Big Stories, Little India

Big Stories, Little India is a multidisciplinary art and audio project that is situated in Toronto’s Gerrard Street India Bazaar. Initiated by SAVAC and [murmur], this project engages aspects of oral history alongside the process of art making. Through this collaboration, both SAVAC and [murmur] hope to highlight the otherwise absent histories from the Gerrard Street India Bazaar and to connect people to the stories and places they inhabit.

Commonly known as ‘Little India’, this diverse and diasporic South Asian market not only caters to Southern Ontario’s growing South Asian community, but is also more broadly known for its colourful and ‘exotic’ cultural milieu, namely, food and clothing from the South Asian subcontinent. Toronto’s Gerrard Street India Bazaar is the oldest “Little India” neighborhood in North America. Located along six blocks between Greenwood and Coxwell Avenues on Toronto’s east side, what is not commonly known however are the stories of the first immigrants and their settlement in the neighbourhood as well as the shared experiences of newer visitors to the area. Apart from the gloss of fashion and food, the archive of knowledge is undocumented and only lives with the people who work and live near the Gerrard Street India Bazaar. Big Stories, Little India explores and expands on the stories of specific areas and the people connected to them.

Comprised of audio recordings of stories, community workshops and site-specific artworks, artists Amin Rehman, Ambereen Siddiqui, Avantika Bawa, Brendan Fernandes, Rashmi Varma and Zaheed Mawani have created works that are informed by the oral stories they have collected. Located in various parts of the Gerrard Street east, these artworks use a variety of approaches to coalesce and visualize the stories around people’s experiences of the neighbourhood. Ranging from large vinyl texts, to site specific installations, to film and video projections, these artists have also collected stories and anecdotes from business owners, shoppers and the people who frequent and live in the neighbourhood. The story recordings are also made available to the public online and through the marked [murmur] locations in the Gerrard Street India Bazaar.

In this digital exhibition of the collection, SAVAC and [murmur] are delighted to present all the oral stories, community workshops and artist projects collected during the project. As a result, Big Stories, Little India will continue to engage a wider audience who will be able to connect and share their own stories of the Gerrard Street India Bazaar regardless of geographic location

[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. [murmur] collects and makes accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations a sign is installed with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place. Some stories suggest that the listener walk around, following a certain path through a place, while others allow a person to wander with both their feet and their gaze.

murmurtoronto.ca

Special Thanks

Umbreen Innayat
Punam Sawhney
Nadia Kurd
Riaz Mehmood
Shelagh Keeley
Sabu Qureshi
Izzat Kassam
Ambereen Siddiqui
Gail Ferguson
Ashdale Public Library
Hansa Patel
Subu Chintaluri
Cynthia Brouse
Lahore Tikka House

 

Oral History Project

Other community members had the opportunity to share their stories about Gerrard India Bazaar. Delve into the past by selecting any of the storytellers below. Reach out to Sajdeep Soomal at archives@savac.net to add your story.

David R. Filbey-Haywood

My Little India on Gerrard Street, Toronto

416-469-0001 is a number I remember well because I called it regularly in the 1970s when it was the telephone number for the Naaz Theatre on Gerrard Street in Little India. I first went to the Naaz when invited to go by some Ishmaeli friends in 1972 and although I don’t remember the name of that particular movie I do remember it featured Zeenat Aman. Time has moved on and now only two  theatre locations in Toronto cater to fans of Bollywood movies but  in those days there were seven locations with the Naaz and the Donlands theatres being the two favourites.  Not just the locations that have changed but so has the whole atmosphere; back then many people didn’t just visit the theatre for the current movie but actually spent the whole day down on Gerrard Street.

You would arrive at perhaps 10.30 in the morning and stroll along the street, window-shopping and looking at the sarees, religious statues, mounds of burfi, shining stainless steel utensils and the latest Bollywood posters hanging in the window of the Indian Record Store. Maybe by the time you had bought a record of the latest filmi songs and the current issue of Stardust magazine you were getting a little peckish so it was time to visit the chaat seller and munch on a Chaat Papri as you sat on the low wall surrounding a nearby church. When friends arrived it was time to walk over to the old Milans on the south side of the street and help choose some fabric for a Salwar Kameez as well as some incense and a new stainless steel mug. If it was a really hot day the next stop might have been to the Islamic Bookstore where they had cold Kulfi in their freezers. I always wondered why this store in particular sold kulfi because from the sign one expected something more serious for sale than Indian ice cream, but it was always there waiting to refresh us on a warm summer’s day.

