How the creative Punjabi diaspora turned out in support of the Indian Farmers’ Protest
Sikh creatives in the West have been using their skills to connect with their cultural homeland and support the Farmers’ cause. Here, we chat to Jatinder Singh Durhailay, Mush Studio, and Jag Nagra about how and why they have been doing so.
Since September 2020, tens of thousands of people have been peacefully protesting across India against new farm laws. Laws that will force farmers in the Sikh majority state of the Punjab to sell to powerful corporations rather than government-run markets. Over 250 days later, people are still camped out, both women and men sleeping rough to try and secure their future, even as the country faces the compounded humanitarian crisis of Covid’s huge second wave.
The Farmer’s cause has sparked a historic show of solidarity from the Punjabi diaspora across the Western world, many of whom trace their cultural roots to this agricultural homeland. Sikh creatives in the West have clicked into modern Seva mode. Seva is a vital tenant of Sikhi (or Sikh faith and culture) meaning “selfless service”. So, in light of the lack of meaningful coverage on the issue, for Sikh creatives outside of India, Seva has meant using their platforms to visually speak out. Many have created ways to raise both awareness and money for grassroots charities as well as shedding light on the humans behind the issue. Whether it is those with strong and regular ties to the region and “home”, or those who have never visited and whose Punjabi grandparents are now gone, an emotional chord has been struck on a deeper level.
This ripple through the diaspora has not only resulted in powerful artworks but has led to these artists exploring their experience of that diasporic identity; the push and pull of the cultures of their past and their present, and how this shows up in their work. Pushing the agricultural issue to the fore, using creativity to express the meshed intersections of being a second or third generation-er, has afforded new relationships with modern-day India, not just the India of their parents or grandparents.
There are as many diasporic experiences, as many as there are members of the diaspora; there is not one homogenous experience. East London artist Jatinder Singh Durhailay doesn’t overthink it and says: “When one is a person of colour, I feel all that we ever get offered to talk about is the topic of identity. I do not consciously think of my identity, and I am just being myself and painting what I want to see.”
In a traditional Indian miniature style, the characters he paints wear Cholas with Adidas jackets on top. They are the real nuanced people in his life and his mirror. “In a Western-oriented world, people like me seldom get to see heroes that look like them – they do exist, so I find myself creating them for my pleasure. And that, above all, is fun!” Jatinder’s work reflects his experience, he simply is who he is, an amalgamation of all the moments up until now, one does not outshine the other. Similarly, creating work around the Farmer’s protests was not a “social media moment”, it was an extension of all his existing work and values. Values of sustainability and treating all life respectfully, instilled in him as a little boy. The piece he created with the agricultural issue in mind is a painting of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh Guru, born in Punjab in 1469. Durhailay has depicted him sowing seeds manually, as it was him who coined the famous line, “what you shall sow, so shall you reap”. This is, in his words, a reference to both “the consequences of Farmer’s subjugation and the interwoven nature of agriculture and Sikhi.”
“I was born and grew up in London and consider myself to be a city boy, but my father was born in Amritsar, Punjab and my first visit was as a one-year-old,” says Jatinder. “My practice focuses primarily on past Indian narrative and Sikh identity within the diasporas. I recall those books and comics my father bought me from Indian-owned shops, of religious Hindu, Sufi, and Sikh tales by the publishers Amra Chitra Katha. My heroes were Hanuman, Krishna, Ram, Mata Sundari, Goddess Durga, Baba Deep Singh, among many others. I was so in love with the images and those heroic men and women, my connection early on was a visual one.”
Jatinder describes no duality in his identity, rather a steady juxtaposition and very pure love of all those facets. “From early on I loved being me,” he describes, “my school was very mixed, I never questioned being the long-haired Sikh boy who was often mistaken as a cute little ‘darling’ girl. I accepted what was handed down to me from past generations.”
The Indian/Mughal miniature style naturally allows Jatinder to find a voice that fits who he is as a person today. A method to combine all these intrinsic early influences and London life, while embodying all those sentiments gifted to him by Sikhi. “Ten years ago, in contemporary portrait paintings, I never saw anybody that remotely looked like me, and that was frustrating,” he says. “My work has been an act of saying, ‘Hey, we are here, and we are human beings too, with a rich and beautiful culture.’”
Kush Jutlla: Tired Of Your Shit (Copyright © Kush Jutlla, 2021)
Kush Jutlla: Creps + Chunni (Copyright © Kush Jutlla, 2021)
For others, something shifted when embarking on highlighting an issue “back home”.
For playful, vibrant illustrators Kush Jutlla and Manny Janda, of Mush Studio, the connection to the Farmer’s cause was something new. Something which unexpectedly facilitated a certain healing of the fissures in their own identity. This, combined with the obligatory 2020-soul searching and the pause from responding to briefs, has given their work more authenticity in the long term. The husband and wife duo both have grandparents who moved to the UK from Punjabi farming villages, Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar, in the 1960s. These grandparents were the driving forces of their immersion in the Sikh culture and they both have memories of them always tending their gardens. Plum and apple trees for chutney, spinach, coriander and chillies for curries, claiming homegrown always tastes better! It was only later in life and with the work on the protests that the illustration duo realised how deeply this was part of Punjabi life.
