Not a Place on the Map: The Desh Pardesh Project
From 2013 – 2017, SAVAC worked on an oral history project aimed at collecting the stories of the organizers, artists, participants and community activists behind Desh Pardesh, the groundbreaking multidisciplinary South Asian Arts Festival that operated in Toronto from 1988 to 2001. Desh was dedicated to providing a venue for underrepresented and marginalized voices within the South Asian diaspora. Programming and conversations about feminism, class, sexuality, access, disability, race, caste, imperialism, and capitalism were central to the festival’s existence.
Since its closure in 2001, the festival has become a relic for the Toronto South Asian arts community. While it has been sporadically commemorated with a few events, reflections, and critical essays over the past 15 years, there had yet to be any sustained investigation into this queer diasporic festival that took hold of the Canadian arts scene in the 1990s. In part, this is due to the lack of archival sources and their inaccessibility; as Gayathri Gopinath has argued, events such as Desh Pardesh often resist textualization because the “queer spectatorial practice and the mercurial performances and more informal forms of sociality” that occur at queer diasporic night clubs, festivals, and community events are not easily documented. Remaining traces are often found basements, buried under boxes, or in the memories of organizers and participants, spaces that are inaccessible to the wider public.
To address this archival silence, in 2013 SAVAC initiated “Not a Place on the Map: The Desh Pardesh Project” – a three-year oral history project about queer South Asian history in Toronto focused on Desh Pardesh. Hired in May 2014, the first coordinator of the project Anna Malla mobilized the festival’s networks to complete 36 oral interviews, curate an archival exhibition and facilitate intergenerational connections between artists of colour. In the final year, Sajdeep Soomal was hired to finish off the project by creating a digital exhibition of the collected material.
We are excited to launch the oral histories as a series of podcasts available on our website and the CLGA Digital Collections. The interviews give us an inside look into arts organizing in the 1990s in Canada, from uncovering the racial dynamics of the arts world to the impact of the financial crisis on arts organizing.
Thank you to all the participants, community organizers, researchers and volunteers who participated in the three-year long process and have made this project a success.
The first iteration of Desh emerged in 1987 when a group of gay South Asian men in Toronto joined together to form the organization Khush: South Asian Gay Men of Toronto. Mandated to “educate South Asian gay men and the wider gay community about South Asian culture, as well as to forge connections amongst the South Asian community, South Asian cultural producers/artists and the gay community,” Khush started its arts programming in 1989 with SALAAM TORONTO, a one-day celebration at the 519 Community Centre that featured art, literature, and performances. With over 800 attendees, it laid the groundwork for Khalla, a three-day program of film, video, music and dance “intended to provide a forum for South Asian artists’ aiming to ‘incite dialogue […] about South Asian culture.’” Khalla was later expanded re-branded as Desh Pardesh (meaning “home away from home”).
The multi-disciplinary arts festival–dedicated to foregrounding underrepresented and marginalized voices within the South Asian diasporic community–provided left wing and queer South Asian artists and academics from across the diaspora a dynamic forum to engage questions of gender, sexuality, race, caste, and nation. An early iteration of the Desh mandate describes the organization as follows:
“Desh is lesbian and gay positive, feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti caste/classist. Desh exists to ensure that the voices and expressions of those constituencies in the South Asian community which are systematically silenced are provided with a community forum. In particular: independent artists, cultural producers and activists who are women, lesbians and gays, people with disabilities, working class people and seniors.
Emerging through Cold War rhetoric, the term “South Asia” gained currency in the 1980s as progressive communities in the United States adopted the term to qualify their diasporic lives. While these communities mobilized to reject the narrow nationalisms and conservative politics of mainstream South Asian diasporic organizations, the umbrella category of ”South Asian” has come with its own complexities–morphing into a contemporary racial category in North America, one that sometimes flattens rather than reveals the complex histories of the subcontinent.
For eleven years, Desh organized an annual summer conference and arts festival (film screenings, workshops, issue-driven seminars, spoken work and literary readings, music, dance and performance art pieces) as well as periodic arts development workshops, community outreach seminars, mini-festivals, art exhibits, and film retrospectives. It also served as a resource centre and referral service to various South Asian community groups and artists, cultural organizations and activists.
