How to Experience India in London

Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan as Humayun and Babur, soldiers, on stage in Jamie Lloyd's Guards at the Taj. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

The British Council has designated 2017 as the ‘UK India Year of Culture’, and there are loads of ways to celebrate, but many of them involve a trip to find India in London – perfect if you can’t afford a flight to Delhi just yet. Here are the key happenings to put on your itinerary, without leaving the UK.

Guards at the Taj, Bush Theatre, until 20th May

The Taj Mahal hasn’t lost any of its appeal since it was built in the 1600s – it’s still considered one of the world’s greatest buildings, and a must-see for anyone visiting northern India. However, the craftsmen and slaves used to create the Taj paid a high price for their part in the most beautiful building in the world, as Rajiv Joseph’s play reveals.

Though I’m a history fan, I didn’t realise the scale of the horror inflicted on the workers until I saw it here. This award-winning play features just two actors on a minimalist set, playing Taj guards given a brutal task by their masters. Overall, it’s a tense piece that manages to be both funny and disturbing, and it’s impossible to look away as events unfold. Book here.

Jaipur Literature Festival British Library 2017 artwork with phone box India in London
Get ready for an unforgettable literary festival that brings out the best in India and the UK. Credit: Zee JLF.

Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, British Library, 20th-21st May

One of the world’s biggest literary festivals decamps to the British Library for its London spin-off, following a successful stint at the Southbank Centre last year. 2017 is particularly special as it’s 10 years since the JLF began in Jaipur (side note: I was a joined winner of the JLF blogging competition celebrating the anniversary).

The JLF is free to attend in Jaipur, but there’s a charge in the UK – however, it’s only £24 for a weekend ticket. Speakers include Helena Kennedy, Meera Syal and Samanth Subramanian. Book tickets via the British Library website and immerse yourself in the latest Indian and international reads.

The London Indian Film Festival, 22nd-29th June

The London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) hits town again in late June. With the schedule still to be announced, it’s impossible to predict which films will be shown, but last year’s screenings are a good indication of the calibre: they included the world premiere of Toba Tek Singh, starring Pankaj Kapur as an inpatient at a mental health unit who is marched to the Indian-Pakistani border during Partition.

Look out for the Sajit Ray Short Film Award, and the Icon and Audience Award, all announced during the festival. Venues are spread across London, so it’s easy to find something in your area.

London Science Museum on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, with blue sky in background
Head to the Science Museum this autumn for two Indian exhibitions. Credit: Geograph.org.uk/Christine Matthews.

Illuminating India series, Science Museum, 27th September 2017 – 19th March 2018

The Science Museum’s photography exhibitions are always thought-provoking, and a profile of Indian photography from the 19th century will be no exception. This is due to be accompanied by the museum’s study of scientific objects and advances from India.

Whilst not many details have been released yet, I’m convinced the Science Museum will do India proud with its upcoming series, and will expose Indian innovation to new audiences. Inventions from India include iron pillars, rulers, buttons, shampoo, and pre-fab homes (developed in the 16th century).

The Art of Indian Cinema, BFI, until December

Despite being a cinematic powerhouse, Bollywood (the Indian film industry) often plays second fiddle to Hollywood in most Western viewers’ eyes. Yet Bollywood is hugely influential and lucrative, plus its film posters are works of art in their own right.

Find this art exhibition at the BFI’s Mezzanine Gallery, accompanying the India on Film series, and marvel at these eye-catching posters spanning the many decades of Bollywood glamour, from black and white silent movies to more modern big budget epics. Other BFI events include digital versions of travelogue footage from India, released online from August, and a screening of the film Shiraz, in October, with a live music score by Anoushka Shankar.

Blue plaques to Nehru, Gandhi and Savarkhar in London streets
A handful of London’s blue plaques dedicated to Indian figures. Credits: blueplaqueplaces.co.uk; peace.maripo.com; open.ac.uk.

Find India in London All Year Round

  • London has some brilliant Indian restaurants. My favourite is Punjab, the UK’s oldest North Indian restaurant, established in 1946 on Neal Street, Covent Garden. You could also try branches of Masala Zone, from Bayswater to Islington, or head to the acclaimed Aladin on London’s Brick Lane.
  • Look out for blue plaques dedicated to Indian figures in London. Activist and philosopher Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) lived at 65 Cromwell Avenue, Highgate; Mahatma Gandi (1869-1948) lived at 20 Baron’s Court Road, Hammersmith and Fulham, whilst studying law at the Inner Temple; India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), lived at 60 Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill, in 1910 and 1912.
  • Pick up Indian artworks in commercial galleries such as Hampstead-based The Noble Sage, which is taking part in The Affordable Art Fair this month (so you can buy an affordable slice of India in London), and Simon Ray.

If you’re in India rather than London, you’ll also find a blockbuster exhibition to see later in the year. The British Museum has collaborated on the forthcoming exhibition India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, which runs from 10th November 2017 – 11th February 2018 at CSMVS, Mumbai. It then travels to Delhi in March 2018.

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