In our view, art is subordinate to life. Life does not exist so that artists can create their art, rather art exists because of life.
Vancouver Sath was started as an informal discussion forum by a group of politically conscious Punjabi writers and community activists. Prior to Sath there was the Punjabi Literary Association in Vancouver, which provided the opportunity for concerned writers and intellectuals to discuss and explore not only literary and cultural matters, but many social and political issues as well. However, during the 1981-1982 year, the atmosphere in that organization deteriorated to a point where no genuine discussion was possible. Also some of us had been struggling to keep Watno Dur, a monthly Punjabi literary and cultural magazine alive for the last few years. We wanted something else, something different, to happen in the Punjabi literary and cultural circles. Moreover, we felt during that period that numerous issues that demanded serious attention were arising as a result of the demographic growth of the community. Those of us who eventually came together to form Sath were already actively involved in ongoing struggles such fighting against racism, and for farm workers' rights. We shared a common ideology and were socially very close to each other.
Towards the end of 1982, we started informal but regular weekly meetings to discuss social, political and literary issues. The main focus of our community at the time was Punjab because the situation there was beginning to slip towards the present day problem. It was only natural that Punjabis living here would feel concern about the situation back home. However, the degree of this concern was, and still is, such that people didn't pay attention to the problems facing us as an immigrant community in a different geographical, economical and social environment. There was an urgent need to understand the problems faced by the younger generation growing up here: the effects of racism on the individual and the community; the economic exploitation of new immigrants; the abuse of women and children in our families and so on. We felt that if we didn't pay sufficient attention to these issues, we would eventually, and in actuality, become the very low ebb of this society which was perhaps the hidden desire of its ruling class.
In order to work towards this goal, we decided to give a formal structure to our informal gatherings. We wanted to avoid all the structural problems that organizations usually encounter. We decided against having a conventional structure of presidents, secretaries and other hierarchical positions. We also decided against any formal membership for this organization. The idea was that whoever agrees with the goals and is willing to work towards them could join. Every member was entitled to equal credit for the work done. Our idea was that instead of working for the organization or some individuals, we would work together for our shared, common goals. The only reason to come and work in this group would be that one wanted to do that work without expecting anything in return. There were no strings attached. Whenever somebody, for whatever reason, wanted to stop working he or she could simply get up and go. With these kinds of ideas in our minds, we quite naturally thought about the saths in Punjabi villages. They have no formal structure and everybody is free to say one's peace and is free to come and go as one pleases. We decided to call our organization Sath and for our local identification we added Vancouver in front of it. Thus, with Vancouver Sath we felt connected to our past and yet part of our contemporary place and time.
After formalizing in the beginning of 1983, the first task we collectively undertook was to produce a number of articles on the following issues: Punjabi immigrants and the type of employment they get; BC's Solidarity Movement against the anti-labour legislation of the Socred [Social Credit] government; the growing dangers of the Punjab situation and its effects on the community here; and video and entertainment in the Punjabi community. These articles were locally published in Watno Dur, Canada Darpan and some were also reproduced in magazines and newspapers in Punjab as well. We, as a collective, also wrote reports and published interviews on the community's struggle against exploitation and racism. While we worked on these articles and tried to get a clear grasp of the issues faced by the Indo-Canadian Community, we continued to debate the usefulness of the printed medium for communication. We realized that most of the Punjabis were not in the habit of reading serious articles in the best of times, let alone at a time when they were simply too involved in their daily struggles to establish themselves in a new land. This realization led us to experiment with theatre.