In the later half of the 90s, a group of visual artists who had been working together to curate the visual arts component of Desh, came together to form South Asian Visual Arts Collective (later to be named the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, or SAVAC). In 1997, SAVAC was formally established as an artist-run centre, working in close collaboration with Desh Pardesh. In 2001, when the festival and its administrative body were closed due largely to the financial crisis, SAVAC was provincially incorporated as a non-profit organization, ensuring continuity for the Desh mandate.
Desh Pardesh under the Harris Government: Navigating Neoliberalism and the “Common Sense Revolution”
Many interviewees discuss the “Harris Years” in Ontario and their impact on arts organizing in Toronto. Harris’ provincial government, elected in 1995, changed the future direction of the Desh Pardesh festival. Desh organizers and artists worked in conditions of growing austerity and marginalization of artist’s voices in the public sphere.
In June of 1995, the people of Ontario elected the Progressive Conservative party, also known as the Tories, into provincial government with Mike Harris seated as their head. The mission statement that accompanied Mike Harris and the Tories was a 21-page pamphlet called the Common Sense Revolution. Despite the cuts that this “revolution” brought to critical sectors like healthcare, welfare and education, the Tories were brought back for a second term in 1999. Their rise to power and their consistent hold on Ontario government is largely a function of the deficit that prior governments accumulated, and how this angered voters in higher tax brackets.
The Common Sense Revolution focused on tax reduction to stimulate economic development. At the time that the Harris government came into office, the prior governments, that of Bob Rae (NDP, 1990-1995) and David Peterson (Liberal, 1985-1990), had accumulated a fair amount of debt for the Ontario government. This is largely because the NDP and Liberal ideology for economic development was investment in education, training and human capital. They reformed the education system, established smart infrastructure, good transportation links and centres for networking where university students may come into contact with high tech firms and other businesses. They increased the deficit in hopes of a future economic renewal. After Harris came into government they did however, face a new challenge — the federal government capped funding from the Canada Assistance Plan (1996). Each province was not to receive a block grant, and then were expected to handle other funding through municipal and provincial initiative. This added financial burdens on the provincial government, despite fewer sources of funding.
Harris’ response to this added issue, the enormous debt at hand and the expectations of the people that elected him based on his vow to would follow through with his campaign promises, was to slash taxes, reduce government spending and overhaul the bureaucracy. This was followed by the social housing collapse, high homelessness, a collapsing transit system and welfare rollbacks. Toronto, being one of the hubs of Ontario and the most involved in the free trade market experienced the hardest hit by Harris’ reforms, but its deterioration was largely ignored by the Harris government. It was neoliberal overdrive.
Neoliberal ideology is a new form of classical liberalism, which is based on core capitalistic values. Capitalism rests on the goal of free market systems, where in capital flow controls the market without governmental interference — government involvement is to be kept as minimal as possible so that the market may work organically. The system is maintained through legal and social mechanisms that reinforce relations of domination that accompany these core goals — it is critical to maintain a superordinate to subordinate relation where in the holders of the means of production dominate the working class / producers. A legalistic mechanism during Harris’ time was the reformation of the definitions of welfare fraud. Harris passed a sweeping reform of the welfare system in 1999 that lost tens of thousands of people their welfare grants based on conviction of fraud or ineligibility (i.e. not being poor enough). This reform reinforces the neoliberal system because it keep tax money away from non-market oriented activities such as welfare, and allowed it to recirculate into the free flow of the market. Alongside the cuts to welfare, Harris also introduced mandatory work placements for welfare recipients while not accounting for the social mobility in these jobs, childcare or family structure. The arts also took huge cuts, which the Desh Pardesh festival felt between 1999-2001, on the tail end of its collapse.
Another effect of neoliberalism, or arguably a component of it, is the proliferation of mass production under Fordist thought. Mass production is a tenet of capitalism (and hence, neoliberalism) because it creates excessive product at low cost for monetary profit, and creates an exploitative owner-producer relationship. Harris’ commitment to being business friendly was another way of adhering to the goals of the free market. Harris made it so that the government would no longer function as an active arm in the province’s economy, as it had been under the liberals and NDP. The PC government would rather cut government spending and taxing, to allow a more conducive environment for “small business.”
