The British Hinduism Oral History Project (BHOHP) ran from April 2000 to December 2004. The aim of the Project was to undertake oral history interviews with first generation Hindus in Britain in order to save their stories for posterity, to build a picture of the experiences of Hindus who have settled here, and to draw attention in the Hindu communities of the value and importance of personal story-telling, local and community history and archives, particularly among the younger generation.
In addition to interviewing, the BHOHP team has focused on archiving tapes and transcriptions so that they may be accessed in the future by researchers and other interested people, and has developed a travelling exhibition which brought the project and some of its findings to the attention of Hindus the length and breadth of the country and engaged young people in thinking about the history of their own families.
A team at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS) managed the BHOHP, including, Shaunaka Rishi das and Mrs Hari Vaudrey. The Academic Advisory team included an expert on archiving from Oxford University, Dr Gillian Evison and an Academic Facilitator from the University of Leeds, Prof. Kim Knott. Other members, who helped develop the methodology and educational perspective of the project included, Dr Nick Allen, Dr Rohit Bharot, Peggy Morgan, Dr Eleanor Nesbitt and Prof Malory Nye.
Two project workers were employed during the project, Dr Shalini Sharma and Ms Draupadi Stewart. Two volunteer interviewers, trained in partnership with the West Midlands Oral History Project, Miss Arya Burt and Mr Daniel White, did particularly well in making contacts and conducting interviews towards the end of the project.
An exhibition, ‘Community Visitor’, Mr Suryavamsa Davies was employed to organise, transport and set up the travelling exhibition at various venues. A designer, Mr Rasik Varsani contributed his skills and time in developing the exhibition. A transcription company in India, AIPL was employed. A range of volunteers assisted the project by undertaking interviews, providing lists of contacts, advising on interview questions, proofreading transcriptions and the exhibition worksheet. Many people gave their time to be interviewed. The team would like to thank all of these for their contribution to the project.
We would also like to thank Kevin Heaton and Ian Turton from MDA for all their help and kindness and John Hamer, Lynne Baillie, Helen Jackson, Nicole Xuereb and Sylvia Kneen from the Heritage Lottery Fund for their support, advice and patience throughout the project.
Three hundred and nine people were interviewed in total. Interviewees came from many different backgrounds, religious, ethnic and social. They were interviewed in towns and cities all over the UK, particularly in London and Leicester, the two main centres of Hindu population. Contact was made with them by various means, but the most common was by snowball sampling; that is, established contacts and those already interviewed provided the names of others who might be interested in participating in the project.
People were not receptive to the idea if they were just approached by one of the research team out of the blue. Rather it was found to be better if people where introduced by friends, family or through their local temple. People were more relaxed when they knew someone else who had told their story. This resulted in a national web of people from all different backgrounds and traditions being linked up in the Hindu Archive.
Interviews where conducted throughout Britain and Northern Ireland in order to get a snapshot of the demography of Hindu communities settled here. The number of interviews collected in each city is a small reflection of the numbers of Hindus settled there, but cannot be said to be representative (as everyone’s story is unique and different). Many more interviews were conducted in London and Leicester than in Cardiff or Glasgow, thus reflecting community size.
Not only did we want to collect interviews from diverse communities within the UK but we also wanted to make sure that people we interviewed came from different places. The majority of Hindus originated from Gujarat in the west of India, and many of them came as ‘twice-migrants’ to the UK via the countries of East Africa. A large number of the interviews reflect this. In addition, we included many Punjabis and South Indians, as well as small numbers of Bengalis, Nepalese, and other twice-migrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere. To add another perspective to the archive we included some interviews with white Hindus, those people who have converted to Hinduism and strictly followed its rules and traditions. It is interesting to hear their stories on exploring Hinduism, Hindu society and where they feel they fit in.
When conducting interviews we found it was very important to make the interviewee as relaxed as possible. They were talking about very personal matters which included happy memories and sad or tragic memories. The researchers had to learn how to be tactful in tricky situations.
On average the interviews would last around an hour, some times a little over or under depending on the person and his or her story. Interviewers held a list of key questions and issues but would then let the interviewee talk quite freely. Basically we were there to simply guide them through the stories of their lives.
