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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay

Artist Nanda Soobben at the 1860 Heritage Centre (Durban)

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Figure 1. Riason Naidoo. Photographic Hall: The Indian in Drum Magazine the 1950's. 2023 (Panoramic Photo by Lucelle Bernadette Pillay)

At his request, I met the charismatic artist, Nanda Soobben at the 1860 Heritage Centre in Durban. The museum houses the archives, documentation and books that relate to South African Indian history and culture. I noticed that Nanda was a familiar and well respected mentor at the centre, as he engaged with a few tutors and students at one of his art sessions. Nanda graciously gave me a tour of the well-curated space, mentioning that my studies into Indian identity would benefit greatly from a sojourn into the past. At the photographic hall (see Figure 1) we both silently stared at the sepia photographs, of people who looked like us, smiling and posing for the camera. I wondered if they knew that their framed semblances would become a visual archive, that attests to Indian popular culture in South Africa. I glanced from photo to photo, noticing how westernised everyone looked in the 1950's, tailored suits, glamorous dresses and Hollywood hairstyles. Indians are often referred to as a non-western society, yet Drum Magazine reflected our ability to assimilate, only a 100 years off the ship. I had mixed feelings about this observation, but then I noticed Nanda, who cut a good figure of the distinguished, veteran artist, right down to his postman's satchel and black beret. I felt grateful to have met him and honoured that I was afforded the opportunity to tell his story.

Figure 2. Nanda Soobben: Entrance Wall. 2023

(Photo by Lucelle Bernadette Pillay)

Architecturally the building felt solid and sturdy, as old structures do, similar to churches and schools. I felt quite protected within its cool brick walls and polished stone floors, even the humidity of a hot Durban day couldn't penetrate its hallowed hallways. Old buildings feel as if they have been around forever and will continue long after we're gone, I wondered if the tentative history of the Indian Indentured labourer would also stand the test of time. Nanda spoke of the government revoking ownership from the Indian founders at some point, only to later concede in order to secure votes. The mercurial socio-political climate constantly recalibrates the value of Indian people in South Africa as citizen or historic foreigner. It is amidst the ebb and flow of these uncertain tides that most contemporary Indian artists like Nanda, seek to understand their identities. As I stared into the faces of these early pioneers, I wondered what their challenges were, once they set foot on African soil. How did they persevere in the face of every adversity? Compromised in terms of language, culture, and ethnicity, how did these rural people adapt and overcome the socio-political turmoil that is South Africa?

Figure 3. Nanda Soobben: 1860 Heritage Centre. 2023

(Photo by Lucelle Bernadette Pillay)

Figure 4. Nanda Soobben reflects on Gandhi's ideology of 'Passive Resistance'. 2023

(Photo by Lucelle Bernadette Pillay)

Nanda believes that our shared colonial history of Indentured labour has much to teach in terms of how tenacious and enterprising Indian people have proven to be. He uses the analogy of 'Durban Curry', which has become somewhat of a gastronomical institution in KwaZulu Natal. The creative fusion found within local Indian cuisine is indicative of our collective mindset. Nanda states that even the poor ate well, taking the toughest cuts of meat and offal and transforming it into delicious, fragrant meals for their families. The use of spices and the layering of flavours, are techniques passed down through generations and speaks to the importance of tradition. Inspired by his mother's kitchen, Nanda has titled his upcoming book, 'Trotters and Beans', as he has applied the same creativity and enterprising spirit within his artmaking process. His 'tongue in cheek' approach shows us the humourist, the caricaturist and the humanist. As the designated author of the book, I hope to capture all the complex and layered facets of the artist and his story.

Figure 5. Book Cover. Nanda Soobben. Lucelle & Nanda. 2023

(Cover design by Nanda Soobben; Photos by Lucelle Bernadette Pillay)

If you have any interest in Indian South African origins and history and find yourself in Durban, please pop into the 1860 Heritage Centre, you may be pleasantly surprised. History could actually be interesting when it includes the story of your ancestry. At school, I learnt about World Wars, The Groot Trek and the Battle of Blood River, but nothing about how I found myself in Africa. The Indian presence and contribution has been excluded from curriculums and history books. Places like the Heritage Centre must exist and it must be sustained and preserved by Indian communities. Nanda Soobben is but one of many dedicated individuals who are working tirelessly to curate our collective culture. Lets support these initiatives, as our history tells our stories and thereby informs our contemporary identities.

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