Thank you to Alisha Krishna and Amal Khurram writing large parts of and helping to prepare this contextual piece.
Clarkson, Stephan. 1999. “Paradigm Shift or Political Correction? Putting Ontario’s ‘Common Sense Revolution’ in a Global Context.” Regional & Federal Studies 9(3): 81-106.
Duchesne, Scott. 1999. “Mike is the Message: Performing the Common Sense Revolution.” Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches Théâtrales au Canada 20(1): 1-7.
Jinkings, Isabella. 2011. “The Neoliberal State and the Penalization of Misery.” Latin American Perspectives 38(178):9-18.
Piven, Fox Francis. 1965. “Relief, Labour and Civil Disorder.” in Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. Vol. 3., Studies in Social Ecology and Pathology The American Studies Collection. hellehigan: Vintage Books.
The Globe and Mail. 2009. “Mike Harris’s Legacy.”
Over the past three years, we have been interviewing the coordinators, organizers and participants behind Desh Pardesh. We are excited to launch these interviews as a podcast series through Soundcloud. Listen now.
Anthony Mohamed is the Senior Specialist, Equity & Community Engagement, Quality & Performance, St. Michaels Hospital, where he has been since 1995.
Drawing from more than 30 years experience in community and social justice initiatives, Anthony has specialized skills in facilitation, mediation, policy development, project management, research and strategically applying an intersectional anti-oppression framework.
He has worked in leadership roles with groups such as the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network, Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, Toronto Police Services, CUSO, South Riverdale Community Health Centre, University of Toronto and the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention. He has also worked or traveled throughout all seven continents and can communicate in English, French and Spanish.
His Masters of Environmental Studies from York University, specializing in “cross cultural community health promotion,” and Quality Improvement Fellowship from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, emphasizes his commitment to equitable care for all. He is a member of the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference and recipient of the 2013 CASSA Excellence in Equity Award.
Arif Noorani is a media worker and cultural producer who has worked in radio, podcasting and documentary for the last 25 years. His various programs have won numerous Gold Medals at the New York Radio Festival. He was a film programmer with Inside Out from 1997-2000 and his experimental video works Puri, Frozen and video letter in The Daisy Chain Project have screened at numerous festivals around the world. He was a programmer and volunteer with Desh from 1993-1997 and co-coordinator from 1995-97.
Born in London, Bailey grew up in England and Barbados before migrating to Canada. Before taking up his current position at TIFF, he was a Festival programmer for eleven years, and a writer and broadcaster on film. He reviewed for Toronto’s NOW Magazine, CBC Radio One and CTV’s Canada AM. He presented international cinema nightly on Showcase Television’s national programme The Showcase Revue, and has been published in The Globe and Mail, The Village Voice, CineAction!, and Screen. Cameron has curated film series for Cinematheque Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Australia’s Sydney International Film Festival.
Bailey currently sits on the Advisory Council for Western University’s School for Arts and Humanities and for Haiti’s Cine Institute film school. He is also a board member of Tourism Toronto, and he currently teaches a course in programming and curation at the University of Toronto.
Ian Iqbal Rashid is a writer, filmmaker and activist whose work features pioneering cultural representations of South Asian and Muslim identity. His credits include the award-winning poetry collection Black Markets, White Boyfriends, writing on TV shows such as the BBC cult hit This Life, through to his own independent films, including the ground breaking gay Muslim comedy Touch of Pink, through to his current work creating and writing Esa Khan, a television drama series for Showtime.
Born in Dar es Salaam, and raised in Toronto, he now lives in London. Awards include The Writer’s Guild of England Television Writing Award, the Aga Khan Award for Excellence in the Arts and awards and nominations from Film Festivals around the world including Sundance and Toronto.
