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Embroidery, India

Creativity and improvisation among Indian migrants in Northern Ireland

Maruska Svasek and Amit Desai

The research conducted in Northern Ireland examined Indian migrants’ engagements with artefacts as a dimension of diasporic identity formation, intergroup dynamics, and transnational belonging. We mainly focused on activities of members of the 50+ Group, a group of around 20 men and women aged between 50 and 86 who meet once a week in the Indian Community Centre in Belfast (ICC). Regarded as a social space in which mobile people and moveable things exist in various relationships, the ICC is a fascinating example of diasporic community making through creative acts of appropriation and experimentation. In many ways comparable to Indian migrant organisations in other parts of the UK, the specifics of the Northern Irish locale influenced the establishment and functioning of the ICC and the activities of the 50+ Group. 

As a voluntary organisation, the ICC was founded by migrants from the Punjab who come from the Jalandhar district. The ICC also accommodates Indians from other parts of India and Indian migrants from East Africa. Looking for a communal space to organise social activities and foster a sense of diasporic identity, the community bought Carlisle Methodist Memorial Church Hall in 1981. The hall was originally part of the adjacent Carlisle Methodist Memorial Church, an architectural complex that was designed by architect W. H. Lynn in a Gothic Revival style in the nineteenth century. Completed in 1875, the buildings served one of the largest Methodist congregations in Belfast, thus visually marking the area as Protestant territory. Another nearby architectural signifier of Protestant social history is the Belfast Orange Hall, opened in 1885.

Our exploration of the transformation of Carlisle Methodist Memorial Church Hall into a site of Indian diasporic activity sheds light on the political situation in Belfast during the time of the Troubles. In 1981, the church was located at a major interface area between Catholic and Protestant populations, and as such, became a material signifier and spatial marker of the division, arousing strong emotions on both sides of the conflict. As a result of the tensions and a decreasing congregation, the church building was closed in1982 and became derelict. Being neither Protestant nor Catholic and thus mostly regarded as ‘other’, the Hindu Punjabi migrants used the adjacent Hall without major disturbances. Two floors of the building are used for communal meetings, and one area on the first floor has been redesigned as a temple space, the Shri Laxmi Narayan Mandir. The building also contains a kitchen, an office and a residential area for the priest. The Methodist Church next door has remained unused for the past thirty years, but in the present political climate of reconciliation, the city of Belfast has plans to rebrand it as site of shared Northern Irish heritage.

The creative appropriation of Carlisle Methodist Memorial Church Hall by the Indian community in 1981 must be analysed against the background of the political history of Northern Ireland. The Indian community did not only take advantage of the troubled situation, responding to the willingness of the Methodist Church to sell their Memorial Hall, but also remade the building into a social and material space of diasporic belonging and reconciliation work. We found that, through the creative framing and use of a wide variety of artefacts in 2010, 2011 and 2012, community members turned the space into a performative site in which identities were claimed and experiences managed in accordance with the types of events organised. These events included get-togethers of the 50+ Group, an art course and a computer course, Bhagavad Gita sessions, and temple visits by school children, university students and a youth group. Larger events included Diwali celebrations with Irish invitees, celebrations of St Patrick’s Day and the Queen’s Jubilee with Irish senior citizen groups, and three days of festivities around the reconsecration of the temple in which Swami Sri Gopal Sharan Devacharya ji Maharaj, based at Sri Golokdham Ashram in Delhi, played a major role. The latter’s presence in the temple unveils infrastructural links that stretch across the world. Since 1980, he has been one of the driving forces of temple building, supporting the construction of 72 new temples in Canada, the US, the UK and elsewhere. Over the years, he has also made frequent visits to the ICC in Belfast, and some ICC members have visited him in India.

A key concept that emerged from our empirical work was the notion of transvision. The focus on ‘vision’ is appropriate, as improvisational acts around visual imagery seemed central to our informants’ experiences of personhood and relatedness in the ICC setting. In this context, we understand improvisation as a creative play with the expected and the unexpected, within and beyond existing regimes of value. The prefix ‘trans’ is suitable because our informants employed visible artefacts to mediate multiple perspectives and stimulate movement between different points of view.

