Desh Pardesh 1990
1990 was the first year that this festival was named Desh Pardesh.
Despite the general anticipation and hope which surrounded this festival’s origin, there were still some who felt left out of the programme. Here, we have highlighted two speakers who would expand the horizons of Desh and felt themselves to be a force that motivated change in the festival.
Punam Khosla’s interview gives us an entry into at least one interpretation of the first festival. She discusses events that occurred, and focuses on its shortcomings. Punam would go on to organize Desh for a few more years after, before leaving because of tensions within the group.
PK: What I knew is that I'd been to Desh. Part of the reason is that, Desh had had two incarnations at that point, right. One of them was at 519, which I wasn't at.
AM: That was the Salaam Toronto?
PK: Yeah, that was the Salaam Toronto thing. So the first, it was basically a drag show and I wasn't interested in it. And everyone was like why weren't you there? This was like the event. I said, you know I'm not really interested in drag shows that's not my thing I'm busy. [laughs] But they were desperate to bring some lesbians on board because they really wanted to create this thing where there would be like, lesbians and gays and. At the time, I didn't fully understand what their impulse was, I didn't completely trust that it had the politics because none of those guys in Khush really had ever impressed me as being engaged in any politics. I didn't know them very well but, I knew that they, I knew some of the key people from previously in my life and I knew they were basically corporate hacks and you know, they'd lived a very different life. They were, they didn't have a class politics they didn't have feminist politics. They were Gay - but the rest of it was really missing and those things were core to my politics so I kind of maintained a distance. But, the second incarnation where Ian [Rashid] really took it from the Salaam Toronto to the first Desh was Ian trying to bring in and actually create a space. I'm reading it from my external gaze at this point. But, my understanding of it was Ian was really trying to create a space within which South Asian arts could become launched in Canada. That was his largest sense of purpose around it. He held it at Euclid Cinema, which I subsequently worked at actually as a program director, but that's another story. Anyway, it was held at the Euclid and what Ian had done was essentially mobilized all the queers who had worked, who had come in either to Salaam Toronto and the lesbians that he was working with etc. to come and be part of organizing this festival which he was calling Desh [Pardesh]. I think it was a one day I can't remember but I think it was just one day. But, all of the performances, there was like one lesbian, there was one queer project that was featured out of the whole day. Everyone else, all the other artists that were featured were straight and there was really bad politics in it. So, for example, there was one panel.
Essentially what ended up happening they were like reading their work, or presenting what they thought were key issues around South Asian writers and so on… the way it was all being painted is that South Asian men are the victims and that really South Asian women have all kinds of privileges and advantages. These poor guys and even Arun was saying things like "you know, South Asian women can get work at universities but South Asian men cannot." I just, I got up and I just said "No, this is absolutely wrong" and made a huge speech about it and I basically said to them, if you think South Asian women are having it easy in this country let me talk to you about the incidences that I know in Vancouver, in Toronto, etc. where not only are South Asian women being abused inside their families on a regular and ongoing basis but they are basically being murdered in public. There’s contract killings [of women] going on in our community. Do not tell me under any circumstances South Asian women are having any kind of privileges. It is a complete lie. And to have it replicated on this stage like this is a complete travesty especially one that's organized by largely queer folks for you, to be able to present your work, and become launched as South Asian writers. If this is the way you are going to represent us, please spare us.
AM: How did that go over?
PK: Oh, it was like a bomb had gone off in the room and then, suddenly everyone was in the debate. Suddenly, it went from being this kind of boring not too interesting kind of 'what the fuck's going on?' conversation to just [swish sound] everyone was involved. Suddenly everyone was at the mics and everyone had something to say. It came to life. Ian saw this and he also knew my reputation and he had heard me on the radio and so on. And he called me and he said "I want to talk to you about what happened.” So, basically he called a meeting for me to come in and talk to the Khush folks who were actually the key organizers along with him.
They called me and said, we really want to hear your critique, because I'd stopped him outside the festival afterwards and said "what is this thing? How can you organize, how can you get queers to organize a whole thing like this where the speakers are deeply misogynist on the one side and there's only one queer artist represented in the whole day? How is that possible? don't tell me there's no other queer artists. And, why are we organizing for them? At some point we need to feature ourselves in this whole scenario.” And so, he [Ian] said "come, let's talk about it."
They asked me for my critique and I laid it out. I said "this is really problematic, I think we need to have something where we actually reflect the conditions of South Asians living in Canada and in the diaspora. We can't pretend that we're just so thrilled that we exist. That’s really not the whole point of this thing it's just pure representation.” This is something I'd fought very much at CKLN as well. Is that people always wanted to come in and say, “It's public radio, I have a right to go on air” and I’d go "no, you have to tell me what you are going to say and what does it contribute to the conversation? It's not public access.”
This is the thing, that I think is really the key thing that I brought to Desh which is this is not just public access for South Asians to rail off and say whatever they want and we should all celebrate them. This should actually be about us building a South Asian voice that has a very particular set of critical features to it. And Ian was excited by that because that's who he is but, the boys were scared.
The other boys were scared and they also knew that I had a lot of organizing skills, and they needed the festival to continue and grow. I was probably the sort of key South Asian organizer on the scene in Toronto at that time, or the most visible one. And I'm a lesbian, and I'd also worked with a lot of artists at CKLN, because that was it. It was like I was bringing in, I was doing, the station was music, arts, spoken word – a whole bunch of things at that same time. So I said “well, let's bring that umbrella here to Desh where we actually don't just think of it as an arts festival but we actually think of it as a festival that is actually a critical social festival that does arts, activism, academics.” And they said “Yeah but who's going to do that? we don't know how to do that” I said I know how to do that. They said, “yeah you do, that's what you were doing at the radio” and I said “exactly.” They said “well why don't you come work for us?” I said “yeah but you guys aren't feminists and your class politics are very different than mine. So, how are we going to work that out? They were like “well you know, we should all compromise and you know like, we are all trying to...” I said “no. I am not compromising on those things.”
I said “you want to hire me for my organizing skills my organizing skills are deeply enmeshed with my politics. So, either you take it all or you find someone else. Let's just be very clear about that. I come as a package.” They really wanted the skills so they took it and they knew that I would actually be able to do it in terms of my experience with the organizing.