Episode 8 - Oral History and Gold

Posted by Anisha Parmar on

In Episode 8, I speak to both Mathushaa and Tahmina about gold jewellery given to them, what it represents to them and the oral history linked to them.
In this episode both of them had very different stories about their gold pieces for Mathushaa, it's the gold chain and Tamil 'aum' pendant given to her when she was born, and we speak about the significance of it as an heirloom as her family had to flee Sri Lanka due to the civil war and came to the UK with no family heirlooms to had down to her, hence the chain given to her by her uncle was to mark the safety of a new generation in a new country.
"My parents are born and raised in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka until they're late 20s, early 30s when they moved to the UK because of the civil war, when things were getting really really awful & really difficult and dangerous to live. They chose to emigrate to London, It was a long & tiring journey just to get to here, to find safety and then throughout the whole process to actually get citizenship as well here."
"My mum actually has had to leave a lot behind, there's only like a few things from Jaffna like; her identity card, no photos or heirloom, I've never seen what she looks like as a baby or growing up."
Mathushaa uses her work as a photographer to document her family story and this something that we touch on through out the conversation; how through her work she's documenting their story thats been lost due to war. Mathushaa reflects on the opportunities she has due too her parents taking the brave step to leave a war torn Sri Lanka, 
 "We actually have the opportunities that they didn't, my mum didn't have education. I know that in South Asian culture, there is a huge emphasis put on academics and doing well and looking back as a kid, At the time it really irritating to have those expectations. But when you think about it from their perspective and think about the things that they sacrificed for us, you can understand why they pushed us."
Mathushaa then reflects on when she first saw a scar from the war that her dad had, and being aware of the war from a really young age. 
 "I was really young, about seven or eight, and I remember my dad had a scar on the back of his neck;  I got really curious and asked him about it and he was just upfront told me he got the scar during the war from from a gun."  
"Growing up we remember listening constantly like the radio to hear what was happening back home. I think it wasn't until I was 17 where I finally sat down with my parents and asked questions, They told me stories, and it was horrific. It was really upsetting and I remember, I was just like bawling, it wasn't right, it wasn't normal. And their response was; why are you crying, you shouldn't cry about this in the past, but like, that made me realise like how normal this part of their life is for them." In our conversation we also talk about the how our parents mask their trauma and have this resilience where they look to future as opposed to looking at the pains of their past. Where for their generation mental health was a taboo but for ours we see how important it is. 
For journalist and writer Tahmina, adorning herself in her gold jewellery has been part expressing her South Asianess and specifically her Bangladeshi heritage. We talk about her love for jewellery and how she styles pieces either gifted to her to handed down to her in her everyday clothing to make her feel the strength, resilience and femininity of her female ancestors. 
"I always think you should never wait for like a special day to wear these gold pieces because what's the point and I think I feel the same with clothes. I feel like if I really love something, I wear on a Sunday won't do absolutely nothing, and that's just because I feel like if I'm gonna always wait for an occasion, I think COVID taught us that"
We talk about a set of rings handed down to females in her family and how wearing the ones given to her for her graduation makes her feel;
"This ring is close to my heart, and because it's connected to the women in my family through generation. I always feel like whenever I put this on, I feel very feminine and like strong. I feel like it connects me to my grandma, it connects me to that history of where it came from, and it makes him feel really empowered."
This project for me has been about documenting South Asian oral history however seeing how Tahmina, distinctly identifies as Bengali made me aware of how important it is to mention the various and distinct sub cultures within South Asia who all have their on specific traditions and heritages, which I hope shine through in every episode. 
"I feel like really Bengali and I don't just mean South Asian. When I look at the history of jewellery that comes from East India, I look at like cinema, and Bengali cinematography, and feel intrinsically linked to that South Indian and Bengali women talk. For example, a traditional Bengali home, their matriarchal, and I wonder if that's got to do the fact women had to go through a genocide in a war, and therefore they were just seen as equal as the men.I think when you're South Asian as well like there's a different kinds of strength and power that comes with the way we dress 100% from our traditional clothes, I think about resilience."
We go on to talk about what dress represents in a Western and South Asian culture and how the outlooks in both really differ and what Tahmina says is so powerful here where dress for us is to empower us;
"Even the fact that like a sari will never go out of style and a sari can be worn in so many different ways. When I think about South Asian women, I think about grace and strength, and femininity, but in a way that isn't like I feel like for example white femininity is quite playful, I'd like it's kind of like done that because I want to look sexy. I want to look a certain way to get back at a man, whereas I feel like the difference with South Asian femininity is that actually it's more for me to admire everything that I am. Its my personal pleasure and because how I feel I put this on, genuinely, I feel like it's not for you. It's for me."
This leads onto talking about appropriation of South Asian culture, where in this moment in time within fashion culture- wearing gold jewellery is see as cool, but for us as South Asian women it is a proud and innate part of our culture- 'trendy on us/ timeless on you'
"I find that quite bittersweet the fact that like white women essentially made gold jewellery cool. It just looks quite like trendy on you, timeless on us. Being ethic or wearing gold wasn't cool, because it made you visibly brown. I have been always into jewellery so I remember on like non school uniform days, I would have some jhukmas on and feel so proud to be Bangladeshi, and I remember people just expecting me to dress in a certain way because I was brown."

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