By now it would be time for an early movie at the Naaz, or even a double feature with Dharmendra and Hema Malini in the first movie and Amitabh Bacchan and Rekha starring in the second. Seeing as how it was lunch time, and despite having munched away on a couple of items already, a paper plate full of channa and a hot chi could be carried to your seat before the movie started. The theatre was run by a Muslim family but one son-in-law was a white Canadian fellow who use to help run the ticket kiosk continuously stirring the hot channa in a large electric skillet at the same time.  I also remember on some occasions rushing on my own down to the Naaz at the last minute, out-of-breath, just before the movie started and grabbing that dish of channa and chi as I hurried in to my seat. Time to relax with lunch and an Indian movie — ah bliss.

I used to enjoy the different sounds and smells and sights but not everyone felt that way.  Some local residents or Torontonians used to quiet streets were somewhat disenchanted to find that they couldn’t pass by without stepping off the sidewalk to get around the large crowds looking in the windows or chatting in groups. And local police were not too amused by cars parked in no parking areas or double parked right on Gerrard Street blocking one of Toronto’s streetcars. Nevertheless  this happy-go-lucky atmosphere contributed to the feeling that one was somewhere else other than in Canada, perhaps transported to a happy street scene in a colourful foreign country. Of course, for many people from India it was a home away from home with familiar sights and the opportunity to pretend that they were back in India — at least during one of Toronto’s sweltering hot summer days rather than in the middle of winter. Even I, returning to Toronto after a month in India in 1980, was so out of touch with Canadian reality that I fled to Little India and hid in the back of the Moti Mahal, feeling comfortable once more within sight of hot trays of chicken tikka and channa bhatura and the turbanned Sikhs serving the food.

And now Little India is changing as the East Indian community consolidates itself in Toronto and money is spent on sprucing up the buildings or even building new ones. The Naaz hasn’t shown Bollywood movies for years but the BJ Supermarket has expanded to double its size with a nice bright interior. The Maher restaurant is still there much to my delight and so is the Indian Record Store. Years ago Milans moved across the road to a new building on the north side but did not seem to do quite so well whereas I have noticed that the Skylark Restaurant, an opening I remember, is still there. The Madras Durbar also continues to serve vegetarian food on the north side but further west and almost opposite is the Islamic Book Store that will, I hope, still be selling their kulfi on this year’s hot summer days.

What would I do without the opportunity to visit Little India from time to time? I would personally miss it for sure but I also believe that the City of Toronto would be immeasurably less interesting without this colourful ethnic corner that makes so many South Asian immigrants feel at home and offers the rest of us the opportunity to explore another part of our world.

Cynthia Brouse

Indian Summer

IF YOU DRIVE EAST along Gerrard Street on a weekend night, past Chinatown II at Broadview, past quiet Leslieville, past Greenwood, the mundane view suddenly erupts in a metaphorical masala of fairy lights and Hindu gods, tandoor smoke and cumin, ads for international phone cards, Bollywood movie posters, tabla beats and ululating voices singing ghazals and bhangra—all crammed into a narrow street lined with narrow buildings that have seen better days. Just as abruptly, after little more than a half-dozen blocks, it all stops at Coxwell, where the “Upper Beach” begins and real estate prices rise. Filmmaker Deepa Mehta set parts of her spoof, Bollywood Hollywood, in the clothing and jewellery stores on this stretch. “It reminds me of the India I knew 40 years ago,” she says.

