Changing Perspectives in the Countryside: Navaratnam (Theeb) Partheeban

Written by Nicola Minney.

As part of The MERL’s Building Connections project (funded by Arts Council England), we have sought to explore different stories and themes that live within our collection from the history of the English countryside.

As we researched a range of themes and topics—from LGBTQ+ rural experience to the history of migration—it became clear to us that there were many people whose stories, experiences and perspectives had historically gone untold within our collections.

So rather than looking back, we decided to look forward. We reached out to seven people who generously have shared with us their experiences—the good together with the bad—of what it is like to be a person of colour in the countryside: Dr Mya-Rose Craig, Ped Asgarian, Navaratnam ‘Theeb’ Partheeban, Jasmine Isa Qureshi, JC Niala, Zakiya McKenzie, and Dr Anjana Khatwa.

We invited each person to explore our object and archive collections, choose an item to represent them and change the narrative of those objects for the future.

In this fifth Changing Perspectives blog, we spoke with Navaratnam (Theeb) Partheeban, about his life as a vet and a person of colour, his experiences in the countryside, and his work in championing a more inclusive future for the veterinary field across the UK.

Navaratnam (Theeb) Partheeban

(Scottish Asian. He/him)

Theeb is a dairy veterinarian and the co-founder of the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS). He has recently been awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship 2021, and he is also an Oxford Farming Conference Emerging Leader 2020. Farming is a huge passion of his, which motivated him to run his own sheep flock and to be closely involved in the management of a calf-rearing unit. Theeb has spent time in many other countries researching dairy production and working with dairy farmers. He has recently become a trustee for Country Trust, which creates inspiring food, farming, and countryside opportunities and experiences for marginalised children.

Theeb with a lamb.

What is your connection to the countryside?

NP: I am a farm animal vet and live in a semi-rural location. My professional life has been spent working with farmers up and down the country, tending to mainly cattle and sheep, but also the occasional pig, horse and alpaca.

A vet with a cow.
A vet checks cattle for any adverse reactions after being innoculated for TB. (MERL P TAR PH3/2/2/2/14)

What do you wish people knew about the English countryside?

It would be great if people from all walks of life knew that the countryside is for them. All are welcome and should feel like they belong there. There is so much to admire and explore.

Where is your favourite place to be?

On a farm and preferably in a cow shed. I love the smells, sounds and sights of a working farm. There is so much going on.

A farm worker feeds silage to cows, photographed in 1941.
A farm worker feeds silage to cows, photographed in 1941. (MERL P FS PH1/K19612)

What is your experience of living, working in, and visiting rural areas?

There are some great people living and working in rural areas who are so welcoming and kind. It is amazing to learn about history and experience rural life in the UK.

Having been brought up in towns, I did not have the opportunity to see what this country has to offer and so it has been a privilege to see and enjoy the countryside. I have made many connections and friends whom I regularly keep in contact with from villages up and down the country.

Being able to spend a lot of time in the outdoors especially on farms is something I especially enjoy and the drive between farms where I get to see the countryside makes me very lucky.

A shepherd and his sheep navigate a country road. (MERL P DX289 PH2/2/563)
A shepherd and his sheep navigate a country road. (MERL P DX289 PH2/2/563)

However, living, working and visiting rural areas is not always easy. I can only comment on my own experiences, but there have been many negative experiences which have made me question whether I belong in the countryside.

Being made to feel different and having to justify my being there has made it tricky at times and is a barrier for many people like me.

How important is rural community to you?

It’s very important as it helps me feel like I belong. My job and life revolves around interacting and living with rural people and so it is important I have a healthy relationship with them.

A vet tends to a horse. This photograph was taken in 1939, and signs of air raid precautions would have been found across the farm. (MERL P FS PH1/K21421)
A vet tends to a horse. This photograph was taken in 1939, and signs of air raid precautions would have been found across the farm. (MERL P FS PH1/K21421)

Please tell us more about the BVEDS and your scholarship?

The veterinary profession is the whitest profession in the UK with only 3% identifying as a person of colour. It can be isolating and intimidating as I can’t always be me. Especially being a farm vet, for which there are only a handful of minority vets, this can be even worse.

It was at a point in my life, when professionally I felt very secure and wanted to help others who might need support. I and another farm vet, Issa, co-founded the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS) in 2016 to promote, support, celebrate and educate on issues of race and ethnicity in the veterinary sector. We have grown over the years and been able to raise the voice for those who had previously not had one. The difficulty at first was trying to convince people in our profession that there was a problem in the first place. It has been great to see how we have influenced the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and British Veterinary Association acknowledge there are problems which need fixing and help steer the direction of this.

We have also supported students increase their voice on these matters and helped them create their own BVEDS groups. There are now actions in place at the universities to work more on widening participation for children applying to vet school and increasing support when they arrive to study the course. The conversation has started, and we are keen to push on to make real change for the future.

Theeb with calves.

This work has also been promoted in the agricultural circles with some organisations keen to replicate this to promote agriculture to a wider audience. Barriers for studying and working in veterinary and agriculture are similar in many ways so there is a lot of crossover.

We continue to write articles, create conversation and support spaces, perform research, participate in webinars and podcasts and provide education. My Nuffield Farming Scholarship was awarded in 2021 and is sponsored by McDonalds UK and Ireland. I am aiming to investigate ‘Promoting and Supporting Ethnic Minority people in the Agricultural, Farming and Veterinary Sectors’.

My plan is to travel round the UK to see what positive and negative actions are being done in these sectors to support People of Colour and then travel to the US, New Zealand and Australia to see if there are lessons we can learn to improve the recruitment and retention of People of Colour in Farming, Agriculture and Veterinary. It’s a two-year study and I hope to help provide answers and solutions to the problems we have in this country.

Which object from our collection did you choose?

I picked this artwork from The MERL collection.

This is a print of an original painting, 'Breeds of Cattle', by Astor Corbould, in 1879. It is one of a collection of paintings and prints thought to date from the last quarter of the 18th century to c.1860. (MERL 64/75)
This is a print of an original painting, ‘Breeds of Cattle’, by Astor Corbould, in 1879. It is one of a collection of paintings and prints thought to date from the last quarter of the 18th century to c.1860. (MERL 64/75)

I love working with and learning about cattle. Each cow has their own personality, and each breed has its own distinguishing features. This picture captures this wonderfully. The different sizes, colours and features of the cows are interesting, and the great thing is that they all exist in this country for people to go out and see for themselves.

Find out more

Thank you for reading this fifth entry of the Changing Perspectives in the Countryside series, and to Theeb for sharing with us his life, experiences, work, and involvement with the BVEDS.

Read more Changing Perspectives conversations every Thursday, in the online exhibition or right here on our blog

If you’re a person of colour interested in sharing with us your experiences, work or life in the English countryside, we would love to hear from you. Please reach out and contact The MERL’s Nicola Minney via email.

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