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Bangladesh 50 Years

Identity and belonging in the East End before and after the Liberation War of 1971


2021 marks 50 years since the independence of Bangladesh. To mark the significance of this, Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives (THLHLA) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) led Bangladesh 50 Years, one of four projects that forms a part of the National Portrait Gallery’s offsite programme; Citizen UK, during its temporary closure to transform the gallery. 

Citizen UK is an exciting research and creative engagement project involving the borough archive services, local communities and contemporary artists. It is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

We worked with a steering group made up of academics, historians and activists who critically engaged with the project’ decisions.  Our steering group included Ansar Ahmed Ullah (Swadhinata Trust/QMUL) Julie Begum (Swadhinata Trust), Shabna Begum (QMUL) Fatima Rajina (Nijjor Manush) Hajera Begum (Nijjor Manush)  Ruksana Kazi Begum (LBTH) Georgie Wemyss (UEL).

Citizen Researchers

We collaborated with 21 British Bangladeshi Citizen Researchers to explore the significance of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War through collections held at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives. As well as contributing to the final artwork, the Citizen Researchers’ findings informed their own independent research journey. Check out the work they produced here on the project blog.

Artists announced for Bangladesh 50 Years

Ruhul Abdin was appointed as Lead Artist for the Bangladesh 50 Years Project. Ruhul founded participatory design and architecture studio Paraa and is based between Dhaka, Bangladesh and Bow, Tower Hamlets. Ruhul is also a portrait artist and has created works sensitively representing Bengali people and capturing events as they take place.

Ruhul was joined by the Rainbow Collective a documentary production and training company based in Brick Lane. Hannan Majid and Richard York, the duo behind the company will work to capture the discussions and explorations of the Citizen Researchers which will form the digital legacy of the project, hosted on the National Portrait Gallery website. 

Image: Kamalapur Exhibition, Beckton. Courtesy of Ruhul Abdin
Image: Kamalapur Exhibition, Beckton. Courtesy of Ruhul Abdin

Bengali people and the local history of Tower Hamlets

Bengali people have lived in the UK since the 17th century. Most were seamen known as ‘Lascars’ who worked on board ships on trade routes around the world. When the merchant navy’s workforce was diverted to the Royal Navy during the First World War, seafarers from countries colonised by Britain took up vacancies in the merchant fleet. When ships stopped in port cities lascars found work and settled there.

After the Second World War, the British government advertised the readily availability of paid work in the post-war rebuilding project, and tens of thousands of migrants from across its empire took up the call.

During this period of mass migration, incomers were often drawn to settle in neighbourhoods which offered a degree of familiarity, and in the case of Bengali migrants from the Sylhet area, they may have joined older seafaring relatives in the cheap, bomb damaged East End who had settled close to the port of London in the decades prior. By the late twentieth century Tower Hamlets was home to a large, confident British Bangladeshi community which had overcome racism and poverty to play a major role in the local area’s economy, culture and politics.

The Liberation War of 1971 between Pakistan and the nascent nation state of Bangladesh was a foundational moment in the history of the local East End community even though none of its battles were fought in Tower Hamlets. The 50th anniversary of independence presents an opportunity to explore the impact of the 1971 war on Bangladeshi residents who had arrived in the East End from a country then called East Pakistan but whose lives in the East End would be influenced and shaped by the newfound, and hard won, independent nation of Bangladesh.


Final outcome

The project concluded with the launch of a new art installation at Idea Store Whitechapel co-designed by Paraa: led by artist Ruhul Abdin & architect Sadiqul Islam Shehab.

The artwork - the word BANGLA constructed as a 3D illuminated steel structure clad in sari fabric - was informed by research in the collections of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives by a group of more than twenty Citizen Researchers from the local British Bangladeshi community. 

Image: BANGLA installation at Idea Store Whitechapel. Courtesy of Kois Miah.

Previous Projects with the Bangladeshi community

In the last ten years Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives (THLHLA), through previous collaborative projects such as ‘Bengali East End’, ‘Poetic East End’, ‘Where I Belong’ and ‘Home Machinists’ has explored and collected a range of archives documenting the lived experiences of Bangladeshis in the East End. THLHLA continues to seek out collaborations and new collections that reflect the plurality of experiences of this diverse community, and aims through its work to provide a space for the exploration and sharing of critical historical reflections. This is work is anchored in the mutual exchange and dialogue between British Bangladeshis: for example considering their relationships to ‘home’ overseas, as well as locally within London and the UK; and their relationships to the East End’s other diasporic communities, past and present.