I bought my house there a decade ago. I used to tell people I lived in Little India, but I learned that was a misnomer, implying the existence, either today or in the past, of a large number of East Indian residents. In fact, only a handful had ever lived there. The moniker applied by the local merchants, “Gerrard India Bazaar,” does a better job of describing what is really a business district that serves a distant clientele. For a long time after I moved in, the only people I’d see on Gerrard before 4 p.m. were the white locals on their way to one of the dollar stores, Coffee Times or greasy spoons that bracket the area (the Chinese and Vietnamese residents shop farther west, near Broadview). The few non–South Asian establishments right in the Bazaar—a Greek hairdresser, a United church—stood out like outposts of an older world.
What made me want to live there was the transformation that occurred later in the day and on weekends. The people who came to lick kulfi and chew paan, buy Bollywood videos and Islamic books, or get outfitted in bridal saris and 22-karat-gold wedding jewellery lived in Markham, Mississauga or Malton. They weren’t likely to show up in the Bazaar until the afternoon, but they were still hanging around late into the evening. As a woman living alone, I instantly felt safe here at night. The slender sidewalks were crowded with families: parents with children in strollers, many of the women in saris or hijab; groups of teenagers; chattering grandparents. There were no nightclubs—just lots of nightlife. By midnight, the shopkeepers had put away their samosa stands, swept the sidewalks and locked the doors, and the whole scene went home to the suburbs.

I loved it. But occasionally it was awkward living near a commercial area that didn’t seem to be catering to me. I could buy cilantro on every corner, but not if I needed it at 10:30 in the morning—and anybody wanting a bagel or a cappuccino was out of luck. The Bazaar comprised a distinctive spine whose ribs—the streets running north and south off Gerrard—belonged to an entirely different body. And far from just two solitudes, there were at least half a dozen. Besides the huge ethnic dividing line that is Gerrard, there were socio-economic lines, too. Though I have a small-town, white working-class background, I had spent 12 years in an apartment in the genteel Beach. But I couldn’t afford to buy there. I was shocked the first time I went to the No Frills on Coxwell and a fight broke out in the checkout line. One of my brothers was quick to inform me that the hole-in-the-wall bar near my house was known as “the Kick ’n’ Stab.” As it turns out, I wasn’t the first to be drawn to the Gerrard India Bazaar for its cheap real estate. It’s what created the strip in the first place.

TORONTO IS KNOWN for its ethnic business enclaves, and in some ways, the India Bazaar is much like other immigrant areas. Not many Greeks live in Greektown either, but the difference is that at one time they did. As in Kensington Market, Chinatown and Little Italy, the Danforth attracted immigrants who lived in the surrounding houses and opened stores and restaurants featuring the goods and cuisine of their native culture. When they became more prosperous, they moved to the suburbs, leaving behind a market that was enjoyed equally by locals and tourists, Greek and not. The India Bazaar grew the other way around. This forgotten little pocket—not quite Riverdale or Leslieville, sandwiched between the Danforth and the Beach—was once dominated by Greek and Italian construction workers and Anglo-Saxon people who worked at Colgate and Wrigley in the days before those names branded condo lofts. By 1972, when a north Indian businessman named Gian Naaz bought the old Eastwood Theatre, just west of Coxwell, to show Bollywood films, the strip had become poor and shabby. The Naaz Theatre drew hordes of South Asian visitors, but most of them could already afford to live in better areas than the east end. Before long, an Indian record shop opened up nearby, then a restaurant and a clothing store, and soon a South Asian market had been grafted on top of a mostly white district. Old hardware stores and hair salons became sari emporiums and sweet shops. An area that covered barely three blocks was transformed into a destination not only for the inhabitants of South Asian communities around the city and across Canada, but also for those in Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago. Today, with more than 100 stores, it touts itself as the largest South Asian market in North America. Suppliers in Bangalore and Delhi know all about Gerrard. By the time I moved there, a purposeful walk to the post office on a Saturday afternoon involved elbowing my way through a wall-to-curb mass of sociable amblers. I sometimes felt like a tourist in my own neighbourhood.

Today, the crowds don’t seem so dense. There’s no shortage of South Asians in the GTA: the group now makes up more than 10 per cent of the population of Toronto, nearly as many as the Chinese. But the suburban community has matured: its members can buy Indian goods in the rival shopping precincts that have sprung up closer to where they live, at Islington and Albion Road or at Airport and Derry, where there’s lots of parking and the stores are newer and shinier and less cramped. Still other South Asian families, and their westernized offspring, don’t care to buy their homeland’s goods at all. And in the past few years, there’s been a 70 per cent drop in American tourists to the Bazaar—thanks to SARS, the sinking greenback and September 11 (crossing the border wearing a turban and carrying a bag of chickpea flour can be a recipe for harassment).

And yet, if not as visitors, the Bazaar is finally attracting South Asians who want to live there, many of them Pakistani refugees. But there probably aren’t enough to replace the tourists. So the merchants are learning to adapt. They know their future depends on drawing non–South Asians, too. And as the India Bazaar reached out to me, I began
to return the attention.