There where two key elements to the interviews, one was the interviewee’s personal history and the other was his or her religious practices and beliefs. When covering the history we would begin with the family’s background (parents’ place of birth, occupation etc), then we would move onto their own place of birth, childhood and schooling, including their migration history. (See Appendix 1 for a copy of the schedule). The next part of the interview would include when and why they moved to the UK, their initial thoughts on arrival, difficulties with settling, getting jobs, schooling, meeting their cultural and domestic needs. We also asked whether they experienced any racism, whether overt or covert.
The next part of the interview involved questions about religious practices and how these have changed over the years. As many Hindus have focused their efforts on making their families financially sound, some religious and other cultural traditions may have fallen by the wayside. Not only did we ask about practices but also about their understanding of Hindu beliefs and ideas, about what traditions they still follow and whether these are being passed on to the next generation.
The interviewers then turned to questions designed to ascertain interviewees’ opinions on much-debated issues such as the caste system and the position of young Hindus. The interview was then concluded with the interviewees’ final thoughts on future generations and the issues that would face them.
In general it was found that men were more receptive than women. It took a lot more persuasion to convince women to tell their stories, primarily for language reasons. The older men (65-85) were the most forthcoming group with younger women (45-55) coming in second. Nearly all the men could speak very good English while the women were less confident with their use of the language.
Most of those interviewed saw India as their spiritual home and identified strongly with their Indian roots, whether in Gujarat, Punjab, Bengal or other parts of India, even if they were born in East Africa or elsewhere. Rarely did those from Uganda or Kenya, for example, identify East Africa as their home, and many had not been back since they left in the 1960s or ’70s. The vast majority identified themselves as British and were very clear that they were permanently settled here. They saw this country as their home. They often quoted from their scriptures to say that wherever you make your home you must make it your duty to fit in and obey the rules of the land.
Over and above our requirements we have included a small number of photographs of interviewees and, in two cases, video of the interviews.
Some of the Hindus interviewed originated from towns and cities in the UK. These were British born Hindus, some of whom had parental origins in India while others were white people who have begun to practice forms of Hindu religion and culture.
A hot topic among the first generation was “the youth” and how to deal with them with regard to religion and culture. There were two camps, those who believed that there is no hope for young people, that they are so westernised that they have rejected all their traditional religion and culture. Then there were those who believed that the youth are more religious because they are questioning their elders on everything and have a desire to understand the meaning behind rituals and cultural customs.
Many people felt confused about their Hindu religion because of its diversity and complexity. Some were eclectic, taking ideas and practices from here and there and reaching their own conclusions. Hindus who had made the journey to the UK felt that they had lost out on their culture because on arriving here they had had to put all their energy into making their family financially sound before any question of developing their religion could be addressed. They were conscious of the problems this had caused for passing their religion on to the next generation.
The interviews conducted averaged between 50 and 80 minutes in duration with a few exceptions. They were recorded, and the tapes were then labelled and logged in preparation to be copied. Every single interview had to be copied in real time to avoid any downgrading in quality; this was a time-consuming process. The copied interviews were then sent to transcribers to be typed onto hard copy for the archive.
Initially British transcribers where approached to do the work but their quotations were too costly. After some research it was found that it would be considerably cheaper to get the work done in India. Once transcribed they were returned to the Oxford Centre to be archived.
In addition to hard copy transcription we were able to have the files digitised and returned in a format suitable for the internet. The descriptive mark-up is TEI lite (standing for Text Encoding Initiative). The structural metadata is METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard), both internationally recognised standards for meta-data mark up. Therefore we will be able to prepare most of the interviews to be available and searchable on a special section of the OCHS site on the web. This will greatly enhance accessibility for community groups and individuals, researchers, the media and local and national agencies.
The purpose of the travelling exhibition, ‘Aum away from Home’, was to encourage the idea of collecting and archiving stories, documents and artefacts by demonstrating how such processes can benefit communities. A further aim was to provide people with the opportunity to learn about their history from the exhibition itself.
Interesting and educational information was presented which focused on the questions visitors were thought likely to ask. For example, What was it like in the country of origin? Why did Hindus move to Britain? What were their experiences of arriving and settling in Britain? Was it difficult to practise Hinduism in the new context? The exhibition was designed to use text, sound and images to answer these questions simply without too much effort from the viewer.
