitting in on brilliant lecturer Eleanor Newbigin’s classes, I began building on that book, learning about the subcontinental holocaust of Partition in more detail, through both its big and small players.

Rural Sikhs in a long oxcart train headed towards India. 1947. Margaret Bourke-White. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oxcart-train1947.jpg

As a 21st century university student, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material available through Moodle! No more just taking notes with pen and paper, lugging piles of library books home. Now, instantly downloadable articles and books, video lectures, class group chats, access to archives to decolonise history at one’s fingertips. I chatted with Eleanor outside class too about Partition, Empire and Britain’s imperial legacy. I spoke to mostly female SOAS students on those courses about history as a subject and its importance and role in their own lives. Impressive and inspiring, all were balancing their studies with a desire to take their historical knowledge and work into the world, to help other women, whether pushing for more female-conscious legislation, working with abused women in their local communities, travelling to Palestine or making ethnographic films focusing on women in Pakistan.

Even though I have always been hugely political, I wasn’t very politically active at college, so it was so affirming to see such a high level of political awareness among almost all the students I encountered. Through the copious reading and stimulating conversations, I began to think about an idea and wanted to write a Partition drama from a contemporary female student perspective. Listening to Partition archives, I also thought about the urgent need to record the memories of the last of the Partition survivors, silenced too long by colonial history. I felt the drama should involve a recently deceased grandmother who leaves behind oral recordings of her life including the revelation of a terrible Partition secret. Oral recordings seemed apt for an aural medium!

As I wrote Scar Tissue, I thought a lot about history and memory (its fragility and reliability) – about the experiences we choose to remember and those we choose to bury, in both family and nation.

Colonised narratives exist and persist in families and a wider world, so that the coloniser’s dominant view overrides other ones. When colonisers bury crimes of the past, historical amnesia develops. So I wanted the audio drama to explore how one family member wants to instigate small ‘decolonising’ changes against the inherited, harmful, forgotten narratives of the past. Yet conflict arises when the rest of the family want to maintain a prevailing colonial narrative that upholds the status quo. While some want to confront and decolonise history to heal an often darker past, reveal other truths and bring a new balance to an inequitable order, others want to deny, cover up, ignore or fabricate new narratives about past events. Crimes and wrongdoings have happened within families and nations and while we can’t change them, we don’t have to turn away from ugly, violent history out of ignorance, shame, guilt or denial. Perhaps we should try to confront those events as boldly and truthfully as possible to heal the past and learn something for the future, rather than repeat colonial narratives and crimes ad nauseam, to only benefit and hear the voices of the few.

Two Muslim men (in a rural refugee train headed towards Pakistan) carrying an old woman in a makeshift Doli or palanquin. 1947. Margaret Bourke-White. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Two-men-carrying-woman1947.jpg

Decolonising History has been a vital, exciting project to be involved in, using audio drama and academia to provoke greater debate and awareness around the need for a more inclusive culturally diverse history in academic circles and public discourse. In a globally connected age, in which students are challenging Western-centric and Eurocentric world views and structures, curriculums and canons, pulling down colonial statues and relics, SOAS and Tamasha are at the very heart of a project that questions centuries long Western colonial dominance in and beyond ivory towers. Our project is a tiny contribution to all this – an attempt at a more honest, grown-up debate, so that we can learn more about who we all are and how we relate to one another, to our past and our future in 21st century Britain. This is especially so in a Brexit Britain, overshadowed by Britain’s ‘glorious’ past in an amnesiac nation that has never dealt with its loss of empire – raising pressing questions for us all about how history should live today.

Illustration by Erin Aniker

Satinder’s audio drama, Scar Tissue, is premiering at SOAS on 8 October. Book your tickets to the gathered listening event and for a chance to speak to Satinder and the four other writers. Part of Decolonising History – a Tamasha Digital Project for SOAS.

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