Famous Indo-Canadian artist recreates Indian history at Surrey Art Gallery

surbhi oneMigration to a new country affects both adults and children. But it is the perplexity and frustrations of adults that find expression in books, discussions or media most of the time. What goes inside a child’s mind and heart is being ignored for long. Sarindar Dhaliwal, a Toronto-based visual artist, has now tried to capture that impact of immigration on a child in her works which will be on display at the Surrey Art Gallery from September 21.

Dhaliwal in her exhibition — Narratives from the Beyond – through a selection of photography, sculpture, textile and video shows what she felt when she left India. Her exhibition is an examination of childhood dissonance located in an immigrant experience and in a distant past. “I was only three when I went to London with my mother to join my father. I learnt both Punjabi and English,” she says.

Dhaliwal says the Punjabi community made her feel strange and act as a rebel. “People from my own community laughed at me when I spoke Punjabi in English accent. So I stopped speaking Punjabi all together. I started feeling distant from my culture and community. A community that I found repressive towards women,” she says.

Dhaliwal’s perception of her community being repressive towards women only became stronger with time. “Even my own mother was against the things I loved doing since she was part of the same community. She did not let me read books,” Dhaliwal says. Her work the green fairy story book at the exhibition represents that experience. The work consists of 14 handmade books that recount a narrative across their combined spines. Dhaliwal concludes this tale of a young girl’s fascination with books and images as “a resolution of sorts; a coming home to the place where all the narratives she has written began.”

Another work is a photograph of coloured pencils. “I was a very quite child and did not ask for toys. I spent my time playing with pencils. The picture of pencils represents a child who finds comfort in pencils,” she explains.

Apart from her struggle with people, Dhaliwal went through a struggle with her identity. “I had always learnt bad things about Pakistan from my parents. The partition had hurt them bad. I used to think what kind of people must be living across the Indian border. But when I went to London, the British would call me a ‘Paki’. I used to wonder when I look like a Pakistani, why did my parents tell me that Pakistanis were different. It was a struggle with my identity,” she says.

It was tough for Dhaliwal as a child to choose whether she was a British, Indian or Pakistani. Only when Dhaliwal grew up she felt the trauma both Indians and Pakistani’s went through during partition. This is shown in her work the cartographer’s mistake: the Radcliffe Line. This digitally rendered image of India as made up of marigolds makes reference to British lawyer and jurist Cyril Radcliffe, who was responsible for drawing the border between India and Pakistan. Conflicts related to this colonialist decision led to the displacement of millions of people, and this ripping apart of communities seems to have left Dhaliwal herself feeling torn between her place of birth and her adopted countries.

After London her adopted country was Canada and she has lived in Canada since 1968. Dhaliwal received her BFA with a concentration in sculpture at University College (Falmouth, Cornwall, England, UK), and her MFA from York University (Toronto, Canada).

Being divided in three different cultures, what does India stand for her? “Once I left India at the age of 3, I never went back until I was 50. It felt like home. I went to my village in Punjab. If some were happy to see me as a successful person, others were disappointed that I decided to stay single and do not follow what an Indian women is expected to do. I feel in India there is a lot of display of power. Not only women are repressive towards women, they are repressive towards poor too. And this power display is turning into violence.”

Dhaliwal is giving an illustrated talk on September 21, Saturday at the Surrey Art Gallery. The talk is on her experience living between three countries, the legacies of partition, and her artistic practice. She will address the autobiographical underpinnings of much of her work]]. The artist will also discuss her interest in the notion of life after death as represented in the ethereal collection of life knowledge known as the akashic library.

By Surbhi Bhatia