The initial meeting to discuss the content and logistics of an exhibition was held in April 2003, following which the themes, design, presentation and tour were developed. The ‘Moving Here’ web page helped us in the process of collecting images; the ‘Dial-A-Story’ idea was implemented, where people could lift the receiver of an old-fashioned phone and listen to recorded interviews. Lights had to be ordered, a CD player purchased, the leaflets printed and the tour schedule organised.
A five-month tour was planned. First of all the names, addresses and contact numbers of all the temples in the UK were collected. Then key temples were identified with the help of Mr Ramanbhai Barber, the temple president of the Sanatan Mandir, Leicester. A tour running order was developed that was both practical and economical. Tentative dates were set for each temple. (See Appendix 2)
Temples were then contacted by phone and information was sent out to them to help them to decide whether or not to host the exhibition. This was very time consuming as it proved to be difficult to speak to the correct person or to get hold of temple presidents or secretaries. Information packs were lost or misplaced, and there were delays because key contacts were away or sick and decisions often had to be made by committees which only met monthly.
While the exhibition tour was being planned time was also taken with trying to find a company to take the exhibition on the road. A number of large companies where contacted for quotations. They asked anything from ten to fifteen thousand pounds for the whole job, including constructing and dismantling the exhibition as well as driving it between cities. Finally the owner of a private transportation business offered to do the job for just over five thousand pounds, thus reducing costs significantly.
The exhibition began in London with a press launch in the Swaminarayan Hindu Temple, Neasden on the 22 March 2004. It was launched by the Rt Hon Paul Boateng MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the other speakers included Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP (Shadow Attorney General), Atmaswarupa Swami (Swaminaryana Hindu Mission) and Shaunaka Rishi Das (OCHS). The launch was a success, with ZEE TV and Sunrise Radio there on the day and further radio and newspaper interest over the following days. Further to the major launch in London, it was decided to have a further press launch in Leicester on 1 May where the exhibition was spending a number of weeks. This was to create further interest in the Leicester and Midlands areas. MA TV, BBC Asian Network and The Leicester Mercury attended this event with further input in BBC Radio Leicester, Sabras Radio, and the Leicester Link. This all helped raise the profile of both the exhibition and the archiving project
Despite initial difficulties in contacting temples, once they were involved they were very receptive and enthusiastic for their congregations to participate. A number of temples allowed us to visit over a weekend to collect interviews from their congregation. There was also a good response from congregation members with a number of people phoning in and emailing to get more information and to arrange interview times. This exhibition also made people aware of the importance of preserving their history and culture, and in that regard it was also very successful.
Another significant aspect of the exhibition was the Children’s Archive. After consulting Hindu community youth leaders, a simple work sheet was put together for children. The aim of this worksheet was to get them interacting with their families and to start asking questions about where they were from and what was it like coming to the UK. We designed the worksheet in such a way that it could be used by children from the ages of three to about thirteen. The children had the option of either drawing or writing their answers.
Running parallel to the children’s worksheet there were teachers’ notes explaining what the project was about with ideas on how to get the children to be more interactive with their history. We suggested the possibility of dramas, workshops and quizzes.
With regard to distributing the worksheets the plan was that the person bringing the exhibition on tour would make contact with the youth leader in each respective community and pass on the responsibility to them. Then, while the exhibition was in their temple, the children would take this opportunity to interact with it and later do the worksheets. This would all be done under the guidance of the youth leader. There where two minor problems with this idea: 1) some of the smaller temples only had youth meetings once a month which did not coincide with the presence of the exhibition; 2) on the days when the exhibition arrived at the temple youth leaders were not always available for the handover, and this resulted in information being passed through a third person. Many worksheets still await collection, and a letter was sent to temples asking them to return them for the archive. We experienced the same difficulty here as we did when we first wrote to the temples and community centres about the exhibition – no response.
This was an innovative and exciting project. It was an exacting learning curve for everyone involved and it is hoped that we can now take this knowledge and experience forward into other projects.
In short, we fulfilled all our aims and brought more value to the project by addressing accessibility issues through Internet access.
The stories collected, the enthusiasm generated, the popular appeal, and the historically significant archives collected are, however, a testament to the success of the project. These provide the basis for future work on British Hindus based on the project’s archives, and for further oral history research in other communities.
On behalf of the BHOHP Project Team:
Shaunaka Rishi Das