Towards a Clear Direction for Theatre
The theatrical activities in the Indo-Canadian Community began in 1972 with a short one act play produced by the Punjabi Cultural Association of Vancouver. Theatre was kept alive in Vancouver by various organizations in the face of numerous difficulties. The pace, however, was very slow. Plays were produced periodically. People would gather strength to do theatre but often exhausted themselves with one or two productions. Often, mainly due to the lack of resources and direction, there were rifts in the organizations and it took a long time to reorganise. Some of us involved in Vancouver Sath were directly or indirectly part of these efforts over the years, and were aware of the difficulties involved. While working on Watno Durforthe last few years, we debated about these difficulties. Numerous questions arose from these discussions. It was felt that serious attention had to be paid to a number of issues in order to do Punjabi theatre in Canada on a continual basis. To build a solid base for theatre in Canada, it was necessary for an organization to have defined and declared goals, and a very clear idea of its own strengths and weaknesses. Since we were aware of a host of past historical, economic and social obstacles, we concluded that there were very limited possibilities of building Punjabi theatre based on the simple desire to entertain people. We had repeatedly witnessed the efforts of many talented and genuine people in the community end in frustration. We debated some of the following questions. Why do theatre? Who is the audience? What were the limitations of available resources? And which traditions should be followed?
The process of finding answers to these questions led Vancouver Sath people towards a relatively clear direction for Punjabi theatre in Canada. It was obvious that there was no Canadian Punjabi theatrical tradition that we could follow. It also became obvious that we could not build theatre solely based on either the Punjabi and/or Indian tradition, or on the tradition of English theatre in Canada alone. We needed to get direction, help and inspiration from both traditions in order to create a distinct Punjabi theatre in Canada.
The very first question that we faced was why go through so much pain to do theatre? Why not simply wait for the time when the flow of economic fluency would make it possible for professional Punjabi companies to exist? It was not at all difficult for us to decide this matter. We could easily imagine the type of theatre that professional companies, based wholly on the principal of profit, would do. But Vancouver Sath was, and continues to be, a part of a literary tradition which believed that literature and art should be created for the betterment of humanity. As a group of conscious people, we felt that as our other activities were directed towards creating a better balanced, just society, our theatrical and cultural activities should do the same.
We were aware of the criticism that we degraded art and literature when we said that art should exist in the service of life. But, we were never fully convinced by this criticism. In our view, art and literature are subordinate to life. Life does not exist so that artists can create their art, rather art exists because of life. Art and literature depict the beauty and coarseness of life in a way that makes humans fond of beauty and ardent opponents of ugliness in life.
Whenever art and literature are discussed in this manner, the critics claim that it is an effort to lessen the importance of aesthetics in art and literature. How artistic a piece of literature or art is and how it affects its audience depends on many different things, such as the state of art in a given society in which the piece has been created, the artist's ability and knowledge, available resources for the creation and presentation of that piece, and so on. Thus, Modern Punjabi theatre was not possible three hundred years ago, regardless of the fact that there may have been thousands of people who had a genuine commitment to theatre. In our view, the significance of art and literature is increased when seen in connection to life.
By declaring this, we as artists did not separate ourselves from life around us but become one with life. We could look at hundreds of thousands of examples of art and literature in the West which were alienated from life, and were created by people who were themselves alienated from life. If we, as Punjabi artists, were not an intimate part of the life around us, or if we were to become alienated while living here, then our views of art and literature would automatically change. But, until that unfortunate moment happens why should we, for the sake of fashion, create art that was alienated from our society? We understood that art and literature should be developed within its social context, and the highly acclaimed art and literature of the world is a proof of this view. To our good fortune, we found many people, not only from the Indo-Canadian community, but from the larger Canadian community who agreed with our views, and who provided us with much needed moral support.
It was also clear to us that the absence of Punjabi theatre in Canada also meant the absence of a Punjabi theatre audience. One must remember that the majority of the immigrants in our community have come from Punjabi villages and until the mid-seventies, there were not many opportunities in the villages to be exposed to modern theatre. With this in mind, we needed for building Punjabi theatre in Canada was to identify the audience for whom this theatre was to be developed. It was not difficult to see that for the Punjabis the most important thing was the content and especially the language of a film or play. They did not pay much attention to modern techniques used in developing the film or play. The most entertaining piece for them was one that they could relate to, directly or indirectly. The more closely related the subject, the more they would enjoy the piece. This is why one could easily understand why a Punjabi audience was as much, if not more, delighted with technically primitive Punjabi films, as they were with technically superior Hindi or English films. The time had not yet arrived (perhaps still not arrived) when a Punjabi audience would accept or reject a Punjabi film or play based solely on its technical presentation. To say this is not to insult the tastes of a Punjabi audience, but to present a stage in its development. We needed to develop our theatre on sound foundations and we needed to create a serious audience for that theatre as well. The only way to achieve this was to begin at the very first stage.
