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Culture and intellectual life

Discover the contributions and influence of South Asian artists, poets, intellectuals and sportspeople within British arts, sciences, law and sport.

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 drew influences from 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.

In other fields, South Asian intellectuals and academics working in Britain contributed to major scientific discoveries. Notable contributions from a range of disciplines include Dr 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, a 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.

Born in Brighton, Mahomed was the grandson of Sake Dean Mahomed (who found fame as King George 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 Guy’s 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 – not the other way round. Even apparently healthy people could suffer from raised blood pressure, which undetected could prove fatal. This was a landmark discovery for public health.

Nothing significantly new has been added to Mahomed’s 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.

Obituary for Frederick Akbar Mahomed

Obituary for Frederick Akbar Mahomed

A member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Assistant Physician at Guy’s Hospital, London, Frederick Akbar Mahomed’s contribution to medicine was far-reaching. This obituary describes him as ‘quick, energetic and compulsive’, and lists his achievements including his contribution to understanding kidney-disease.

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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.

Photograph of Romesh Chunder Dutt

Photograph of Romesh Chunder Dutt

As a Professor of Indian History, Romesh Chunder Dutt developed a revolutionary critique of colonialism. His seminal study The Economic History of British India, published in 1901, focussed on how British governance deprived India of economic development.

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Cornelia Sorabji

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, however, until the ban on women in the legal profession was lifted in 1919. Meanwhile, 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. During her life she was critical of the Indian independence movement. She died at her home in Finsbury Park in 1954.

Photograph of Cornelia Sorabji

Cornelia Sorabji making a radio broadcast

In later life, Cornelia Sorabji was an active writer and broadcaster in Britain. Amongst her books were two autobiographies and other works reflecting her life, including Queen Mary’s Book of India, which raised money for the Indian Comforts Fund during WWII.

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Cricket

Cricket, the quintessential Empire sport, attracted many of India’s royal elite and Indian university students in Britain. One of the most famous early cricketers was K S Ranjitsinhji, Prince of Nawanagar State in India. 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.

Song praising K S Ranjitsinhji's cricketing skills

Photograph alongside song praising K S Ranjitsinhji's cricketing skills

Photograph of K S Ranjitsinhji featured on the title page of C T West's lyrical verse praising his achievements. 

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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.[1] Many others – like Iftikar-Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi (the last cricketer to play for both England and India) and Monty Panesar – have followed in his tracks.

Song praising K S Ranjitsinhji's cricketing skills

Song praising K S Ranjitsinhji's cricketing skills

As a champion batsman, Ranji captured the public imagination. Songs, such as this one by C T West, were written in his praise.

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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 renounced in 1919 in protest against the Amritsar massacre (also known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre). He remained a lasting influence on poets like W B Yeats and Ezra Pound.

Gitanjali-Song Offerings, by Rabindranath Tagore

Title page of Gitanjali

Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore, is a collection of his poems translated from Hindustani. In 1913, Tagore was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature because of his ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’.

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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.

Gitanjali-Song Offerings, by Rabindranath Tagore

Gitanjali song-offerings, by Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was a renowned author, visual artist and educational theorist, which led to him being lionised by British society.

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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.

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 V K 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 including Barbara Hepworth.

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The Bibliophile bookshop, situated near the British Museum, became a meeting place for Indian writers in the 1930s.

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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.

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An advertisement for the magazine Indian Writing which was edited by people associated with the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association. It featured short stories, critical essays and reviews.

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Footnotes

[1] ESPNcricinfo, 'Ranji', [accessed April 2017].

This article was first written in 2011. This version was published, with some editorial changes, in July 2017.

  • Susheila Nasta
  • Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature at The Open University and Founding Editor of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing. She has published several books and essays, including Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain (2002), Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk (2004) and Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). She was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded research project ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and directed the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12), partnered by the British Library and British Council. In 2011, she was awarded an MBE for services to black and Asian literature. From September 2017, she will join the Department of English and Drama, Queen Mary College, University of London.

  • Dr Florian Stadtler
  • Senior Lecturer in Global Literatures at the University of Exeter. Previously Research Fellow at The Open University, he worked on the AHRC-funded projects ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12). He has published articles and essays on South Asian and British Asian history and literature, as well as Indian popular cinema. He edited a special issue of Wasafiri magazine, ‘Britain and India: cross-cultural encounters’ (June 2012) and curated with Susheila Nasta, Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). His monograph Fiction Film and Indian Popular Cinema: Salman Rushdie’s Novels and the Cinematic Imagination was published in 2013. He is Reviews Editor of Wasafiri.

  • Rozina Visram
  • A distinguished historian and educationalist. Her major publications include Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700–1947 (Pluto, 1986), reissued by Routledge in 2016, and Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto, 2002). She has written several books for schools and has contributed to many publications, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She co-authored a pioneering report for the Geffrye Museum on presenting histories in a diverse society and was advisor and researcher to the Museum of London’s Peopling of London exhibition. In 2006 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by The Open University. She was advisor to the ‘Making Britain’ project from 2007 to 2010 and consultant on the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame’. She was also a consultant on the National Archives education project, ‘Indian Soldiers on the Western Front: Loyalty and Dissent’ (July 2016–January 2017). Her essay, ‘History of Asian Presence in Britain from 1600’ in Migrant Britain: Histories from the 17th to the 21st Centuries (Tony Kushner et al., eds.), in honour of Colin Holmes, is forthcoming.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.