April 13, 2023

Revolution Remix: South Asian American History in Philadelphia

Most think of Philadelphia as the birthplace of the American republic, filled with colonial intrigue and high-minded ideals. But while this popular conception is often inspiring, it is, in equal measure, limited in its scope. The stories of underrepresented communities frequently go untold, and in Philadelphia this included any mention of South Asians’ history prior to the 1960s.

The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) is seeking to change that by using the power of stories to create a sense of belonging for South Asian Americans. Since 2008, this organization has worked to tell the full American story in the creation of the largest publicly accessible archive of South Asian American stories. But the archive is just one tool the organization uses to make sure that these stories are shared.

A group of people standing in a historic neighborhood in Philadelphia learning about the South Asian American story in that city.

photo by: South Asian American Digital Archive

Board members of the South Asian American Digital Archive standing in front of Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia, one of the stops in the Revolution Remix Tour.

Beginning in 2018, SAADA regularly offered walking tours in Old City, Philadelphia—the same neighborhood where Benjamin Franklin once lived, where the Liberty Bell hung from the State House’s belfry, and where the founders conferred to sign the Declaration of Independence. Unlike tours featuring the dominant histories of Philadelphia, SAADA’s tour, called “Revolution Remix,” emphasizes that South Asians have been a presence in Philadelphia since its earliest days and are embedded threads in the national fabric.

This two-hour immersive tour, inspired by the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, includes stops that share the story of the first South Asian woman to receive a Western medical degree, Anandibai Joshee; or showcase the struggles—and victories—of the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association in past decades. But one of the most striking moments for many attendees may be the very first stop on the tour: the Liberty Bell itself.

The Ghadar Party, Protest, and The Liberty Bell

Likely very few of the Liberty Bell’s million-plus yearly visitors are aware that in September 1920, ten thousand protesters, South Asians and others, gathered in that same spot before marching through the streets of Philadelphia. This crowd was led by members of the Ghadar Party—a revolutionary organization that advocated for an end to British colonial rule and Indian self-rule by any means, including violent revolt—the Friends of Freedom for India (a separate but overlapping group), and a number of friends, neighbors, and allies in struggle, particularly Irish Americans, who saw parallels in Ireland and India’s shared colonial exploitation.

These Philadelphians took to the streets to protest the atrocities of the British Empire in what was then “British India,” and to register their open recognition of the sister republics of Ireland and India. The Irish Republic had just declared its independence less than two years earlier and had since been engaged in a bloody guerrilla conflict against the British Army, leaving the nation on the verge of full recognition as the Irish Free State.

Meanwhile, in India, more than a thousand Indian protestors had been slaughtered by colonial forces the previous year, in what became known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. This act of brutality incensed Indians everywhere and had been a direct catalyst for the non-cooperation movement, which Mahatma Gandhi had launched only one day before the march in Philadelphia.

A tour guide speaks to a group arrayed in a semi circle as he talks about what happened at this spot in Philadelphia in South Asian American history.

photo by: South Asian American Digital Archive

Revolution Remix tour guide Imran Siddiquee shares stories with the five artists who created an accompanying soundtrack to the tour.

Two people wearing black t-shirts with a woman's face on them.

photo by: South Asian American Digital Archive

Imran Siddiquee and Dr. Amber Abbas, SAADA board member and longtime volunteer and supporter, wearing matching Anandibai Joshee t-shirts, near the original site of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

At the time, the Liberty Bell was located on the ground floor of Independence Hall, in the same building where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were adopted. The marchers gathered less than a block away. The symbolism was obvious: the protestors identified their own struggle for freedom with that of the early American colonists against the seemingly omnipresent British Empire. From this starting point, they would march nearly three miles due west, before concluding with a mass meeting at the Knickerbocker Theater on Market Street.

The Ghadar Party had been established on the West Coast by Indian immigrants nearly a decade earlier in 1913. The party's goal was to advocate for revolution in India from abroad, but in later years its work also encompassed the defense of South Asians’ rights in the United States. Party members—who had adopted the name “Ghadar” for one of its meanings in Urdu, “revolt”—would publish the Hindustan Ghadar (an anti-colonial newsletter), fundraise and give speeches overseas for support, and smuggle arms into India to be used in the anticipated revolution. Members in India would risk their liberty—and lives—distributing smuggled copies of Ghadar publications, which were highly illegal within the colony.

A man stands lit in the bottom of left corner of the image while a giant logo sits in the back with microphones and sound equipment in front.

photo by: Justin L. Chiu

SAADA Executive Director Samip Mallick at the Revolution Remix concert which took place in front of a sold-out audience at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. He is standing in front of original artwork for the tour created by Shebani Rao.

One of the party’s founders, Taraknath Das, had just finished serving two years in an American prison for his association with Indian “radicals,” but was already raring to jump back into the fray. A well-educated Indian nationalist from what is now West Bengal, Das had launched one of the first South Asian publications in North America even before he helped organize the Ghadar Party, and his international reputation was such that most attendees likely already knew him by sight. It was Taraknath Das who led the mass meeting at the Knickerbocker Theater in West Philadelphia (where today a Cinemark theater stands in its place), and it was he who presented the inspiring, idealistic resolution that was later transcribed in the Hindustan Ghadar:

“Whereas, America is opposed to imperialism and tyranny all over the world;

and Whereas, the American ideal is for independence of all people, great and small;

and Whereas, the people of India are in a state of revolt against British tyranny and have attempted to establish a provisional government which has been lately reported to be crushed by British militarism;

Be it resolved, therefore,

That this mass-meeting of citizens of Philadelphia most heartily support the struggle of the people of India in their efforts and fight to establish a free and independent Republic of their own.”

A woman in a white skirt and white top wearing red glasses stands in front of some musical equipment. Behind her there is a logo projected that says Revolution Remix.

photo by: Justin L. Chiu

Dr. Amber Abbas at the Revolution Remix concert.

Adding a Soundtrack and Remixing the Revolution

The tour is not a standalone experience by any means; in 2019, SAADA introduced a musical component. At each stop, participants have the option to listen to songs designed specifically for the tour across a variety of genres by five South Asian American artists (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Arooj Aftab, Zain Alam, Seti X, and Anju). In many cases, the songs specifically reference elements of the tour stops, providing another lens through which to view this history.

In addition to this musical component, Dr. Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher developed an accompanying lesson plan for high school teachers. Intended for use after the tour, the lesson plan delves deeper into the South Asian American experience of the early 20th century.

For the organization, this project continues to be an important effort to reframe history to include groups that have too often been marginalized, ignored, or excluded. While the walking tour was affected by the pandemic beginning in 2020, as of October 2022, SAADA has resumed regular tours, and the archive’s mission to shine a light on the hidden histories of Philadelphia continues unabated.

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Emmett Haq is the archives coordinator at the South Asian American Digital Archive. He graduated from Stony Brook Southampton in 2015 with an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature, and before joining SAADA, he was involved in higher education for years as both an instructor and a tutor, prioritizing the inclusion of South Asian voices in the courses he taught.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

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