We arrived at the conclusion that it is not necessary to go beyond one's means to use all the available theatrical techniques to produce Punjabi plays. If the resources allowed the use of certain techniques, then we would use them, by all means. The experience of many small theatre groups in and around Vancouver's larger community helped us to reach this conclusion. Like other large centres in Canada and America, Vancouver was full of theatrical activities of all types, sizes and shapes. One could go to a production that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or one could also visit numerous places where the production cost may not have been more than a few hundred dollars. From other people's experiences, we concluded that to become naked by stretching one's feet farther than the sheet of cloth allotted was not a very wise thing to do. We also felt that theatrical activities should not be delayed until we were in a position to use available techniques and more suitable venues. The whole point was not to fit the Punjabi theatre into the available techniques, but rather to fit the techniques to the needs of Punjabi theatre. Consequently, we decided that the development of theatre should be undertaken based on our own strengths.
As mentioned earlier, the structure and dynamics of the group were also discussed thoroughly. By keeping in mind the structural problems faced by other organizations, we came to the conclusion that all members should be at an equal level. There should be no 'star' or 'director' or any other kind of hierarchy. Each active member would share in the decision making. As far as it was practically possible, each activity would be handled collectively. It would not be a conventional structure where some people carried chairs and others sat on them. The person sitting on the chair would also carry it. No participant should ever feel that (s)he was working for someone else. Rather the feeling should always be that (s)he was working for the common goal of the organization, and to achieve his or her personal artistic goal. Whenever a member felt otherwise, he or she should raise this question in the organization. Each member was to be fully responsible for the well being of the organization in all its aspects.
While we were still at the stage of debating these issues we had an opportunity to meet the soul of Punjabi theatre, Mr. Gursharan Singh. He was invited by IPANA to visit Canada with his theatre group, Amritsar Natak Kala Kendar (Drama Art Centre). We had a chance to see some of his plays and to discuss with him the various aspects of starting a community-based theatre group. We learned from him, in detail, how he had established his theatre, first in Amritsar and then in remote villages all over Punjab. We were extremely happy and surprised to learn that our concept of community theatre was quite similar to what he had already done. He had developed a theatre that could be easily performed with the least number of props, since none were readily available in Punjab's villages.
Obviously, this chance to meet with him gave us enormous confidence in our conception of how to develop theatre in the Punjabi community here. We were lucky to have some members of the Punjabi Cultural Association join us. These people had been involved in cultural activities, especially folk dance Bhangra, since 1971-72, and these were the people who had started the tradition of Punjabi theatre in Canada back in 1972. With this addition, Vancouver Sath was ready to take on the responsibility of developing Punjabi theatre. In the beginning of 1984, Sath decided to produce its first plays.
The Beginning and the Development of Sath Theatre
The first difficulty we encountered was in deciding which scripts to choose. Clearly, our first priority was to do a play that dealt with life here, but we had no appropriate script available to us. On the other hand, the Punjab situation by this time had taken a more serious turn, and it was simply not possible to think about any other issue.
Finally, we decided on two plays: one, written by a Sath member Makhan Tut, was entitled, Punjab Di Awaz (The Voice of Punjab); and the second, written by Gursharan Singh was entitled, Kursi Morcha te Hava Vich Latkde Lok (Chair, Battlefront and People Dangling in the Air). Both were presented at an elementary school auditorium in Vancouver in March, 1984. The players who took part in both of these plays were: Makhan Tut, Sukhwant Hundal, Balwinder Rode, Gurcharan Tallewalia, Inderjit Rode, Paul Binning, Bhavkhandan and Sadhu Binning. The response from the community was very encouraging. Later, both of these plays were staged by Sath in Williams Lake and Quesnel, BC.
