Frame by frame, the stories come alive, taking you back in time to the trials and tribulations, agonies and ecstasies, struggles and successes of a displaced Indian community. Since the 1960s to the 1980s nearly 40,000 Punjabis made Wolverhampton, their home. How they lived their early years and the impact it had on their future came alive in a talk by Anand Chhabra, Founder and Chair of the Black Country Visual Arts (BCVA). His project, ‘Apna Heritage Archive’, is a collection of original photographs of Punjabi migration to the city from January 2016 to 2018.
On the invitation of the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi for an audio-visual presentation, ‘Punjabi Migration to Wolverhampton: A Photographic Journey 1960-1989’, Chhabra presented the research he had been working on. “It is a special moment for me to stand here in the land of my fathers and take my work across Punjab and India. This project preserves social history and presents the untold history of the Punjabi community, through the photography,” said 45-year-old Chhabra, an art photographer, who presented individual stories to provide context to the archive.
The archive works with culturally diverse communities to help stories reach a visual end. It primarily engages with communities who are not exposed to the visual arts. It was founded in 2014 to inspire, engage and profile culturally diverse communities, who currently have little or no engagement with the visual arts in the Black Country region of the UK.
This project, says Chhabra, is vital at this time as many of the earlier Punjabi migrants are now old. It captures their visual trajectory, from roots to legacy. “Further still for Wolverhampton, with the second largest Punjabi population in the UK, after Slough, there are very few documents and photographs relating to South Asians in the formal city archives. This project has redressed this and created a new resource. It all began with just 27 images, starting with my own family, as we struggled to convince people to contribute their historic family photographs to the new archive. They were apprehensive, as many didn’t know what the project aspired to do,” says Chhabra.
Going from home to home, spending time with people, talking about the premise of the project, Chhabra says what most people connected with was the statement: “You came here with nothing, do you want your children and grandchildren to forget what you achieved and how you built a life and contributed to the larger community.”
With both time and patience, they got a space in the Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara to work, where these photographs found a permanent place. People began to understand the idea, with women most forthcoming and eager to share and help, and slowly, they were able to not just collect images, but archive everything about each photograph. “It was a lot of work to know the truth about each photograph. Many went back in time to relive the life they had built here, since most of them had worked in steel factories. Each image had so many memories attached to it.” The exhibition was divided into three sections, with photographs depicting each decade. The 1960s portrayed the early migration years, the 1970s showed how material objects presented a change in lifestyle, while the 1980s focused on the cultural aspects.
Chhabra has received the Artist International Development Grant to research about the ‘Family Album’ in India and to host talks and conduct workshops. “How is India responding to images in the digital age, where do all the images we take on mobiles go, is the family album disappearing, and how do Indians preserve their memories. These are some of the questions the research hopes to answer.”