Turbulent Londoners: Mala Sen, 1947-2011

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today it is the turn of Mala Sen, writer and human rights activist.


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Mala Sen, 1947-2011 (Source: The Guardian)

Racism, and prejudice are still  very real issues in modern Britain. Often, discrimination can compound other issues such as employment and housing. Indian activist and writer Mala Sen saw the intersection of these problems when she moved to Britain in the late 1960s, and fought to make them better. She is part of the reason that Brick Lane in East London is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community to this day.

Mala Sen was born on the 3rd of June 1947 in Uttarakhand in northern India. Her parents divorced when she was 6, after which she was raised by her father. She moved to Mumbai to study Home Sciences, where she met and fell in love with Farrukh Dhondy. In 1965, aged 17, Mala moved to the UK to be with Dhondy. They married in 1968, and although they divorced in 1976 they remained close.

In the UK, Mala worked as a seamstress. She quickly became aware the severe racial inequality and prejudice in the UK, and started to get involved in race relations. In one of her first experiences of activism, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Mala was an early member of the Race Today Collective, a leading voice in Black politics in Britain. She wrote for their magazine, Race Today, about the condition of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers in the East End of London. They lived in crowded dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by workers on different shifts. Many of the workers had left their families behind in Bangladesh, so were not entitled to housing benefit.

Spurred on by these dreadful living conditions, Mala was a founding member of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). In the early 1970s, the Bengali community in East London was growing rapidly but faced racism and discrimination. BHAG sourced council houses and squatted empty buildings for the Bengali community to live in. BHAG’s activities eventually led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community.

Mala Sen Mural

A mural in brick Lane depicting Mala Sen by artist Jasmin Kaur Sehra, part of a series commissioned by the Tate Collective to celebrate the contributions of ‘unknown’ women in 2018 (Source: Kevin Lake).

Mala was also an active member of the British Black Panthers (BBP), which was based in Brixton. Less militant than the American Blank Panthers, the BBP believed in educating black people about their history and giving them a voice. This chimed with Mala’s own philosophy; she argued that supporting people to empower themselves was the best form of activism. Later on, Mala became a researcher for television documentaries. This led to her researching and writing about women in rural India, many of whom were treated very poorly. Her best known book, India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, took 8 years to research.

In her later years, Mala became disillusioned with British and Indian politics, the feminist movement and the East End Bangladeshi community. She died in Mumbai on the 27th of May 2011, aged 63. Although she lost faith in the causes she fought for, that does not diminish her contribution to them, nor make her any less worthy of remembrance.

Sources and Further Reading

Bayley, Bruno. “The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers.” Vice. Last modified 10th August 2013, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.vice.com/sv/article/9bz5ee/neil-kenlocks-photos-give-the-british-black-panthers-the-legacy-they-deserve

Jackson, Sarah. “Mala Sen: Writer and Race Equality Activist.” East End Women’s Museum. Last modified 18th July 2016, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/mala-sen-writer-and-race-equality-activist?rq=mala%20sen

Kotak, Ash. “Mala Sen Obituary.” The Guardian. Last modified 13th June 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/mala-sen-obituary

The Telegraph. ” Mala Sen.” Last modified 30th May 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/8546445/Mala-Sen.html

Politics and Street Art: Brexit in Brick Lane

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Street art is a format the frequently expresses political viewpoints (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If you’ve spent any time in the UK over the last few years, then you won’t have been able to escape Brexit. Britain’s exit from the European Union may well be the most significant thing that’s happened in this country in decades, and it hasn’t even actually happened yet. Brexit has seeped into every aspect of life. Brick Lane in Shoreditch is one of the best places in London to see street art (and to get bagels!). The street and surrounding area has a fascinating social and cultural history, and in the last twenty years or so has become one of the most painfully cool parts of London. It is a hub of independent shops and cafes, art galleries, and gentrification. Brick Lane itself is an informal open air art gallery, covered in street art that is painted or covered over regularly. Street art is a format that often engages with politics, and the artists who produce it are not afraid of expressing subversive or critical views in their work. On a recent visit to Brick Lane in December 2018, I noticed a distinct anti-Brexit theme to much of the street art I found.

