The Desi Pubs installation at Alchemy 2016 (Southbank Centre) is an outcome of a project started in 2015 by Creative Black Country in collaboration with the owners, landlords and punters of The Red Lion, The Fourways, The Prince of Wales, Island Inn, the Sportsman, the Red Cow, and the Ivy Bush pubs located across the erstwhile industrial heartland known as the Black Country of the UK's West Midlands. Desi Pubs intrigued me, since I thought it would be an exploration of a vivid example of a ‘success’ of this singular phenomenon called 'British multiculturalism' that I've been trying to wrap my head around as an American of South Asian background sojourning in the UK. Instead, the installation left me even more confused, but still intrigued.
The installation, composed of art, photography, audio and video interviews spread out across several free-standing walls and, in the case of the bespoke pub signs made for each establishment, hung from the high ceilings of the Southbank Centre, offer a cheerful glimpse into desi pub culture and history. In one short film, Red Cow landlord Bera Mahli dances joyously to bhangra music at the pub while another person sings along, while pub goers enjoy homey Punjabi fare over pints. (Most of the owners and landlords profiled are Punjabi Sikhs.) The photographs of pub goers take care to present the contemporary desi pub as a racially diverse space, where all are welcome to down a beer, get in a billiards game or two, and enjoy good company.
As is usually the case in life, however, things weren't always cordial and the curry wasn't always some kind of magical tool of anti-racism. The story of the desi pub is a multigenerational one. While the desi pub of today is explained to be a descendant of the Asian pubs of the 1970s, the effort to draw a strong line connecting the pubs across time at times felt incomplete. That's not to say the historical dimension wasn't there. For example, the stained glass artist Steven Cartwright created windows, on display at Alchemy, for the Red Lion that include scenes of an an Indian Workers Association (IWA) march, alluding to the struggles of British Asian industrial workers in places like Birmingham and Smethwick to gain equal rights in a hostile, aggressively racist environment, where immigrant workers were trapped in unskilled labour jobs, paid less than their white co-workers, and subjected to racism when they left the workplace as well. That history is again mentioned in the display about the Ivy Bush pub of Smethwick, where a portrait of former IWA secretary Avtar Singh Jouhl hangs.
By placing this older generation of Asian pubs in juxtaposition with the six pubs of the installation, it appears Desi Pubs is trying to convince us about a narrative of progress, about how far we have come. For good measure, there’s a clip of an archival news interview with a newly appointed South Asian barman, in which the journalist calls his hiring an "experiment in race relations." The barman seems a bit amused, and admits he has trouble understanding some of his working class white patrons because "they don't speak the King's English."
It was these small irruptions of a subterranean history of tension in the installation that left me starving for more, surrounded by images and soundscapes of tasty coexistence in the present. Some desi pubs featured by the Creative Black Country as part of the broader project appear to be relatively new, bought up and reinvented after the previous business went under in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. Others, though, are older establishments, and some of the landlords filmed for the Alchemy installation have also lived through the dark years for race relations in the Black Country, having arrived in the region as young boys decades ago. Despite all the hints, Desi Pubs didn’t tell us what their personal relationship was to the pubs frequented by Asian foundry workers of the 60s and 70s searching for a drink and a place to meet friends in the age of the Colour Bar in the Black Country, where the slogan "Keep the Black Country White!" was famous. For that generation of men, and perhaps their now-aged sons, the Asian pub surely must have had a different meaning. It wasn't a place where all were welcome; it was the only place where they were welcome.
Perhaps this incomplete quality to the installation was frustrating because the struggle towards an equitable multiculturalism is hardly over, no matter how many people like dhaba food and bhangra music. Desi Pubs had an opportunity to tackle that issue from a unique and compelling perspective, but it ultimately opted for a narrative of history as progress. Yet, as one owner reflected, the journey has not been easy even for this newer crop of desi pubs, nor have their motivations been borne of wholly positive experiences and desires to share Punjabi food and drinking culture with the world. He related, having arrived to the Black Country in the 90s, that it was awkward to go to the pub at times as an Asian, since heads would turn, eyes would stare. He admitted that starting a desi pub was a struggle, as any new business endeavor is, but they've made it happen, importantly through emphasising that the desi pub is not meant to be an "Indians only" place.
Today, after the rough early years, the owner thinks that food can be used as a powerful tool of cultural exchange and community building, which is why the desi pub and what it represents should be poised to thrive. Yet I'm still left with the nagging question-- what does the desi pub represent? Does the contemporary desi pub exist because multiculturalism has been succeeding, or because it has not? Given Desi Pubs’ place at a festival that seems invested in maintaining an atmosphere of celebration and hope in the face of troubling times for intercultural relations both in South Asia and in the UK, this is probably a question that couldn't have been answered in anything but the positive.