Sheila James is an award winning author and videographer, produced and published playwright and has performed, composed and recorded original music for stage, screen and broadcast. Her work focuses on exploration of the “other” or “outsider” as she brings a critical anti-racist, feminist and queer perspective grounded in a commitment to social justice. Productions include: music recording-Radio K.I.D.S. (1989) performance art – Jimmy Susheel, stage plays -All Whispers / No Words (1995) and A Canadian Monsoon (1996), videos- She’s a Diva, Unmapping, Lakme Takes Flight (with Melina Young) and Orphan Dyke (with Da Choong), and screenplay, Erased. Award-winning Unmapping Desire (translated into French and German) was broadcast by ZDF. “In the Wake of Loss” published by Ronsdale Press 2009, won Honourable Mention, ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. Sheila James currently works as a Senior Strategic Advisor at the Canada Council for the Arts.
Bahl is a founding artist member of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) and ZEN-MIX 2000: Pan-Asian Visual Arts Network in Toronto. From 2012-16 she served on the Board of Directors for the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective in NYC.
She has also worked with a number of arts organizations as an educator, curator and arts programmer. Currently, she is developing new interdisciplinary art projects and teaching at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.
At City of Mississauga, her work as the inaugural Director led to setting up of its Culture Division and the first Culture Master Plan. As Senior Policy Advisor, Department of Canadian Heritage and Program Officer at the Canada Council for the Arts, serving on cross-sectoral portfolios. She was the Executive Director, Western Front, after being the Co-Director/Founder of InVisible Colours.
Among many appointments to Boards, she is proud of her work at the B.C. Arts Board that led to the formation of the B.C. Arts Council and among others, currently sits on the Advisory Board of ArtsBuild Ontario and is the Chairperson of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre.
Her art work has been shown at the Venice Biennale and Museum of Modern Art, NY and resides in private and public collections (Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada)
Rare Footage and Documentation1993 Desh Mandate 1996 Call for Funding Advertismenet
Research and Educational Materials
Later this summer, we will be launching a suite of research and education resources to accompany the project. They will include recommended reading material, transcriptions of all the interviews, along with education guides.
These will be launched as a digital exhibition through the CLGA Digital Collections. The interviews will be deposited at the CLGA and the York University Archives.Transcription of All Interviews
Ameen Gill Dhillon
Anjula (Anju) Gogia
Anu Rima Bannerjee
Anu Radha Verma
Geeta Citygirl Chopra
Gitanjali Natasha Lena
Ian Iqbal Rashid
Judy Vashti Persad
Karma Clarke Davis
Kaspar Jivan Saxena
Krishantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta
Leah Lakshmi Piepznsa-Samarasinha
Marlene Nourbese Philip
Rachel Kalpana James
Tamara Zeta Makhan
Viresh Hirji/Viresh Fernando
Wayne Van Der Meide
Yonas Haile Mikael
Zahra Dhanani (DJ Zahra)
Browse through this working list of media organizations, venues, and other groups that were related to the work of Desh Pardesh.
Rungh Magazine (News – Print)
TSAR (Toronto South Asian Review)
FUSE Magazine (News – Print)
Euclid Theatre (Venue)
The 519 (Venue)
Metro Central YMCA (Venue)
Theatre Passe Muraille (Venue)
Masala Mixers (Events)
ASAAP (Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention)
Culture Works (Organization)
Indo Caribbean World (News – Print)
GOA Pulse Magazine (News – Print)
India Currents (News – Print)
India Abroad (News – Print)
Metro Word (News – Print)
CKLN (News – Radio)
CIUT (News – Radio)
CHRY (News – Radio)
CFMT’s Asian Horizons and South Asian Newsweek (News – TV)
XTRA Magazine (News – Print)
NOW (News – Print)
EYE Magazine (News – Print)
Toronto Star (News – Print)
SAID (South Asian issues discussed, student group at York U)
South Asian Women’s Centre
Tarang (Performance group based in Kitchener-Waterloo)
Work Place Arts: A Labour Arts Office
Saheli South Asian Women’s Theatre Troupe
Queer Womyn Colouring the Century
CASSA (Coalition of Agencies Serving South Asians)
DIASPORADICS (group from NYC)
SALDA (South Asian Left Democratic Alliance)
CERAS (South Asian Research and Resource Centre, MTL)
South Asian Women’s Centre
SAWG (South Asian Women’s Group)
SALCI (South Asian Legal Clinic Initiative)
Diva – a quarterly journal of South Asian women – formed as non-profit in 1987, incorporated 1988
Montreal Serai Magazine