Submitting InstitutionGoldsmiths' College
Unit of AssessmentSociology
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
Summary of the impact
Nirmal Puwar's project, Noise of the Past, has sought to
transform the public imagination of war by bringing post-colonial stories
into the UK's national memory of World War II. At the same time it has
worked to re-imagine the research process and its relation to publics. It
has shown how the `noise' of the past, derived from narratives and
situations that are usually excluded, can move cultural memory beyond a
nationalistic, militaristic consensus. The research produced an award
winning film, `Unravelling,' and a live musical performance, `Post-colonial
War Requiem'. They were launched in 2008 at a large public event in
Coventry Cathedral, opened by Martin Bell (OBE, UNICEF ambassador). On 14
November 2010, Noise of the Past was invited back to Coventry Cathedral to
mark the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. The highly affective moving film
(20 min) has won international awards and been screened at festivals,
museums and public events and is submitted for viewing along with this
ICS. Significantly the call-and-response methodology initiated by the
project engaged artists and creative practitioners in music, poetry and
film as active collaborators in the research process and also engaged
publics not simply as audiences but as dialogic participants.
Puwar was appointed at Goldsmiths as Lecturer in September 2003 and is
now Senior Lecturer. The primary research underpinning her project was
funded by an AHRC grant but also supported by other organisations with an
interest in its impact, including the Arts Council and Coventry Council
Peace Festival. Through the project, Puwar as P-I and Sharma
as Co-I aimed to bring the post-colonial to bear upon sensory studies by
articulating questions of difference, alterity, migration, and belonging
in relation to the senses. While postcolonial studies of war and memory
have been replete with implicit accounts of the senses, they have lacked
an explicit agenda of engagement within the developing field of sensory
studies. The project has thus contributed to addressing this by
demarcating the senses as a field within post-colonial studies. But it has
uniquely done this through an innovative collaboration between academic
researchers and artists working in the media of musical composition,
poetry and film. This collaboration was organised in four interwoven
stages of the research process.
First, researchers worked with the artists to locate archived military
documents, maps, photographs and letters from the Imperial War Museum
sound archive, the India Office Library and other archives. The second
stage developed a poetic exchange in Urdu between Puwar's father, Sawarn
Singh, a poet and veteran, and his grandson, Kuldip Powar, on the subject
of Singh's wartime experience and his subsequent exclusion from public
ceremonies of remembrance. In the third stage, the internationally
acclaimed award winning composer and musician Nitin Sawhney composed music
responding to the poetic exchange. In the fourth stage, Powar directed a
film, Unravelling, precisely in response to Sawhney's composition,
using his music as the soundtrack. In addition, an original musical
composition inspired by the research, Post-Colonial War Requiem by
Francis Silkstone (a researcher at Goldsmiths from July 2007 to June
2012), was also produced in response to the inter-generational poetic
exchange. A conference, `War, Sound and Post-Coloniality',
exploring themes of war, memory and sound preceded the launch of the film
and composition in Coventry Cathedral. As detailed in
section 4, these works have been and continue to be performed in numerous
venues thus engaging a variety of publics in re-imagining war.
These events and exchanges formed the basis of a special issue of Senses
and Society as well as a Manifesto on `Live Methods' and an article
on `Curating Sociology' in Sociological Review.[3,4,5,6,7]
Through these publications Puwar's work has contributed to advancing a
`live sociology' that is attuned to new strategies and methods for telling
society through collaborative forms of curation, sharing, and respectful
engagement. In this way, it offers a case study for how collaborations can
move beyond traditional conceptions of knowledge transfer to embrace
research as a process of interdisciplinary co-production and dialogic
exchange. Through the media of film and music its curations have also
offered a sensory method for engaging wider publics as dialogic
participants rather than passive audiences.
The Noise of the Past project has also had an influential and
field-defining impact on both new and established scholars in the growing
field of Visual Sociology. To a large degree this impact has been realised
through Puwar's directorship of the Methods Lab at Goldsmiths, which is
committed to developing inventive ways of doing sociology and providing a
laboratory for the practice of the sociological imagination. At the 2013
International Visual Sociology Association [IVSA] conference, the project
was highly applauded in a plenary session delivered to a large audience of
300 for its ambition and scope. Douglas Harper
(president of the IVSA) publicly endorsed the film for taking visual
sociology into new and innovative territory.
