Desi pubs: ower precious Punjabi jewels

Yow dow av to go deep, or far, for Desi in the Black Country. No, not at all. Yow only av to scratch the surface to find one of the many delightful Desi pubs that are scattered, like precious Punjabi jewels, across ower industrial heartland.

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Precious indeed they are, for often – under the clever custodianship of Asian landlords – they have been injected with new life and saved from that fate worse than death: decline, abandonment and redevelopment (usually as something unhelpful, like yet another supermarket).

And here in tha Black Country our treasure chest is full to bostin. We am so awash with our precious Punjabi jewels, that even Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are casting an envious eye across the ocean. OK, maybe I’ve a tendency to exaggerate, but we are lucky enough to have around fifty successful Asian-run pubs serving traditional ‘Punjabi dhaba’ style curry and their own signature dishes that attract punters from all over (including from that there London you know). And we all like a bit of bling…

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Around since the 1970’s the pubs were initially frequented by mostly Asian men working in the foundries, but they’re now an integral part of our wider community and are much loved by many Black Country folk. For me, growing up here these pubs have been a part of my life since I was a babby wench. Though – in the same way that lots of familiar things become usual or everyday – they can also become extraordinary when you take the time to look really closely at them, to focus on the brilliance of the jewel.

And shining a light on ower Desi delights is a lovely organisation called Creative Black Country (CBC) who, over the last 18 months, have brought together local artists and Desi pub landlords to tell the stories of migration from the Punjab to the region, celebrating our Desi pub heritage. Pubs that are an important part of our recent history. Part of our industrial and social heritage. Part of the rich culture we have here.

Image of Desi Pubs beer mats by Creative Black Country
The landlords’ achievements should not be underestimated. In February 1965, nine days before he was assassinated, Malcolm X visited Smethwick because he was ‘disturbed by reports that coloured people are being treated badly’. He had been invited by Avtar Singh Johal of the Indian Workers’ Association to highlight the segregation faced in the region’s pubs and bars. Some 50 years later, many of the pubs that refused entry to the workers have been saved by the very same community.

Astonishing isn’t it? Ower everyday suddenly feels more extraordinary.

The Smethwick visit featuring Malcolm X and the Punjabi Workers Association is brought to life in stunning stained glass windows at The Red Lion, West Bromwich. Created by stained glass artist Steven Cartwright, the windows also chart the history of migrants to the Black Country. History lives on and light shines through. I’m sure there is something poetic about this.

Photo of stained glass artwork at The Red Lion by Dee Patel for Creative Black Country

Photo of stained glass artwork at The Red Lion by Dee Patel for Creative Black Country

In this CBC film, you can watch Chef Cyrus Todiwala visit the pub to talk to Steven, landlord Surjit and his son Satnam to find out more.

Also in West Bromwich – at the Prince of Wales – hangs a beautiful mosaic mural by artist Caroline Jariwal which depicts dancers and dhol drummers, along with portrait photography of staff and punters by Dee Patel, both competing with landlord Jinda’s unique collection of ‘stuff’!

Photo of mosaic at The Prince of Wales by Creative Black Country

Photo of The Prince of Wales by Dee Patel for Creative Black Country

Photo of The Prince of Wales by Anand Chhabra & Sarvjit Sra for Creative Black Country
Watch Cyrus Todiwala speak to Caroline, Dee and Jinda about capturing the essence of the pub and the Prince’s regulars.

The CBC project includes stunning photography by Anand Chhabra & Sarvjit Sra of The Sportsman and Island Inn in West Bromwich, and by Jagdish Patel of The Ivy Bush, Smethwick and The Fourways, Rowley Regis.

And it doesn’t get more Desi delightful than Jagdish’s image of Amrick Singh Saini at The Fourways in Rowley Regis. The image above has been turned into a lenticular: a multi-layered image that has the ability to change or move as the image is viewed from different angles. An oss in a pub. Only in the Black Country!

Photo of The Fourways by Jagdish Patel for Creative Black Country
There is also a large oil painting of the landlords and staff of The Red Cow, Smethwick by Cameron Galt at the pub.

In this CBC film, chef Cyrus Todiwala talks to co-owner Gambi and landlord Jinda to find out about the origins of Desi Pubs, what they are, how they have evolved, how they survive and the food they serve.

Thanks to CBC and New Art Exchange artists Hardeep Pandhal (illustration) and Andrew Gundon (sign maker) we also have a world first here in the Black Country. Yes, the world’s first Punjabi pub signs are now hanging at seven of our Desi pubs. Incredible!

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Crucially, the pubs themselves have helped to tell their stories, in the best way possible, over a pint. Landlords welcoming in the artists and sharing their extraordinary stories to help capture the heart and soul of each pub community.

Our Black Country Desi pubs are known for their warm welcome and there’s really no better way to experience them, than with beer and curry in hand, dancing to Bhangra. OK, maybe it’s wise to put the beer and curry down to dance, but yow get the idea.

Beer, curry and dancing is just what I had planned when I went along to the Desi Pubs launch night at the Prince of Wales on Thursday 29 September.

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Sadly I had to miss the earlier Desi Pubs Crawl as I was trapped at work (rather inconvenient), but the photographer William Fallows went along and his photos here capture it beautifully.

It wor arf fun and there was a lot of good dancing (everyone) and bad dancing (me). If you check out CBC’s Facebook and Twitter pages there’s video of the fantastic atmosphere. It was the perfect end to an everyday day.

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The project itself has received some well deserved attention. It’s had regional and national media coverage, including The Economist, BBC and being showcased at the Southbank Centre in London. This is great exposure for our pubs and our community, particularly at a time when many UK pubs are sadly struggling to survive.

On meeting one of the CBC team that night I told them that this project has been a real highlight for me. I meant it. It’s been an opportunity to focus on the familiar and learn something new. Many of the pubs, familiar to me, but these extraordinary stories bought to life through the interaction between artist and pub family, were new.

Of course, I’m a wench who is passionate about pubs, but for me this project is important on many levels. Like the jewel it is, it has many facets that shine and reflect the brilliance of our Black Country community. A brilliance born from our unique history and heritage, through our industry, workers, community, acceptance, integration, love, diversity, celebration, creativity, music, humour, charity, kindness, respect, and of course damn good pubs, food and beer.

When people talk about the value pubs bring to communities, why they are important and should be protected, I think of pubs like these. I also think of how, Desi or not, our pubs help to tell ‘our story’. They are precious jewels and we should do all we can to protect them. Don’t let greedy companies, bad planning decisions, inaction and complacence contribute to their demise. They may seem everyday, but yow know what, look closely because they’re actually extraordinary.

So, like me, get reacquainted with our Desi delights. Want to know where to start? CBC have a list of suggestions here. I’ll be working my way through it babs. See yow there.

Yow also might be interested in reading my earlier post – Art, love, sex, beer and curry. Saturday in West Brom.

5 Responses

  1. Wot a bostin post! (That’s as far as I’ll go with the accent.) I loved it and knew nothing about the Desi heritage pubs of the black country. I remember Jonathan Meades visiting Birmingham and talking about the heavy metal/Punjabi crossover that was happening at the time. That was maybe twenty years ago

    I’ll certainly be coming back to your blog. What does Desi actually mean though?


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