Britain’s colonial relationship with South Asia led to many cross-cultural exchanges in the arts and sciences. Indian arts, craft and textiles had a major impact on British design in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Indian decorative art was highly prized, inspiring Victorian designers like William Morris. Prompted by art critic Ananda Coomaraswamy, 20th century sculptors Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill were influenced by Indian art. Poet Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, and writers and critics like T S Eliot and E M Forster established influential friendships with Indian writers such as Mulk Raj Anand.
South Asian intellectuals and academics working in Britain contributed to major scientific discoveries. Notable contributions from a range of disciplines include doctor Frederick Akbar Mahomed, who advanced research into high blood pressure, economist R C Dutt, who wrote the influential Economic History of British India, and mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, leading number theorist of the 20th century.
Frederick Akbar Mahomed
In 1879, Frederick Akbar Mahomed published his research on the cause and progression of high blood pressure in the medical journal The Lancet, changing forever our understanding of hypertension.
Brighton born, Mahomed was grandson of Sake Dean Mahomed, famous as George the IV’s shampooing surgeon in the early 1800s. He was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and doctor at Guys Hospital, London.
His pioneering work overturned accepted theories on the cause of hypertension. He showed that high blood pressure led to kidney damage and other illnesses and not the other way round. Even apparently healthy people could suffer from raised blood pressure, which undetected could prove fatal, an important discovery for public health.
Nothing significantly new has been added to his discoveries, yet he remains unacknowledged. He died from typhoid in 1884 aged 35. A subscription was set up at St Mary's and Guy's by his medical colleagues to help his wife and five children. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.
Romesh Chunder Dutt
Calcutta-born Romesh Chunder Dutt arrived in Britain in 1868. After enrolling at University College, London he sat the Indian Civil Service exam and was called to the Bar in 1871. He divided his time between India and Britain. In 1897, he was appointed Professor of Indian History at University College, London. His seminal study The Economic History of British India (1901) developed a ground-breaking critique of colonialism, focussing on the draining away of wealth by Britain that deprived India of economic development. He advanced his argument alongside MP Dadabhai Naoroji and Major B D Basu. His work later influenced the economist John Maynard Keynes.
Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to study law at Oxford University in 1889. She fought a long battle to sit the law exam alongside her male colleagues, a first victory for opening up the profession to women and equality in higher education. Sorabji was prevented from practicing as a lawyer until the ban on women in the legal profession was lifted in 1919. She returned to India in 1894 to work as a legal adviser. She retired in Britain in the 1930s, working as a writer and broadcaster. She was critical of the Indian independence movement. She died in her home in Finsbury Park in 1954.
Cricket, the quintessential empire sport, attracted many of India’s royal elite and Indian university students in Britain. One of the most prominent examples is Prince K S Ranjitsinhji, Maharaja Jam Sahib of Navanagar. A student at Trinity College, Cambridge, he started playing for Sussex in 1895 and became team captain four years later. The first Indian to play for England in 1896, Ranji made his test match debut against Australia at Old Trafford cricket ground. In 1899, he was the first cricketer to score 3,000 runs in one season, a feat he repeated in 1900. His partnership with fellow Sussex cricketer C. B. Fry was one of the most successful in cricket history.
A champion batsman and affectionately known as Ranji, he captured the public imagination and was worshipped by his fans. Cigarette cards and other souvenirs featured his image, and songs were written in his praise. Over his 27-year career in test cricket he scored over 24,600 runs, including 72 centuries, and took 133 wickets. Many others like Iftikar-Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi (the last cricketer to play for both England and India) and Monty Panesar today, followed in his tracks.
Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize Winner
Poet Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection Gitanjali, published in London in 1912. The prize gained much significance by being given to an Indian for the first time. This honour established Tagore’s literary reputation worldwide. Tagore was awarded a knighthood for services to literature in 1915 which he returned in 1919 in protest against the Amritsar massacre. He remained a lasting influence on poets like W B Yeats and Ezra Pound.
Tagore was also renowned as a visual artist and educational theorist. His school at Santiniketan and Viswa-Bharati University focused on developing the child’s imagination, and had a lasting impact on education. Santiniketan engaged many scholars from across the world, including his English friends, Oxford professor E J Thompson, missionary C F Andrews and Lord Elmhirst, who followed Tagore’s learning and teaching style at Dartington Hall, Devon.
Ananda Coomaraswamy and Eric Gill
Art Historian Ananda Coomaraswamy contributed significantly to debates on Indian art in Britain. A founding member of London’s India Society in 1910, he promoted Indian art to educate Europeans about Indian sculpture and painting. Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, two of Britain’s most important Modernist sculptors, enthusiastically began to imitate Indian techniques and styles, inspired by photos shown to them by Coomaraswamy. Eric Gill took inspiration from Hindu representations of the divine, demonstrated in this woodcut he made for Coomaraswamy.
Asians in 1930s literary London
Many South Asian writers and editors were part of London’s vibrant literary scene, forming lasting relationships with their British counterparts. T S Eliot and E M Forster mentored writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and Narayana Menon. Many worked with George Orwell for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service. Through his magazine Poetry London (1939-50) Ceylon-born editor M J Tambimuttu revived poetry in war-time London, publishing work by poets such as Dylan Thomas and William Empson and artists like Barbara Hepworth.
The magazine Indian Writing was edited by Asians associated with the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association. It featured short stories, critical essays and reviews. It provided a platform for many writers and activists in the 1940s. Published from Sasadhar Sinha’s Bibliophile Bookshop near the British Museum, it served as a meeting place for many Indian intellectuals.