Inspired by the archives
Swapnaa Tamhane’s work is inspired by photographs of jute industry workers in Bengal held by archives at the University of Dundee and Verdant Works (Dundee Heritage Trust). These images are precious traces of the lives of many unidentified workers, who may have been unrecorded as part of the workforce, and whose experiences have often been undervalued.
Here is a selection:
You can explore these collections in more depth here:
Tum Banglá mat bolo, ham kuchh nahín samajhtá hai. (You don’t speak Bengali, I can’t understand anything.)
Part of Swapnaa Tamhane’s commission is inspired by a Hindustani language exercise book held by the University of Dundee Archive Services:
Mohiuddin Ahmad, Essentials of Colloquial Hindustani for Jute Mills & Workshops, 1947, Charles Lorimer collection, University of Dundee Archive Services, MS 286/6/1.
It was used by Scottish supervisors who went to work in the jute industry in Bengal, a region later split between India and Bangladesh. It reveals the colonial attitudes that defined relationships between Scottish supervisors and the Bengali, Indian and Bangladeshi workforce, who were prevented from rising to the same rank.
Also in the University of Dundee’s collection is a letter from the Indian workforce at A&S Henry & Co. Ltd., Calcutta, thanking a Scottish supervisor for his service. Does the language used not also reveal a deeply inequitable, hierarchical relationship, shaped by colonialism?
Memories of the mills
This commission explores the way jute industry workers in Dundee and Calcutta were connected through a colonial system that saw this global material being harvested, processed, manufactured and distributed across continents. There was a huge variation in workers’ experiences, but each individual testimony gets us closer to understanding the bigger picture.
Lily Thomson is a Volunteer at Verdant Works and a former jute weaver from Dundee. Here she shares her memories of the mills:
Credit: Reproduced courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services.
Abul Kalam Chowdhury was a restaurant owner in Dundee who came to the city in 1967 from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to study Jute Manufacture at Dundee College of Technology (now Abertay University). Jute was what bought Kalam Chowdhury to Dundee, but it was not why he stayed. He pursued other paths, including taking a role in founding Dundee’s Bangladesh Association and the Mosque on Miln Street.
Collections at Abertay University Archives include his student card and an oral history from his son, Kader Chowdhury.
Here Kader Chowdhury shares memories of his father.
‘I think he mentioned once that the original plan was to learn jute here, go back to Bangladesh, and then do something with that jute back in Bengal. That’s the way life goes, you know, so, life never turns out the way we expect it to turn out.’
‘He was definitely a leader, one of the leaders of the community, one of the elders of the community, and so his opinion was respected… and in the Muslim community obviously respected, because of his piety… And the Bengali community also, because they knew him from their student days, but also respected because of his work with the Bangladeshi Association. He was an educated person.’
Find more excerpts from this interview in this Abertay 25 Education Pack.
You can also find out more about jute training in Dundee by visiting Abertay University Archives’ virtual exhibition Factory In Miniature.
A Tale of Two Cities
Bashabi Fraser is a member of V&A Dundee’s Decolonising Advisory Group. In this talk she explores the historic connection between Dundee and Calcutta, and why it’s important we reassess the impact of colonialism on the jute industry and all those who worked in it.
A Tale of Two Cities: the 'Jutopolises' of Empire, with Dr Bashabi Fraser:
Woven Together is a community-based research project, exploring the history of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in Dundee. It is being led by the Abertay Historical Society in collaboration with the University of Dundee Museums and Dundee City Council.
The project aims to uncover previously hidden stories of Dundee’s multicultural history and celebrate the contributions that people of colour have made to our community. Follow it here.
- Tariq Omar Ali, A Local History of Global Capital, 2018
- Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry, 1999
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940
- Bashabi Fraser, “The Scottish Jutewallah: a Study of Transnational Positioning in Personal Narratives” In C. Sassi, & T. van Heijnsbergen (Eds.), Within and Without Empire: Scotland Across the (Post)colonial Borderline, 136-149
- Jim Tomlinson, Dundee and the Empire: 'Juteopolis' 1850-1939, 2014
- Anthony Cox, Empire, Industry and Class, The Imperial Nexus of Jute, 2013
- McKean, Harris and Whatley: Dundee, Renaissance to Enlightenment
- Miskell and Whatley, Victorian Dundee: Image and Reality
- Gordon T Stewart, Jute and Empire
Some of these titles are available to read in the museum from the Inches Carr Trust Resource Centre, on your way towards Tatha Bar & Kitchen.