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Funny thing, Sikhs don’t smoke. Minor detail.

Yes, this post is a pet peeve. And,also a major whine. Take any China photograph prior to 1949 with an Indian person in it. Be it a British Indian soldier from the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) time frame. Or a Sikh policeman (1885-1940s) looking statuesque with the striped turban and braided beards, captured by a Western lens intent on recording China memories. Photo studios and amateur photographers would scribble in the date and give a general description of the subject just clicked. At no point, did any photojournalist or studio make an attempt to note the names. It may have been cumbersome or totally unnecessary.

Much after 100 years have passed, Boxer Rebellion pictures continue to fascinate historians and writers alike. Similarly with Shanghai Sikhs. Denniston and Sullivan’s (an American owned Shanghai photo studio) pictures are available in university libraries and websites. Usually, there is a  small descriptive phrase at the right-hand corner indicating the year and the place – example a Sikh gurdwara that was officially inaugurated in 1908 and was quite a crowded event. Then, there is a photograph of 8 mounted troopers with their lances. Such photographs were published for official purposes or in books on Shanghai and circulated worldwide. Newspapers, too, utilized such pictures.

Not Sikh policemen.

Not Sikh policemen.

The pet peeve is not because pictures are not available – they are abundantly available but it is about the miscategorization that can typically occur, even today. It is no doubt a difficult task and therefore one can appreciate the hard work a museum or university archivist has to face.  There are many examples of Boxer rebellion pictures where the subject is a Rajput but since the photographer assumed Rajputs and Sikhs looked alike – after all they ALL wore turbans – so one and the same – hence all are Sikhs,one way or the other. Well, that’s what should bother historians writing on Asia specifically India. That essentially is my pet peeve – that history when recorded through an (un)observer’s eyes tends to be quite skewed.

History is very much dependent on the written word and heavily relies on official documentation of its times. The British China documentation including Shanghai Municipal Records and publications such as North China Herald with their myopic colonial gaze and prejudicial reporting are cited by historians and writers alike. After all not many other ‘official’ sources are available. This is where the story of Indians in China goes awry.

During my research I would come across anglicized and misspelled names and even half-baked facts that have not been viewed with a bigger, better and more encompassing magnifying lens. It would easy to dismiss the various accounts as biased and incomplete but I think Asians, too, were not very adept in maintaining their version of history – lack of sources, genealogy disinterest, etc contribute to this historical illiteracy.  And the problem is we are letting it continue.

I see no collaborative efforts or vision to check the history misinformation flow. That definitely is my grouse – pet peeve if you will on research methodology which should not be so antiquated in this modern, digitized world. Will I be able to do justice to the Sikhs in Shanghai piece -well not absolutely, if I have to rely on fuzzy picture information and sources that are misquoting by leaning on erroneous data. Essentially, any history will represent a view or dimensional perspective and cannot be considered a well-rounded interpretation as much as one wishes it to be. But, at least it can be rectified and variety of authentic and genuine information can be processed to provide a larger, bigger picture,as opposed to the small subsets currently floating in their respective scholarly corners.

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