Knights of the Raj: History of Bangladeshi Restaurants in Britain

Kazi Zawad | Update:

Raj-1The story began in 1810. The first curry house, or Bangladeshi restaurant, in Britain. Dean Mohamed founded the shop in George Street near Portman Square in central London. He named it “Hindoostane Coffee House”. He lived in Kolkata at a young age. He introduced Bangladeshi cuisine in the restaurant, hoping that it would cater to the craving for spices by the British nobles returning from India. To add an authentic Indian flavour, hookkah was introduced too. But the business was not successful and at one point Dean Mohamed became bankrupt.

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The history of the curry houses are being displayed in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the second biggest city of Great Britain. Mohammad Ali, a mural painter of international repute, has organised the exhibition in this Midlands city for the preservation of the history of the evolution of the Bangladeshi curry industry in the UK. Mohammad Ali was relating the story behind his endeavour to the author. His father also was a restaurant owner. He (Ali) himself worked in their family business at an early age as a waiter. In less busy days of the restaurant he used to sit at table no 16, the table for the owner, with his dad and listen to the stories of his father’s life struggle. But Ali was sent for higher studies as he was doing well in the school. He finished his studies and became an expert in graphics and started doing graphics in computer games. He was doing well and became detached from the family business. But after a few years his father passed away and he became interested in the curry business again. Although he started a take-away curry shop, his main job was as an artist. But he was thinking about doing something to preserve the memories of his father and the curry industry.

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His thoughts took shape when he went to Dhaka and visited British Council’s ‘London 1971’ exhibition there. There among the displays of the activities of Bangladeshis in Britain, more so in Birmingham, during the liberation war he planned for a similar exhibition. The show in Dhaka had some displays on a British individual named Roger Gwynn. In the past he worked in Bangladeshi restaurants and developed a love for Bangladesh and its people. Roger was a teacher as well, so he is known among the Bangladeshis as Roger Master, the teacher. Ali contacted Roger on his return from Dhaka.

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Roger Master told the author, “Mohammad Ali and I came in contact during the preparatory stage of the exhibition. I told him that I also worked in Bangladeshi restaurants. I have some diaries, lists of restaurants and some photographs. Ali was surprised and happy with the hope that he will find some material. I gave him whatever I had and also introduced him to some people or gave the links to some who may be of help”.

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Mohammad Ali then started to work like an archaeologist, delving into the heaps of papers covered in dust in the cellars, upstairs or in the stores of various restaurants. Mr. Ali said, “I knew what I was looking for - those were useless to many. And I had to convince others saying that they should do something so that after 50 or 100 years the future generation become aware of their roots. That is why I need your help. Also when I introduced myself as the son of Watir Ali many extended their hand - ‘heto amrara poa, here amra sahaijy na korla to ke korta’ (in dialect it means, he is one of us, if we do not help him, who will?).

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The exhibits and the photos in the exhibition give a clear picture of what was the life in a curry house, the customers and the employer-employee relations. Roger Master said, “First I worked for ‘Rajvoj’, then in ‘Curry King’ and lastly in the ‘Light of Bengal’. All three were in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham. Dewan AlamNur Raja was the owner of Rajvoj, Fakhruddin or Fakhar Mia was the owner of Curry King, and Light of Bengal was owned by Abdul Jabbar Mohammad Mia. Only Fakhar Mia is still alive. They all were very nice to me. They were rich people but they were polite not proud. I had very good times with them”.

John’s Restaurant, the first curry house in Birmingham, started business in 1945. MA Aziz was the proprietor. In 1963 The Ajanta was founded by the partnership of Rana Kanta Dey, Golam Hossain and Joyen Ullah. Mr. Dey said about the financial status of the owners then, “We struggled a lot. But the curry business was a business of classy people. Anyone would assume seeing an entrepreneur ‘Oh he is an owner of a restaurant - he must be somebody’.

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There are exhibits of interior decorations and the props used. Paintings of charming women following the Mughal or Rajsthani style were common features. But the greenery of Bangladeshi village or tea gardens in the backgrounds often expressed the strong homesickness or the desire to publicise the roots of the owners. Walls covered with wallpapers in vivid colours were another characteristic. A clipping of an advertisement in a local newspaper has also been displayed - it was in the then ‘Birmingham Planet’. One of the flyers read, ‘Drinks are served by exotic girls’. The evidence of the role of women, in most cases of locals, has also been displayed. Many British women then married Bangladeshi men and helped them blend in to British life and culture.

The exhibition is just not a display of the history of a business or an industry. It also depicts the life of expatriate Bangladeshis. From the photos of birthday celebrations or the English guests in the 60s, it is evident that the restaurants were very much integral to the local life. The lives of the people involved in the curry industry were hard. But they still enjoyed themselves and never lost the Bangladeshi brand of laughter or jokes. They used to call people by their nick names and some cartoons have also been displayed. These restaurants also served as a beacon of hope for the new migrants. Mohammad Abdul Hamid, a visitor, said to this author, “I came to this country in the mid-seventies. My brother helped me to migrate. I worked in the Indrajeet restaurant and supported myself to finish my second post-graduation degree”. His employer at the time, Taraka Ranjan Nanda, was among the visitors as well.

The exhibition has created a stir among the Bangladeshi community in Birmingham. A resident in the city Symi Rahman is a web TV presenter. She said, “This presents the successes of the Bangladeshi people. This proves our contribution to the life of Birmingham - this has also given us an identity”.

Reporter of a Bangladeshi Cable TV network Ryad Ahad said, “I am not aware if there is such a big collection on the life of Bangladeshi community in Britain like this in any museum in the UK. Probably after some 100 years our future generation will be proud to see this archived”.

The originator Mohammad Ali said, “The other reason for being proud is that the uneducated or less educated people may not have ever crossed the doors of the museum let alone think about working or being a part of a museum in the UK. Now their pictures are being displayed on the walls of the museum. They will also be archived for ages to come”. Ali detailed his future plans. He wants to take this exhibition to New York sometime next year and then to Bangladesh.

Soul City Arts, the organisation Mohammad Ali represents, is the organiser of the exhibition. This has been sponsored by the Birmingham Museum and Arts Gallery and Heritage Lottery Funds. The exhibition will continue till the second week of January 2018.

* A Bangla version of this article was written at the request of the BBC Bangla and this English piece has been written for Prothom Alo English. The author, Kazi Zawad, is a Bangladeshi journalist now staying in the UK. He can be contacted at kzawad@hotmail.com <mailto:kzawad@hotmail.com>

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