SOCIOLOGISTS TALK ABOUT social networks: you have a “dense” network if you know a lot of people in a given community, and you have a “multiplex” network if those people also know each other—in other words, if you’re linked to people in more than one way. In the small town where I grew up, the girl who lived next to me went to the same school I did; we attended the same church; her sister married my uncle; our dads worked together.

After I moved to Toronto in 1975, it took me a long time to figure out how people made connections in a city, by definition a conglomeration of strangers. In 20 years of apartment living, I formed bonds in university and at work, but I never knew my neighbours. When I went house hunting, I unconsciously sought a dense, multiplex network based around my home. I’ve succeeded in forging links in this neighbourhood, and some of them overlap with my work and family life. If I go to a hardware store with my neighbour and run into a colleague or my cousin, I am filled with a sense of joyful belonging. Ours is a front porch kind of street. When I look up and down its length, I see a low-to-middle-income assortment: retirees, young parents who are teachers, nurses, actors, social workers, cab drivers, beauticians. Interspersed with the modest houses and cheerful gardens are a few scary-looking rental properties, with tenants like the ones who decided to celebrate Canada Day by lighting Roman candles in their kitchen garbage can at 7 a.m., narrowly escaping when the house burned to a shell.

An old Chinese woman squats on the sidewalk before her front yard vegetable garden, sharpening a meat cleaver against the concrete with great, energetic whacks, her bok choy hemmed in tidily by a set of old refrigerator racks. The 2001 census showed that in the immediate vicinity, almost 14 per cent of residents named Chinese as their home language, more than five times as many as claimed Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi or Bengali put together. But the most notable incursion of home buyers on my street in recent years consists of single straight women, and gays and lesbians, who are fixing up the dilapidated century-old row houses and semis.

A gang of women on my street, who work mostly in education or the media, formed a potluck dinner club that met monthly for more than five years, until the value of our houses doubled and a couple of members cashed in and moved away. New connections took their place: there’s Judy, a belly dancing teacher from Trenton, and Diane, a United Way researcher whose status as a parent with kids in the local school, as well as her natural community-mindedness, makes her a lot more plugged into the neighbourhood than I’ll ever be. They introduced me to their favourite Indian restaurant on Gerrard, The Famous, which has become something of a hangout. In 1977, this magazine published a story titled “Terror in Toronto,” which described violent, racially motivated attacks against immigrants from South Asia, who felt compelled to arm themselves when the police turned a blind eye. Since then, indifference seems to have replaced ethnic conflict. Racism still festers in pockets; this summer, an elderly woman who attended my yard sale railed against “those people,” decrying the “foreign” smells, unfamiliar habits and garbage in the alleyways. “This area used to be beautiful!” she snarled. “NHL hockey players lived here!” (Her sister told her to shut up, and bought my popcorn maker as atonement.) But most people I know are proud to live here. And at last year’s second annual Festival of South Asia, on a hot, late-August weekend, I spotted two relaxed-looking cops standing on a corner munching on the Bazaar’s signature barbecued corn on the cob, trying not to smear the fresh lime juice and spices on their uniforms. They were a symbol of how much things have changed: one wore a turban; the other was black; both were Sikhs.

But legitimate complaints are bound to arise in any neighbourhood that exists cheek by jowl with a tourist area, where visitors forget that the colourful venue is somebody else’s home. To some, Gerrard’s congestion, the old buildings, the omnipresent pigeons, and the discarded corncobs and betel nuts are part of the Bazaar’s appeal. “It’s really pleasantly dirty now,” says Deepa Mehta, hastening to add that that’s not a put-down. Others, however, don’t find the dirt very pleasant, and the local Business Improvement Area, one of the oldest in the city, struggles to keep up with the garbage, mediating disputes with the residents’ association and educating its members about the inadvisability of feeding pigeons, which some South Asians believe brings good luck. A stalwart of the BIA, Balwant Jajj Singh is a leader in building bridges between the locals and the tourists. He owns B. J. Supermarket and claims his is the only store in Canada that carries both South Asian specialties and western groceries; it’s also one of the only places on Gerrard that opens at 10 a.m. This cross-cultural business strategy may make B. J. the most well-known—and well-liked—person on the strip. A handsome, turbaned Sikh with puppy-dog eyes and a kind smile, he lives above his supermarket with his extended family. Unlike most of the merchants in the Bazaar, he truly is my neighbour—and he sees appealing to Canadians like me as an inevitable mission that the Bazaar must accept.

