In early December 2019, South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF), a London-based voluntary charity dedicated to film education and building bridges between diverse communities to promote community cohesion and wellbeing, started work on an exciting new project funded by UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Titled: “Selective Inclusion: African & Asian celebrities in London’s ‘Vanity Fair’ magazine (1868-1914)”, it is a heritage project on personalities from Africa & Asia featured in ‘Vanity Fair’ in the Victorian and early Edwardian era.
Today, ‘Vanity Fair’ is an American magazine, but in the period undertaken by SACF in its ongoing project, it was a purely English weekly published from London. Started by Thomas Gibson Bowles, it was an elite weekly focused on the vanities of
Victorian and early Edwardian England with articles and reviews on social, political and literary themes as well as puzzles and games. Its attraction increased when, a year down the line, Bowles started presenting a full-page caricature in colour of an
important public figure in his ‘Vanity Fair’ every week. Most celebrities caricatured were members of the royal family, statemen, diplomats, writers or artists from Britain and Europe for which Bowles commissioned celebrated artists such as Pellegrini from Italy and Leslie Ward or ‘Spy’ from Britain. Each caricature was accompanied by a catchy biography and soon it began to be considered an honour to be caricatured in ‘Vanity Fair’. Moreover, these caricatures became very popular collector’s items and were hung as framed decorative pieces in homes not only in Britain but across the globe.
The HLF grant to SACF is to enable the organisation to take the lead in running a community project that aims to focus on and highlight, not the British and European celebrities in ‘Vanity Fair’, but the far less known African and Asian celebrities featured within its covers during the period specified in the project title.
Based on research at the British Library and published works, SACF has prepared a complete list of 28 celebrities. Within this number, the largest chunk of 13 dignitaries is from India, followed by 7 celebrities from various parts of Africa. Out of the remaining 8 celebrities, 3 are from China, 2 from Thailand and 1 each from Japan Korea and Malaysia respectively. These celebrities were mostly either royals or ex-royals, or were connected with ruling families as diplomats and administrators or they were royals as well as distinguished sports personalities.
SACF’s first task was to recruit at least 15 adult community volunteers. They were selected from various age groups ranging from secondary school pupils to young and older adults from diverse backgrounds, fields and interests. They were then introduced to the British Library and provided opportunities to gain practical experience on how to locate, access and collate research material and resources relevant to their heritage project.
SACF had barely completed their volunteers’ training at the Library, when Covid arrived and threw a spanner in the works by placing severe restrictions on free public movement. But, thanks to technological development, SACF managed to forge ahead despite this scourge. Instead of holding training events in external venues, SACF ran them with equal success via Zoom from the safety of the homes of the organisers, trainers and participants.
Moreover, by rapidly embracing innovation technology, SACF enabled itself to cast its volunteers’ net wider than ever before. They were able to stretch out and include volunteers from all over the globe. As volunteers from countries as widely scattered as Britain, India, Hong Kong, Thailand and USA were drawn to the project, SACF received volunteer input in different ways and from various places. These include portraits of celebrities excluded from the project from a UK artist-cum-GP, drawings produced by secondary school pupils from Bangkok, Thailand, a research-based biography on one of our project celebrities from an American volunteer, and regular critical appraisal/ constructive comments on our project biographies from two volunteers in India. Recently, a film expert from Bangalore, India has volunteered to interview Indian experts and descendants of two listed in our project.
SACF has also interviewed descendants and experts on some prominent celebrities listed in the project. They include descendants of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Prof Lyn Innes, a direct descendant of Mansur Ali Khan, Nawab Nizam of Bengal, Bihar & Orissa, Narisa Chakrabongse, a descendant from the royal family of Thailand and eminent writer and human rights campaigner, Zerbanoo Gifford who has studied the life of London-based Parsi barrister and MP, Sir M. M. Bhownaggree (1851-1933).
Besides training volunteers and empowering them through relevant training, SACF worked innovatively with London primary school pupils. After familiarising a batch of about 100 pupils with the basics of the heritage project, SACF worked collaboratively with some school teachers to run two highly successful interactive workshops for the pupils on cartoon making by a professional from London’s Cartoon Museum.
SACF has a busy schedule in the months ahead. Some of the main outcomes due for completion include: a documentary film on the project findings; public exhibitions of all 28 ‘Vanity Fair’ caricatures and biographies to highlight project findings; organising a pageant by primary school pupils; and producing a book on the 28 celebrities in the project.
How and when SACF will be carry out the remaining work, depends on how Covid pans out in the coming months. If Science triumphs and brings this virulent virus under control, SACF will be able to rapidly share the findings of its enthusiastic team of volunteers with the wider public in the months ahead. If victory is delayed, SACF will again be challenged to find new ways to complete its work of throwing light on some forgotten, but significant snippets of Britain’s shared heritage with parts of Africa, India, China, Japan, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand.
As published in Confluence South Asian Perspectives