Veiled Voyagers – A Mahfil

music and dance

Review by Alison Higgins | Photos by Lynette Hodges

Inside the Vestry Hall, fifteen of us are sitting on cushions inside a tent made of colourful draped Indian fabric. On the far wall of the tent sepia toned photographs are projected showing the faces of the women whose stories are being read out. This is a mahfil, a traditional creative gathering from South Asia and dance and music punctuate the stories while sweet and savoury snacks are shared round.

The stories we hear are from diaries and magazine articles by the Muslim women who travelled to Britain from colonial India between 1900 and 1947. During this time there was a literacy rate of around 2%, so these women are educated and privileged.

The writers were women who came to Britain to go to university, to visit family members, or were with their husbands who were merchants or civil servants (all Indian civil servants during the Empire had to take exams in the UK). They wrote of the strange British food and the difficulty of getting halal meat. They were surprised at amount of housework that middle class British women did themselves. Washing up, making beds and shopping were alien to some of the Indian visitors who were used to even relatively poor households having ‘at least one boy’ to help about the home. The Indian women felt they knew a lot more about Britain before they arrived than the British population knew about them and their culture – one wrote of being shocked by the ignorance she encountered. They wrote about being stared at as curiosities and children presenting them with flowers to see how these strangely dressed women would react. Some also found the dress and hair styles of the British women strange and outlandish.

Early 20th century Britain still provided many new experiences. One wrote of going on the London Underground for the first time which was so fast it felt like it was possessed by a ‘djinn’. They observed that the cities were so busy and bustling that everyone moved around at a pace between a walk and a run. These were smoky places too and one woman commented that the houses didn’t have courtyards – to see greenery she had to go to a public park! Seeing snow fall ‘like pieces of cotton’ for the first time and the fields and roofs transformed was particularly memorable.

A fascinating and intimate glimpse of the meeting of two cultures, with beautiful dancing and singing to live harmonium accompaniment. An unusual, informative and evocative piece of hidden history. Veiled Voyagers is a Dead Earnest theatre production written and directed by Charlie Barnes.

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