References to the research
Evidence of quality of the research: References 3, 4, and 7
are published by internationally recognised peer reviewed journals.
References 5 and 6 were published by an international press as part of a
prestigious Monograph Series that publishes collections of outstanding and
original scholarly articles on issues of general sociological interest.
1. Noise of the Past. Nirmal Puwar (PI), Sanjay Sharma (Brunel,
Co-I), Sept 2007 - February 2009, AHRC Report AH/E009891/1. £165,938. Available
on request from the Research Office.
2. Information about all events organised as part of the project:
Lab — Noise of the Past.
3. Puwar N, and Sharma S (eds) (2011) Senses and Society,
6(3). Special Issue on Noise of the Past: Sensing the Post-Colonial.
Includes articles by Puwar, Sharma and Silkstone. SSN 1745-8927, Online
ISSN: 1745-8935. Journal; available on request from Goldsmiths
5. Back L, Puwar N (eds) (2013) Live Methods. Malden:
ISBN: 978-1-4443-3959-8. Edited book; copy available on request from
Goldsmiths Research Office.
6. Back L, Puwar N (2013) `A manifesto for live methods:
provocations and capacities', in Back L and Puwar N (eds) Live Methods.
Malden: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4443-3959-8 (REF output) DOI:
10.1111/j.1467-954X.2012.02114.x Chapter in edited book.
7. Puwar N, Sharma S (2012) `Curating Sociology', Sociological
Review, 60 (S1): 40-63. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2012.02116.x Journal
Details of the impact
Impact beyond the academy was integral to this project from its
inception, as its very purpose was to open up public dialogue about
post-colonial narratives in institutionalised national remembrance. It
sought to move between the biography of individual soldiers who
participated in colonial armies and the wider enclosure of war memory in
nationalistic and militaristic terms. By inserting erased stories and
narratives into remembrance, it was intended to interrupt accepted forms
of war and memory with the noise of the past.
At a time when the discipline of sociology is looking for methods of
engagement with wider public audiences, Noise of the Past has set
an example for doing this that is new and innovative. In the first
instance, participants collaborated in the project through the novel
technique of call-and-response, working across the media of poetry,
historical documents, music and visual art, and between different
specialisms and different generations in multi-lingual registers. In the
second, through screenings and performances at numerous venues and events,
it incited and opened up a broader dialogue and imagination about war and
memory with numerous publics through sound, poetry, image and sensate
The première launch of `Unravelling' and `Post-colonial War Requiem' in
Coventry Cathedral, on 8 November 2008, was situated within the Coventry
Peace Festival. The event was opened by war reporter Martin
Bell (OBE, UNICEF ambassador) and compered by the renowned historian
Carolyn Steedman. The audience of over 450 people was highly diverse and
included many people new to the Cathedral, including members of minority
groups, something which was commented on by the Cathedral organisation. A
long-standing member of the Cathedral, who had as a child sung in
Britten's War Requiem in the Cathedral, said:
"I would just like to say how moving I found this evening [applause].
I have been here since the 1960's, for over forty years. I have sung
Britten's War Requiem at least twenty times. So I am extremely familiar
with that whole background and ethos and reconciliation work promoted by
I think this is certainly the first time I have seen this interleaving
of the English Anglican tradition with the Indian traditions, from the
people who come to this city, been part of the colonial empire, fought
the war from an Indian background and then came to Coventry. I thought
that was tremendously moving, to see that interleaving of the history
and experience of different communities. I would just like to say that I
really do hope we can find ways to move that forward into the future."
The war historian Alessandro Portelli (Sapienza University, Rome) noted
the transformative and affective nature of the public production put
together by the Noise of the Past team:
"It was very moving...I thought the encounter between the local people
[in the cathedral] was very promising for the future...The presence of
the Grandfather...was very moving. It was just perfect."
The audience constituted a cross-section of the population including
non-academics in influential positions in the cultural sector. The Senior
Programme Manager of London' Royal Opera House in London said:
"The setting of course was fantastic...I am sure you have had a great
deal of very positive feedback from the many people who attended — thank
you for allowing me the opportunity to be part of it."
