Looking Back, Moving Forward
This page contains reflections on the influence of Desh. We, the archivists have also included our interpretation at the very end.
IR:Which may have been that mainstream culture was accommodating south asian work, south asian identity sort of kind of emerged on a national, international landscape — I don't know, I don't really have an answer for that. It felt like for a while that Desh wasn't needed. it felt like the political climate became more tolerant for a while. When I left there was an NDP government in intro which was amazing, which was very supportive to organizations like Desh and institutions like the Euclid and Khush, and you know maybe there came a point where it felt like we were on the inside suddenly. I don't know, I can’t really, I can’t testify to that. But from a distance it felt like Desh became less relevant.
IR: And then it sort of went away, you know I think SAVAC emerged from it, ASAP emerged from it and their goals seemed viable and relevant, from what I gather, you know I don't know the organizations well. Khush certainly gave up the ghost, and splintered into more ethnicized and religious cultural groups. But, yeah. The need for those initial groups seemed to kind of wane.
In the following clip Shelly Bahl discusses the importance of Desh Pardesh as a festival that allowed for the emergence of South Asian artists into the mainstream arts scene of Toronto.
SB: It was like a whole other world. Because, when i first heard about desh, I mean, in the art program, first at York University then NYU, we had zero exposure to any artists of colour. I mean unless you took a historical, art history class on South Asian historical work. You had no exposure or comprehension that there was any sort of living art being made and its relationship with contemporary practice. So, it was just, a very intense and beautiful kind of education. Because, there were artists and activists and very progressive politics all kind of rolled together and I had zero exposure to that, even as an undergrad, even in an art department.
Interestingly enough, even coming to New York immediately after participating, there was nothing like that even in New York. So, I had like this little taste, of this very progressive arts and politics, activist scene and I'd get to New York and its pretty, pretty close to non existent. I went looking for something like that. The only thing I found was, because I wanted to become more involved with organizations because I thought that that was a way to build a community and also ways in which to present the work that we were making. So, in New York, there was a group called Godzilla* which is an Asian American arts network but I believe there were only a very small handful of South Asian artists involved with it. I went searching high and low for like a very progressive radical kind of art practices being done by the South Asian community in New York and it just wasn't happening.
Desh Pardesh Podcast
After having spent a lot of time with all the interviews that have been clipped so far, we decided it would be worthwhile to bring Desh Pardesh into the present. In this podcast we work through several small snippets of the 35 interviews we had at out disposal, and re-create the story arc for Desh Pardesh, while reflecting on how the emotions and aura that it put out into the world is replicated in our lives more than a decade later.
AMAL: Hello, this is Amal.
ALISHA: And this is Alisha, we’re in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, recording in the AV room, surrounded by hundreds of tapes of stories past.
AMAL: Over the past month we have been researching the Desh Pardesh festival which was a queer South Asian arts festival that ran from roughly 1988 to 2001. It showcased several different forms of art and was a platform for politically engaged activism.
ALISHA: Thanks to the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, the CLGA and the Collaboratory we have been listening to oral histories and we’ve come across some really interesting stories. Natasha Singh starts us off with a story about empowerment.
NS: I was a frustrated women's studies major and focused on issues of race, class, and gender but I had yet to find a space that could help me both name and frame my own experiences. Desh became that space for me. I'll never forget that experience of sitting in the audience and feeling for the first time in my life that I belonged somewhere. What spoke to me deeply was how radical the politics were, how in depth the investigations of identity were, and how utterly and gloriously, unapologetic and celebratory people were in their expressions of self.
AMAL: next we hear from Sudharshan who was a dancer at the Desh festival.
SD: people were dressing in a very Fusion Style. and I think it's important because it was another expression of Who You Are south Asian, so you would see people show up with Doc Marten boots, a beautiful silk Punjabi kurta , just the kurta and no pajama (laughs) and Doc Marten boots. you know this very wonderful mixing of aesthetics. or men showing up with silk you know dhoti's but then having a leather man harness. ... so for me one of the highlights would be the dances because it was Joyus expression.
NS: There was magic in the air. The sense that we were in the presence of an awakening- an unquiet revolt. I remember running around the streets of Toronto one night with the beautiful and sensitive and now deceased Kapesh ____. My sister was with us and a few other newly made friends were there too.We were holding hands and singing Chalte Chalte. At some point, a couple men stopped us and began shouting racist remarks at our group. They even told us to go back to where we came from. But rather than cowering or internalizing their words as we might have done at some prior points in our lives, we actually chased them down their streets shouting 'We are home, we are home. Why don't you go back to where you came from? And afterwards we dissolved into exhilarated laughter that sounded almost like singing. And sometimes I can hear it still.
ALISHA: I wish that a community as large and as strong as Desh still existed. What amazes me is that, in 2017, I don’t feel the same sense of empowerment as Natasha. With Desh people weren’t alone, and had the space to explore their identity within the safety of a group that feels the same way. In class this year, there was one time the issue of ethnic fashion came up… white people said it was a shame people had (as in- the past) to forsake their traditional clothing to meet Western company, or they would be shunned. Yeah, tell that to my kurtas sitting at the bottom of my closet. Of course, when I pointed this out, the rest of my time was spent coaxing white tears.