Sath members, as mentioned before, were also actively involved in the struggle of BC's farm workers. In the summer of 1984, there was a strike by the farm workers in a lower mainland mushroom farm in Langley. Workers on strike were mainly Punjabi women who showed remarkable determination to win workers' rights from their employer. Along with many other progressive people from the community, we joined these workers on the picket line on a regular basis. We had a first hand chance to learn about their problems. These women were going through tremendous personal revolutions at the time. Coming from a feudal background, it was a giant step for them to stand on a picket line with placards around their necks. It meant throwing away values established centuries ago to take on a new set of values in an industrial society. They were faced by many doubts and fears. The employers, who were also Punjabis, wanted to continue to deal with them as they dealt with women in the feudal society. The employers attempted to use religious affiliations, regional loyalties and relationships to coerce them, but the women stood their ground and supported each other.
By observing them on the picket line and being a part of their struggle, we (Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal) wrote our first play, Picket-Line. This play was staged in November, 1984 along with Gursharan Singh's Havai Gole (Air-Balls).
Picket Line provided us with the opportunity to test our theoretical views on a practical level. It was written and developed collectively. All decisions were made collectively. The people playing the eleven characters in this play helped each other in developing the characters and deciding on costumes and other matters. Each artist first worked on understanding his or her own character in relation to the other characters. Each person developed the character on his/her own and the others pointed out any weaknesses and gave suggestions that would improve the character. In this production, there were five women, three of whom had never been on the stage before. One was Canadian born and had difficulty with the Punjabi language. In total twelve people—Makhan Tut, Jagdish Binning, Rachpal, Anju Hundal, Jas Binning, Inderjit Rode, Gurcharan Tallewalia, Sukhwant Hundal, Amanpal Sara, Harjinder Sangra, Paul Binning and Sadhu Binning—were involved in the production of this play—eleven performers and one coordinator. In the process of creating equality among participants, Sath experimented (it was definitely a new thing for us) with the direction of the play. In the place of one director, a successful play was produced with an collective effort. Some contemporaries described it, contrary to our view, as a 'directionless' play.
Picket Line was a collective effort from the writing stage to its presentation. The understanding among participants and their genuine commitment to their work made an extremely difficult task relatively easy. Picket Line was later staged in English at the 1986 Vancouver Folk Music Festival. The English production opened up many new doors for Vancouver Sath. The most important achievement was that we were able to involve a number of second generation people—Pindy Gill, Nick Sihota, Sital Dhillon and Bhavna Bhangu—in our activities. We also received one thousand dollars for doing this play, a totally new experience for us—getting paid for what we wanted to do anyway. Similarly, because it was in English, the media also paid some attention to our activities. On the national scene, a long interview with Sath members was published in the magazine Fuse. Locally, CBC and CJOR radio programs interviewed the writers of the play. Dave Barret, the ex-premier of BC, and a talk show host on CJOR at the time, made an emotional statement that Sath had made a qualitative addition to the Canadian culture.
In 1985, Gursharan Singh of Amritsar Natak Kala Kendar was once again invited to come to Canada. Vancouver Sath members had a chance to share with him the experience of the past two years. Sath produced Tootan Wala Khoo (A Well With Mulberry Trees) under Gursharan Singh's direction at this time. This play was Gursahran Singh's adaptation of a novel of the same name by Sohan Singh Sital. Tootan Wala Khoo told a tragic tale of the partition of Punjab in 1947 based on religious politics. The play had a direct message for the Punjabi people who were once again in the similar situation-they were being forced to divide the community again based on religion. The production of this play enraged the local proponents of Khalistan, and its presentation on the local multicultural television channel was blocked for six months.
While the ongoing grave political situation of Punjab was a major concern to all of us and Tootan Wala Khoo was another effort to address that situation, our main focus were the problems of life in Canada. One of the most serious issues faced by the community was, and is, the manifold exploitation of women, often through violence. In the fall of 1985, Sath produced a play called Lattan De Bhoot (Ghost That Can Only Be Handled With Force) by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal. The play was based on a very tragic but true story of a woman who was forced to sponsor relatives for immigration purposes against her will. She was made to work like a slave in the house and in a restaurant without getting anything in return. She was physically beaten on a regular basis. A co-worker in the restaurant eventually learned of her plight and helped her escape from the clutches of her relatives. The play helped to intensify the ongoing discussion of this issue in the community.