Sarah Shalgosky (Curator of the Mead Gallery at Warwick University) said:
"We really enjoyed the evening — ultimately, the breaks in electricity
provided a lovely moment to sit in the dark and reflect with the weight
of the building and Coventry's history above us. The lighting of the
ruins behind strongly evoked John Piper's image of Coventry..."
The project has been commented upon widely in the South Asian Diaspora.
The affective qualities of the dialogue and the space it provides to deal
with tension have been recognised as transformative:
"Congratulations, it is absolutely brilliant...the filming the
music... the language, I don't know the words to describe it was so
heart wrenching ... the film was mesmerising..." (Jitey Samra, Black
& Minority Ethnic Community Mental Health Development Worker).
Press and news coverage of the inaugural launch event was featured across
different media platforms. When Unravelling and the
Postcolonial War Requiem were presented again in November 2010
during the Coventry Peace Festival and part of the Coventry Cathedral
Blitz events, 500 members of the public were present.
The impact of the launch in the Cathedral was followed by further
national and international invitations. It first moved to the Herbert Art
Gallery and Museum, located opposite the Cathedral, and later to the
Imperial War Museum, the V&A, RIBA, the Southbank, and international
film festivals. Unravelling has circulated at
international arts events with audiences ranging from 50 - 200, such as,
the Re-Orient Festival, Stockholm (Oct 2008; audience size 200)
and international film festivals (e.g. USA and Germany). The film's
cultural impact has been acknowledged by being awarded two `best short
film' international awards: Sikh International Film Festival, USA,
(2009; audience size 100) and London Asian Film Festival, 2011 (audience
Unravelling has been included in significant conferences involving
third sector groups and cultural institutions, including galleries,
museums and festivals. It was a central feature of the Black Screen
Heritage Conference (31 July 2009) organised by the Imperial War
Museum, in partnership with Yorkshire Film Archive and Skillset. The event
influenced the strategy for creating accessible collections relating to
Black British heritage and knowledge sharing for wider communities. The
pool of influence included black cultural organisations, archivists, film
curators, community arts workers and audience development managers.
Unravelling and Post-Colonial War Requiem formed a plenary
session on `Noise of the Past' in the Taking Part conference (29 -
30 Oct 2010), Southbank, London. This public event with
over 100 audience members stimulated the creation of new contexts for
debates in arts practice, and strengthened links between third sector
organisations and academic institutions. A screening and panel discussion
was held at the V&A conference `From the Margins to the Core' in 2010.
The audience consisted mainly of museum and gallery professionals. In the
museum sector it is now becoming commonplace to display talking-head
testimonies on video and text boards. Unravelling offers a more
challenging, sensory and creatively engaged method of presenting these
histories. It informs its audiences, but also affects them emotionally.
The legacy of the project continues to be multi-pronged; impacting on the
academic field as well as broad publics located in established cultural
institutions as well as more informal grassroots organisations. In the
ESRC Festival of Social Science in November 2013, Unravelling was
screened alongside a series of workshops with different voluntary and
community organisations across the UK. This included
ex-soldiers from the Commonwealth Countries, Asian Women's Groups, as well
as informal poetry societies.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Electronic/hard copies of all the materials listed below are available on
request from Goldsmiths Research Office.
- A double DVD includes a film of the pre-launch conference, a film of
the launch in Coventry Cathedral on 8 November 2008, including the
Q&A session, as well as the film `Unravelling'.
- For example, it was reported in Coventry & Warwickshire BBC Radio
(`Remembering the Blitz' in Urdu, 8/11/10), as well as the Coventry
Telegraph Newspaper (17/08/08), and the national British-Asian Eastern
Eye newspaper (19/04/11).
- `Unravelling' and `Post-colonial War Requiem': see, e.g. Coventry
Cathedral programme. Additional material corroborating these
performances (e.g. from representatives of the Peace Festival and
Coventry City Council) can be provided on request by Goldsmiths Research
- Imperial War Museum: Film
Programme Dec 2009.
international film festival. Corroboration of screening and award
by a representative of the London Asian Film Festival can be provided on
request to Goldsmiths Research Office.
- Southbank centre: Goldsmiths
- V&A conference `From
the Margins to the Core'
Festival of Science programme