SD: The stage of course, and the screen for the film but here there was a celebration an absolute celebration of being south Asian, whatever south asian you are was celebrated.
ALISHA: I was born in Canada. My parents are from India, and have largely left their culture behind. I’ve barely seen any Bollywood movies, I can name like, three cities on the Indian subcontinent, and I’ve only really been exposed to one language - English. My interaction with Indian culture extends largely to its food… I am too Westernized for Indian association groups, but too brown for white community groups. Where would I go if not Desh?
AMAL: To address this issue of white dominance, we are hearing from Punam Khosla who was the coordinator of the Desh festival for a number of years starting in 1992, alongside Steve Pereira.
PK: Which was either we lived in the white world or we lived in our South Asian family worlds. We were essentially a generation that wanted to create something that was neither white neither the traditionalism, we didn't want to be caught between those binaries anymore on a whole bunch of fronts. We also wanted to celebrate being part of a movement for change in the present moment. (0:53:47). Where we were. Not only being part of it but actually making active contributions to expanding and developing those.
ALISHA: We continue to hear the impact of Desh when we hear about stories like Ian Rashid’s who talks about growing up as a south asian immigrant in Toronto.
IR: I grew up in Flemmington park, which was heavily immigrant and as my parents started to do better we moved down to the suburbs, to a school that had very few south asians and we wouldn't talk to each other at school. Even though in the evenings at cultural, family events or something our parents would know each other and we would hang out, but at school we would totally flack each other because we didn't want to be associated as a south asian. Somehow, if we spoke to another south asian we would be a paki, and if we didn't we would pass. It was really sort of, sad, and I grew up with that sense of cultural and race shame I think.
AMAL: I think that this sense of cultural and race shame is something that continues to exist today, but more subtly than in Ian’s time, perhaps. I can recall in my early childhood, trying so hard to separate myself from my Pakistani heritage. I was so desperate not to be a paki. I would continuously try to find my place in history elsewhere -- away from brownness, and away from desi culture. As I grew up I found that it was easier to come to terms with my heritage and identity, as did Ian, but I think that it’s really unfortunate that 20, 30 years down the line we still see little difference in how young coloured kids feel growing up in a western country.
AMAL: Desh addressed some of these issues, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Sharon Fernandez touches on the impermanence of Desh. She’s in conversation with Punam Khosla who left Desh after coordinating the festival for a year and a half.
SF: It could not have kept going in the same way. You know, because yes i think Desh had a moment, it was vibrant, it was fantastic, it blossomed, it supported, it nurtured, it you know defended because it was very activist in terms of defending a lot of the issues that were on the table at that time and it allowed for this wonderful creativity but it could have gone one — but it would have to be different because it was different people.
PK: I'm a feminist and I don't think there's much room for Lesbian feminists in this organization even though I've been at the centre of making it happen.
SF: Desh was that kind of transforming, continuously evolving thing.
ALISHA: After Punam left, Desh veered even further away from its original vision.
PK: They were so thrilled that they suddenly had the space without having anybody challenging them on things that had been challenging to them politically in other ways. And the people who came in doing the political work were quite happy to just kind of create a place within which they did that. As opposed to have it be the thing that saturated through desh and the artists, quite happy not to fuck with political people to make sure that their work were creatively interesting. So they developed parallel.. and people just started to see it as more of a social space. I mean, I would go to desh and I'd be shocked, horrified because I'd be like: "man, this has turned into like a frigging cocktail party". Where everyone was posing and everyone was wearing, you know. I felt like I was back in my middle class father's home when he was having a cocktail party and everyone was wearing their fineries and this was like, now gay finery. LGBT finery. But everyone was picking each other up and so on and so forth.
SF: We’re in a different time now, now it’s all on the internet so. I don't know of you can have another Desh, you can have something else but not a Desh.
ALISHA: The internet is an efficient way to rally people towards a cause, and it provides a platform for discussion. There is a wealth of knowledge just waiting for us.
AMAL: However, the internet can also fuel a culture of passivity, where people feel that they have made a concrete difference by liking, retweeting and sharing parts of a movement, and then moving on.
ALISHA: It’s armchair activism and change takes real work. It’s discouraging for our generation to start any action. Amita Handa articulates our dissatisfaction well.
AH: I think in the 90s it was a very different... but there was a this belief in change. There was hope with all the marches and we thought, oh yeah we’re going to this because we want change and now its like, you know, x amount of years later and if anything I see things backwards since post 9/11 in terms of the Islamophobia, the racism. Just everybody thinks now that in the name of national security, they can say whatever they want. I think a lot of the independent, small businesses and voices have been pushed out, right, by big companies.
PK: I think, the lesson is that you have to do the unimaginable. And, there is a price when you do that. There are personal price and there is also a price to people and how much it challenges people to do those things but that, if you balance out that price versus what people took away, the price is worth it.