& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, April 08, 2013

Accept & encourage new Canadian culture

Beit Zatoon is a meeting place for art and culture with unmistakable political underpinnings on Toronto’s Markham Street. I was there recently to listen to young spoken word artists recite poems of social justice at an event that showcased the poetry of a medieval Punjabi sufi poet Bulleh Shah. There was music, too – a veritable feast of Indian semi-classical, and other genres both vocal and instrumental. And rather incongruously, some bit of Shiite preaching (‘Karbala is his Kaaba’). The artists and especially the audience comprised all races and many religions. I assume there were many like me in the audience with little patience for anything religious but an abiding belief in the oneness of humans, something that Bulleh Shah preached.

A program on Bulleh Shah is as South Asian as it gets, and would’ve easily attracted a few hundred connoisseurs of sufi poetry in any Indian or Pakistani city. However, what transformed the Toronto show into a foot-stomping, handclapping, swinging and swaying musical communion was the participation of musicians of different ethnicities from across the world and who call Toronto home. That wouldn’t have been possible in South Asia – a subcontinent geographically divided by history.

I recall at least two other programs that were similarly path-breaking and innovative. The first was a poetry and music program at St. John’s Cathedral which had Canadian poets of Bosnian, Brazilian, Indian and Irish origins, and violinists who reinterpreted Bartok’s folk tunes. The second one was collaboration between a Toronto-born poet and a painter of Japanese origin where the painter interpreted the poem by painting on an illuminated glass panel.

These collaborative efforts are not exercises in nostalgia nor are they merely an attempt to recreate a milieu of a time that is now living in memory, or a place left behind. Conscious of their new environment, the artists, musicians and poets are reinterpreting the original material by synthesizing the traditional with the modern. The resulting confluence is quintessentially Canadian.

During my five years in Toronto, I’ve attended several similar programs organized every day by different ethnic groups – all working quietly, unobtrusively to expand the Canadian identity.  I think it is this artistic exploration that makes Canada unique. This land provides a platform for everyone to celebrate oneness; to forge a new identity through their creativity; to make some magic.

Without committing a Socratic fallacy in defining the term Canadian, I’d say that labelling something Canadian definitely builds our society. But building a society is different from making culture a marketable commodity. If there is a perception that labelling something ‘Canadian’ dooms our cultural industries to failure, it’s because at present the term Canadian is narrowly defined and doesn’t encompass all that it should – culturally, socially, economically, and politically.

The so-called “national mainstream” takes no notice of the programs that I so enthusiastically attend. Its disdain for the new Canadian culture stems from an absence of awareness of the upsurge of new talent. This is the result of policies that prevent wholesome integration of immigrants into the Canadian mainstream.

The “national mainstream” indulges in rank tokenism. It’s happy to acknowledge Russell Peters’s wild popularity, and occasionally also the masters who can’t be ignored – Rohinton Mistry, MG Vassanji, Deepa Mehta, but then swiftly move on to Dion Phaneuf, Justin Trudeau and Margaret Atwood. The cultural tumult that is transforming Canadian cities remains hidden. In this process, artists, musicians, filmmakers, poets who are perhaps as talented remain unacknowledged.

This is a pity because there is both a growing market and sponsorship available for the new Canadian culture. A culture acquires acceptance and gains in popularity when it’s constantly talked about. Cultural marketability comes through heightened awareness which can only be created if people from those sections of the Canadian society who are involved with the development of new culture have the decision-making powers. This can come about only by empowering immigrants economically and politically.

Also published in Toronto Star (13-04-13): 

Strictly Canadian: Embracing the new nation’s culture

No comments:

Post a Comment