Mush’s limited edition No Farmers No Food T-shirt, features an illustration by Manny, based on the imagery of the farmers in their Dastar merging with the furrowed land. It went on to raise £2,000 for the Sahaita Farmers Support Project.
Manny describes his childhood as “the boy with the Indian name to his white school friends, and called by his English name by his family”, constantly varying between being too Brown or too white. But when it came to designing No Farmers No Food, with his signature thick-lined, bold cartoon style, the process was very simple and natural. “It was a beautiful piece created with nothing but love and respect towards the farmers,” says Kush. “There wasn’t much forethought at all. Manny just picked up the pen and it just worked. It is safe to say this is our proudest moment as a creative studio and as children of Punjab. It helped us to appreciate where and who we have come from.”
Kush herself creates expressive, hyper coloured spaces for her South Asian female characters to exist in all their glory – cutesy hair slides, armpit hair, pet Tigers, sneakers, Tikka, Nath and all! It’s a Brit-Asian “culture-clash” world with a modern Brit-Asian gaze. It’s a gaze that she wishes she could have seen represented as a tween, so creates for all the “little Brown girls growing up now”.
“I think the clash and conflict of growing up Brit-Asian is the essence of my work,” Kush describes. “There is no one without the other. The embarrassment I felt as a kid having to wear traditional clothes anywhere but the Gurdwara and being a super hairy teenage girl was crushing. One piece that touches on this is the Venus Print – exploring sexuality despite the limitations sometimes faced as a South Asian woman – policed in what we wear and how we conduct ourselves from such a young age. It’s about celebrating the body, mind and spirit and, of course, body hair!”
For Manny, his Brit-Asian experience is just one facet of himself and his work. “There are other major influences, like people watching and my love for Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of my favourite cereal as a child!” he laughs. “I love strong confident lines and block colours, which were forever present in the shows I used to watch, from Wacky Races to Tom & Jerry. However, I do enjoy showing the culture clash of the two worlds and have tried to express it in various ways. Type Toop explores how my elders would speak broken Punjabi with English words thrown in to help us youngsters understand. Half the time the English words were just random made-up rhyming gibberish!”
Jag Nagra, an illustrator in Vancouver, still has family farming in the Punjab. Her parents were born and raised there and immigrated to Canada in the 80s. She also felt the need for non-reductive representation and a bridging of a disconnect, something her work mitigates. She intentionally draws her chunky-waisted, chunky-limbed, simplistic characters with dark skin tones, challenging negative narratives around this in South Asian society. Jag could never put her finger on her disconnect with her culture and for a long time, she didn’t create art that involved Indian influences. But spurred on by her and her wife’s want to make sure their young children feel pride and connection to their heritage, she has found a truer voice with her work. One that now includes her own queer South Asian identity. Looking back she can recognise she was trying to assimilate to the art she saw around her, but once she gave all her intersections space in her designs, her authentic style began.
“Growing up in the suburbs of Vancouver, there were very few South Asian families at the time, and as a result, I wasn’t very connected to my Indian roots outside of my own family,” Nagra describes. “On top of that, being a queer Indian was even more difficult to navigate. There was a lot of confusion about how all the parts of my identity met for a long time.” These intersections show up in imagery in something as simple as women in traditional saris who are wearing Nikes. “It seems simplistic but honestly, if I could have worn sneakers to any number of Indian reception parties in the past, I think I would have felt more like myself. One thing I’ve always noticed about me feeling lost in my identity is that I have never felt ‘Indian enough’ or ‘woman enough’. I don’t know if that’s a self-perceived difference or if it actually exists, but I’ve always felt like an outsider hovering around the various identities that I have.”
Jag produced two pieces in solidarity with the protests, including the ubiquitous blue Indian farming tractor, and I Stand With Farmers, a South Asian woman with a fist in the air. This signifies the women who are the engines of the harvesting and storing of crops, and who have a strong presence at the protests themselves. “Women are really important in leading the protests happening right now,” says Nagra. “It’s inspiring but truthfully, upsetting, to see so many of our elders protesting for months on end right now. Sleeping in trolleys or on the ground. These folks have left the comforts of their homes in the fight for justice.”
The diasporic experience can be very straightforward, it can be complicated and it can be everything in between. But one thing is clear, your DNA will find you. Whether passed on through stories, love, family, faith, or by something even deeper in your bones, these stories show that something is imprinted that can’t be left behind, even if it is now interlocked with something new.
The values set by our genes, in a place far, far away can come calling when we least expect it, not only when it needs us, but when we need it most. And art can be one of the maps that leads us there.
This article was originally commissioned before the escalating Covid-19 crisis in India.
As the situation worsens and the Indian government struggles to cope, it is again Sikh communities and organisations, such as Khalsa Aid and the Hemkunt Foundation who have mobilised and mobilised quickly. It is the practising of Seva that has spearheaded much of the action on the ground, including providing over 100 oxygen concentrators. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), which is an umbrella body of the Farmers Unions are also distributing food and essential goods to hospitals across India.
To support, you can donate to the following organisations:
Jatinder Singh Durhailay: Akali Sabh Ke vali (Copyright © Jatinder Singh Durhailay, 2021)
About the Author
Becky Hoh-Hale is a London-based freelance journalist and stylist who has written about design, art, interiors and fashion for over 14 years, including for Architectural Digest, Studio and Grand Designs.