THE ECONOMIST: Raising A Glass to Britain's Indian Pubs

IN THE 1960s, the Ivy Bush public house in Smethwick, West Midlands enforced a colour bar. An ad hoc system, it barred Asian and Caribbean men—most of whom had migrated to the town to work in its flourishing foundries—from the premises. Today, the Ivy Bush is owned and run by Lakhbir Singh Gill, who took over the pub 23 years ago, and it is one of many “desi” pubs in the region (“desi” is a vernacular term meaning “of South Asia”).

This largely unknown phenomenon is being celebrated in Creative Black Country’s desi Pubs project, which is producing a documentary, gathering testimonies and creating a photo archive. Many of these testimonies will be the experiences of working class Indians—particularly Sikh and Punjabi Indians—who have established communities in the West Midlands over the course of 50 years. “We wanted to capture the stories of migration, brotherhood and community that have taken place in and around desi pubs,” says Parminder Dosanjh, director of the campaign. “Today they’re thriving, cosmopolitan pubs when 25 years ago some were National Front pubs.”

Creative Black Country’s main venture, however, is artistic, as photographers and artists have been tasked with capturing the history of six pubs. As part of “Alchemy”, an annual South Asian arts festival, London’s Royal Festival Hall showcased some of the photographs, hand-painted pub signs, mosaics and stained glass windows to the public. Many of these elements salute desi pubs as sites of acculturation and exchange. Caroline Jariwala’s radiant mosaic of bhangra folk dancers, for example, also features the Queen. Pub signs are written in English and Gurmukhi script. 

Yet for many intrepid, post-war Indian migrants, these pubs offered safe, recreational spaces in a climate of racial hostility and violence. They were an escape from cramped, substandard accommodation, as well as a place to organise if necessary. Simon Cartwright’s elegant stained glass panels for the Red Lion in West Bromwich reflect this mix of purposes; one depicts socialising and card playing at a pub table, another shows anti-racism protests. Malcolm X features in this latter panel, marking his visit to Smethwick’s Marshall Street in 1965. In the previous year’s General Election, Peter Griffiths, a Conservative MP, triumphed under the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour.”

But there is much to smile about, too. Anand Chhabra and Sarvjit Sra’s photos of the Prince of Wales in West Bromwich show beaming local bhangra troupes adorning the walls like football teams. Posters of Hindi film stars and Mughal-style art happily coexist with pool tables. These details speak volumes in terms of the blossoming of a comfortable and proud Indian and British identity: they reveal that these scruffy, humdrum drinking spots are where British tastes were adopted while individuals remained fiercely Indian, standing tall and saying “we are here”. What better symbolises this intertwined identity better than the institution of the Great British boozer, remixed and reinvigorated as a desi pub?

In Autumn, the pub signage, mosaic and stained glass windows will be installed in the pubs that inspired them, and Creative Black Country is organising desi Pub Crawl food and drink tours to sample their famed hospitality. These pubs deserve a moment in the spotlight given that they strike a positive note amid the gloom of Britain’s declining pub industry: many traditional English pubs in the area are closing down or have already been converted into property. 

Why is it, then, that desi pubs continue to thrive? Put simply, it’s their food. “In Smethwick there are six desi pubs doing Indian food,” Mr Gill says. “Since the smoking ban in 2007 the Asian landlords started doing food and it’s taken off.” Often the treats on offer are robust Punjabi café-style fare tailored to drinker’s tastes—sizzling mixed grills, melt-in-your-mouth tandoori fish, familiar curries and beer-soaking snacks (masala chips, pakoras, samosas). Value is key (“we pile it on”, says Mr Gill) and so is the personal touch. “My chef talks to the customers, so he knows what they like and don’t like” Mr Gill says. “We cook to taste.” 

Today, the baseball bats behind the bar—once reserved for chasing off racist mobs—are no longer needed and desi pubs are welcoming, polyglot spaces drawing drinkers, heat-seeking curry fans, football-mad lads and cricket aficionados. On Sundays they teem with families of myriad hues and faiths, opting for an alternative lunch. For Mr Gill, such cosmopolitanism is a feature of everyday life—and a far cry when he was growing up. “I have Indian, English, Somali and Jamaican drinkers, and we all get on. It’s different to when it was English landlords,” he says. “Asian landlords don’t see colour, we just see a customer and we serve them.” Creative Black Country’s project is a timely toast to these multicultural pubs, ensuring that their rich, unsung histories are recorded for posterity.