The next two areas which Sath decided to explore were the problems faced by the elderly in their Canadian surroundings, and the ever-present issue of arranged marriages. To make people aware of the day to day difficulties faced by the Punjabi elderly, especially outside the home environment, a play called Havelian Te Parkan (Mansions and Parks) by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal was written and produced in early 1987. At the same time, a second play called Kihda Viah? (Whose Marriage?) by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal was produced. The play questioned parents' attitudes concerning marriage, and pointed out that the views of the young people whose marriage was being planned, were being totally ignored. We intentionally poked fun at parents and took the side of the young. The stage production of the play was recorded on a video and aired on the local multicultural channel. As expected, it started a lively discussion in the community.
In the fall of 1987, the women members of the Vancouver Sath were invited to do a play in a conference on women's issues. Anju Hundal, Jagdish Binning, Harjinder Sangra and Pindy Gill collectively wrote and produced a play entitled Different Age Same Cage. The male characters were also played by them. It showed three different stages in the life of Punjabi woman. While young, she is treated as a lower class of human being in comparison to her brother. In a marriage situation she is slave to her husband. In her old age she has to look after her grandchildren and when not needed, she is pushed out of the house due to economic pressures. The play was a hit with the audience and has been presented more than two dozen times at various locations since then. Originally written in English, it was later translated into Punjabi and was done as a street play in the Punjabi market on Main street in Vancouver in the summer of 1989.
In early 1988, Sath produced another play about the situation of Punjabi farm workers. The focus this time was the use of pesticides in the agricultural industry. Most of the immigrant farm workers had not dealt with these kinds of dangerous chemicals in their prior life experience, though most had come from an agricultural background. Prior to the play, numerous cases of pesticide poisoning and deaths were recorded in the Lower Fraser Valley. A much discussed case in the media was of Jarnail Singh Deol, a young man who had died as a direct result of pesticides. A major obstruction to dealing with the danger of pesticides was the 'old world' loyalties held by the workers. The workers tended to be loyal to and trust the labour contractors and farmers, often for no other reason than that they shared the same cultural background. The play entitled A Crop of Poison questioned old feudal values and loyalties and encouraged farm workers to deal with matters in a more rational manner. Both plays A Crop of Poison and Picket Line were performed in Mission, Abbotsford, Langley, Surrey and Vancouver as part of a tour organized by the Deol Agricultural Education and Research Society and The Canadian Farmworkers Union. At the end of the tour, A Crop of Poison was also performed in English at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre as part of the MayWorks Festival.
In the following year A Lesson of a Different Kind by Sadhu Binning was produced by Sath. It highlighted the exploitation of immigrant janitorial workers. This production has since been repeated a number of times since.
A second play dealing with the issue of violence against women Not A Small Matter was written by Anju Hundal, Jagdish Binning, Harjinder Sangra, Sukhwant Hundal and Sadhu Binning. This play has been staged both in Punjabi and English at a number of locations and has also been produced as a video play sponsored by People's Law School of Vancouver.
In 1988, Sath members translated Maluka, a novel based on the early experience of Indians living and working in BC. The author Sadhu Singh Dhami, who lives in Switzerland, was invited to launch the book. A play based on this novel Maluke Da Paihla Vishav Vidialia (First University of Maluka) by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal was produced and staged in Vancouver.
In 1989, The Indo-Canadian community commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident. Vancouver Sath prepared a photo exhibition and an entire issue of the Punjabi magazine Watan was devoted to the event. A play Samundary Sher Nal Larrai (A Battle with the Sea Lion) by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal was also written for this event.
Since 1984, Sath has produced more than a dozen original plays which deal with the Indo-Canadian experience. Along with theatre, Sath has continuously carried out other activities such as workshops, seminars, book launches, translation work and publications. All this has been achieved without any kind of funding from any government or private agency (except a grant to start the magazine Ankur) without having a permanent place to meet or rehearse and by people who have been holding full time jobs or are full time students.
Vancouver Sath continues to create art in the service of life!