iGlobal Profile Series: Retracing Professor Atul Shah's Masala Tour, 10 years on

iGlobal Profile Series: Retracing Professor Atul Shah's Masala Tour, 10 years on

It has been 10 years since Professor Atul Keshavji Shah travelled 1,500 miles across the length and breadth of the UK celebrating British Indian communities as part of his celebrated Masala Tour. The aim of this rare journey was to capture the achievements of the Indian diaspora and the richness of diversity across the UK.

‘iGlobal’ caught up Prof. Shah, the Founder of Masala Tour, as part of a regular Profile Series to find out why he’s so keen on celebrating the contributions of British Indians and what he’s been up to since.

Celebrating diversity

Throughout his career as a broadcaster and academic, Atul has authored four books on ethical finance, politics and culture. In 2007, he published ‘Celebrating Diversity’, a time capsule of multicultural Britain in the early 21st century.

“How can a community of Ugandan Indian refugees come to the UK in 1972 and build one of the greatest additions to British architecture,” wondered BBC stalwart David Dimbleby in 1995. The only answer, according to Shah, is culture and community.

“Many Indic cultures revolve around community. We have strong cohesive bonds with our families that extend to our communities. There is no boundary between the individual, the family and the community and that has always been the richness of my experience. That is what is worth celebrating.”

An invitation to Britons

The success of the book led him to embark on his “Masala Tour” in 2010, across 10 cities in the UK. The tour received extensive coverage across the mainstream media for its unique way of celebrating the community’s efforts.

“It was all about revealing what is hidden in plain sight. A lot of Britons go to India for holiday, but if you ask them if they’ve visited an Indian temple or community centre in the UK, many will say no. One of the barriers I found was that they are waiting for an invitation, as they are afraid they may not behave ‘correctly’ in this cultural space so we extended one to them with this tour.

“I wasn’t always looking to feature the famous or the rich. Many of the stops on the tour were with ordinary local people. One of my favourite moments was when we set up an interesting connection at the Botanical Gardens in Leicester between the British love of gardening and the Indian ethos of bio-diversity and respect for all living things. Part of the tour focused on what English gardeners can learn from the Indian culture about respect for all life.”

Reviving Jain values

As a pillar of the British Jain community, Atul founded the ‘Jain Spirit’ magazine in 1999, which had a successful seven year run with full-time paid editors and designers and a global readership.

Dubbed the “National Geographic of Indian Culture”, the magazine engaged with scholars and influenced new writing about Jain history, migration and art.

“We wanted to revive the cultural wisdom of the Jains and connect it with the newly emerging generation and community.”

Jainism is one of the oldest living cultures of the world. Its central philosophy is ahimsa, respect for all life. This idea of connectedness is not limited to humanity, but also extends to animals and nature.

“For me, this inter-dependence was a lived experience, not just a theory. I could not imagine a selfish world. In fact, one of the difficulties I had when I first came to Britain was being individualistic and selfish. I just could not hack it.”

Emigrating from Africa

Born in Mombasa in 1961, two years before Kenya gained independence, Atul had a rich cultural upbringing.
“The Africans were so permitting and respectful of our culture because they saw the strong family and community values, and in turn, they were treated with the highest respect.
“But when we arrived in the UK, we were put on the defensive. “Why are you vegetarian? Why do you eat with your fingers?” they would ask. This subconsciously diminishes a person’s value of their culture. It came at a time, for many of us, when we were young and rebellious and trying to forge our own identities, and then there was this rationalist, secular identity being promoted onto us. I went through that phase of confusion, which was quite painful and damaging, but came out of it very proud of my community.”

Changing the curriculum

With his ongoing research, Atul hopes to introduce UK universities to a different way of thinking about business education.
“In trying to be secular and scientific, UK universities actually promote individualism and indirectly break community and social capital. By understanding indigenous cultures, like the African Ubuntu, Islamic banking models and Indian dharmic values, we can transform the curriculum and create a holistic education system.”
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has given a lot of impetus to Atul’s work. “The economic world is ignorant when it comes to culture. It’s almost taught in an a-cultural way, as if culture is not relevant to economics.”
To document his research, Atul has written a book called “Reinventing Accounting and Finance Education for a Caring and Inclusive Planet” which suggests a new landscape for business education which puts culture and ethics at the heart of education.

A life of purpose

“When I had just qualified as a chartered accountant in 1987, I had an opportunity to sit with a contact of my fathers who was an eminent speaker, and he asked me ‘So you’re a qualified professional, what are you going to do with your life? Will you buy a big house and a car? Is that all?’ and he triggered me to think about doing something more meaningful with my time and skills.”
Between researching and writing his upcoming book ‘Organic Finance’, Shah has a lot of time for grassroots community groups who share his vision for a more sustainable, interconnected world. He continues to celebrate changemakers and local communities by advising on boards and sharing his lifetime of wisdom.
“Britain has got a very strong public service culture, and the Indian community have done a great job at building alliances and working with organisations whose values are aligned with a greater good. It brings me joy to see the next generation take over, reclaim the narrative and do it with a sense of purpose.”
by Vidhu Sharma

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