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This is an example of paste-up art, which has been produced elsewhere then attached with wheat paste or wallpaper paste. It looks hand drawn rather than printed. The artist, Honesy, has a bold, simplistic style that I quite like (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is also an example of paste-up art, although it was obviously printed rather than hand drawn. This means the artist can produce as many identical copies as they like, although I only saw this poster once on Brick Lane. It was produced by a pair of artists called Quiet British Accent, who make street art based around pre-decimal pennies, a red white and blue colour scheme, and the acronym QbA (in this case it has been expanded to Quiet Balanced Advice) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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To be honest, this is the least artistically accomplished artwork that I came across in Brick Lane that day. It looks like permanent marker on a bathroom or kitchen tile, but I don’t know if the tile was installed by the artist, or if it was already there and the design was drawn on in situ. There is so much street art and grafitti in Brick Lane that it is often layered on top of each other, with new stuff partially or completed obscuring older artworks. My gut instinct is that this tile was already on the wall, and the artist made use of it rather opportunistically. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t time and thought put into the design, however. This might not be as high-quality as the other artworks featured here, but someone still put some effort in (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is another example of paste-up street art, this time produced by Uberfubs, also know as the Street Jeweller. This artist is known for images of skulls, often adorned with rhinestones or crochet. Their works also often contains a political message, such as this one. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I haven’t been able to find out who produced this poster, another example of paste-up art. Many of the key architects of Brexit have been accused of acting to serve themselves, rather than in the best interests of the country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This poster was obviously produced by the same artist as the previous one. It features the inexplicably influential Jacob Rees-Mogg, comparing him to Voldemort, the evil villain from Harry Potter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This mural was produced by American street artist BK FOXX, who is known for her photorealist style. It was painted in September 2018. It doesn’t explicitly mention Brexit, but it is hard to interpret it any other way. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

London’s Protest Stickers

Stickers are a ubiquitous part of the urban environment, like this sign in Cable Street.

Stickers are a ubiquitous part of the urban environment, like this sign in Cable Street.

Stickers are a ubiquitous part of the urban environment, often more common than graffiti in city centres. They are quick, easy and cheap to produce and put up, so they are an effective way of getting a message across. They are employed for a variety of purposes, such as advertising, art and dissent. The meaning of many is not obvious, they remain indecipherable to all but the author and those with the right knowledge to decode them. They also come in many shapes and sizes, with many different techniques used to produce them. Like graffiti they are meant to be ephemeral, gradually disintegrating under the weight of the weather, idle hands and cleaners. As I move around London I photograph many of the protest stickers that I see, gradually building up a map of dissent in our capital. Below are some of the stickers I have seen.

A free education sticker outside of the University of London Union building in Malet Street on  17/02/15.

A free education sticker outside of the University of London Union building in Malet Street on 17/02/15.

Occupy Parliament Square Sticker seen on the 2/2/15 at King's Cross Station.

Occupy Parliament Square Sticker seen on the 02/02/15 at King’s Cross Station. This sticker has been weathered, picked, and written on- demonstrating how protest stickers can spark political debate.

Some stickers are printed, whilst others look more handmade, like this one seen in Brick Lane on 5/6/14.

Some stickers are printed, whilst others look more handmade, like this one seen in Brick Lane on 05/06/14.

Some stickers advertise a particular protest, like this one in Malet Street, seen on 17/02/15.

Some stickers advertise a particular protest, like this one in Malet Street, seen on 17/02/15.

Not all protest stickers are left-wing, like this one seen at Euston Station on 14/11/14.

Not all protest stickers are left-wing, like this one seen at Euston Station on 14/11/14.

Something as simple as speech bubbles can drastically alter meaning, as with this government advert, seen on 4/2/15 in Elephant and Castle

Something as simple as speech bubbles can drastically alter meaning, as with this government advert, seen on 04/02/15 in Elephant and Castle. These stickers allow a sort of audience participation, so others can add more tax dodging companies.

This sticker has creatively recycled a page from a book to oppose Israel. Seen in Soho on 31/12/14.

This sticker has creatively recycled a page from a book to oppose Israel. Seen in Soho on 31/12/14.

Protest stickers are particularly common in some areas, such Malet Street in Bloomsbury, where the University of London Union building is. This photo was taken there on 17/02/15.

Protest stickers are particularly common in some areas of the city, such Malet Street in Bloomsbury, where the University of London Union building is. This photo was taken there on 17/02/15.

Som stickers can be seen in multiple locations across the capital. This photo was taken outside the Inner London Crown Court in Southwark, but it has also been seen at Euston Station.

Some stickers can be seen in multiple locations across the capital. This photo was taken outside the Inner London Crown Court in Southwark, but it has also been seen at Euston Station.