In the temple, for example, many of the devotional practices centered on colourful, elaborately ornamented deities such as Vishnu, Krishna, Lakshmi and Ganesh. The idols, regarded by the community as different manifestations of the divine,had been ordered in 1981 in Rajasthan and, once brought over to Belfast, had been recontextualised within the spatial context of the diasporic temple. In this way, not only was Hindu sacred space distributed globally, connecting Indian and Irish locations as sources of divine power; the deities in the temple also provided an alternative religious space beyond the familiar binaries of Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland. Frequent presence of the priest and devotees in the temple space is essential to the continuation and increase of the idols’ divine agency; worshippers add to the power of the materialized gods through puja (worship) and prayer.

While multiple senses are activated during acts of devotion, devotees often referred to the visual when speaking about their experience of the divine. Recurrent visual embellishment, such as the monthly change of dress, for example, mediates their access to the divine. The visible presence of the murtis triggers concentration and a mood of spirituality, allowing worshippers to focus their attention on inner transformations. Seeing sacred objects that had been brought from India also ignite embodied visual memories of similar objects, located in the homeland.

Puja rooms in people’s homes also provided a visual stimulant to enter in a relationship with the distant divine and the absent homeland. In combination with other sensorial engagements (smelling incense, hearing chanting), seeing material mediators of God helped to make the absent divine present. Depictions of deities, gurus and deceased kin, as well as ritual items that had been passed down generations, functioned as visible agents that called for action. The focus on improvisational dynamics highlights the processual and open-ended potential of the engagement. The people we spoke with experimented within and beyond the boundaries of dynamic affective, aesthetic and discursive regimes. The interplay of bodies and religious artefact generated an embodied understanding of the spiritual, turning the abstract idea of the transcendental into an experienced reality. The mediating capacity of connected internal and external materialities (i.e. bodies and things) is partly the result of familiarity with specific affective regimes and aesthetic formations Taking the idea of interplay seriously, there is also scope for creative improvisation. For example, as one lady explained, when changing the clothing of the idolsin her home shrine, she does not follow the priest in the temple, but chooses her own colour schemes, and unlike some other Hindus, she does not object to the portrayal of nude goddesses.

Transvision also describes the process whereby the orchestrated seeing of objects in the ICC setting, and the creation of dialogues around them, is intended to break the ice between Indian hosts and Irish visitors. During the St Patrick’s Day celebration in 2012, for example, the 50+ Group decorated the ICC with green balloons and paper shamrocks, and the ladies were dressed in green saris; some were wearing green cowboy hats emblazoned with ‘St Patrick’s Day’. Inviting groups of senior citizens from various local organizations, comments were exchanged about these objects, and jokes about and memories relating to St Patrick’s Day were shared. This created a temporary sense of shared Irishness. Similarly during the celebrations at the occasion of the Queen’s Jubilee, the 50+ Group changed the visual appearance of the ICC community space, this time decorating it with red, white and blue balloons, and including images (on cups, plates and masks) referring to Queen Elizabeth and other members of the Royal Family. Again, through jokes and banter, an atmosphere of shared heritage was created. While these kinds of celebrations fit in a government policy of reconciliation and anti-racism, and the shaping of the event follows a recurrent format, there is space for experimentation, innovation and change. In the case of cross-community events with the elderly, frequent humorous comments about white hair and wrinkles also emphasized shared sight, in this case referring to visible elements of ageing that united the different groups. Gender-focused exchanges about looks and fashion were stimulated whenever Irish ladies were asked to dress up in saries.

Overall, the research demonstrated that the production, use and institutional management of artefacts in the diasporic setting was partially shaped by improvisational acts within and beyond aesthetic, affective and political regimes. The Indian community claimed identities through engagement with material culture within the context of local concerns, such as the onset of the Troubles and the drive of the Peace Process. At the same time, translocal and transnational movement of people and things stimulated new forms of creative interaction. dialogue and empathy, both within the ICC and across different ethnic and religious communities. The urge to overcoming distance -- in time and space, between social groupings, and between individuals and the divine, turned out to be a major drive of artefact focussed behaviour Two aspects of vision, the policing gaze of control and the concerned sight of empathetic care were central to this process.  


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