“People told me my store would never work,” he says. But it did; despite the presence of the No Frills around the corner, locals and visitors shop at B. J.’s, whether they want Oreo cookies or fried moong dal. He points to Rang Home Decor—a new shop run by Trish Mahtani, the business school–educated daughter of the BIA president—which combines South Asian style with Western design ideas and has lately been featured in tony magazines. I may not be interested in buying a sari or a carrom board on Gerrard, but the elaborately embroidered and beaded cushions and fabric at Rang pull me in as much as the restaurants do.

“As the population grows and our second generation rises,” B. J. says, “whether we like it or not, the mainstream is going to be our main customer. Look at the U.K. Curry is the number one seller there; it used to be fish and chips in a newspaper.”
Does the Bazaar exert any pull on that second generation? Devjani Raha is a 34-year-old filmmaker whose parents came from Calcutta and brought her up in Mississauga. “When we were younger,” she says, “we went to the Bazaar every Sunday. Mississauga was so white—my parents needed a dose of their own kind. I hated it; it was boring. I was more comfortable with peanut butter and Levis and hamburgers.” But now that she’s older, Raha and her friends find they need a regular Gerrard nostalgia fix. “There are these Hindu religious comics you can only get there that remind me of my childhood,” she explains.

The sheer multitude of South Asian cultures represented on the strip is unusual. Here you can eat South Indian dosa or bhel puri from the north, buy halal meat from a Pakistani butcher or bangles from a Sri Lankan–owned clothing store. To my neighbours and me, all seems calm between those whose home countries are perpetually aiming nuclear weapons at each other. Are there imported tensions here, simmering below the surface? Mohammad “Sam” Saleem—a 40-year-old Pakistani immigrant who embodies the name of his store, the Friendly Supermarket—claims that feeding the pigeons is the only thing that Hindus and Muslims have in common. Pulling his bloody butcher’s apron over his short, round frame, he leans forward and says he’s going to tell me the real story, even though some people may not like it. “Inside, Pakistanis want to kill Hindus,” he says. “But it’s not going to happen because there’s rules in Canada.” The problem, it turns out, is not quite so dramatic. The minor conflicts on the strip have little to do with Kashmir and everything to do with this piece of turf on Gerrard and who controls it. They are conducted in a polite and businesslike—in other words, truly Canadian—manner, and they happen to break along Indian-Pakistani lines because of immigration patterns. Most of the businesses in the centre of the strip are owned by the Sikhs and Hindus who arrived here first, and only they chip into the BIA pot. In the past five years, the unofficial Gerrard India Bazaar has spread to the point where it almost spans the nine blocks from Greenwood to Coxwell. As it happens, the expansion on the west end comprises mostly Muslim-owned enterprises, which don’t pay the BIA levy but still reap the benefits. (Some say that the area would be better named Little Pakistan.)

But ultimately, discord takes a back seat to the desire for peace and economic prosperity. Last fall, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and Eid, the Islamic feast day that marks the end of Ramadan, happened to coincide roughly on the same November weekend. The BIA took advantage of the coincidence and held a joint Diwali-Eid festival. When they realized that Muslims would still be fasting until after dark, they moved the kickoff party on the Friday from 2 p.m. to 7. The Saturday evening of Diwali-Eid was clear and crisp, and Diane and I strolled down the crowded street with some of her visiting family, taking in the (to us) Christmasy lights, the noise and the music. Exuberant young men in traditional dress drove a little too fast along Gerrard, beeping their horns at one another. There was a real sense of joy in the air. I couldn’t tell the Muslims from the non-Muslims; some of the shops carried greeting cards for both Diwali and Eid on the same rack. We had dinner at The Famous, a tiny, plain place with a tasty Punjabi buffet aimed at “Canadians.” The sole waiter amiably raced around serving a packed house. A little tinsel Christmas tree and ropes of holly hung from the ceiling. I ran into my massage therapist there—a multiplex link! There weren’t many other non–South Asians on the street, but we didn’t feel out of place. We bought a package of two-foot-long sparklers, partly for the sake of Diane’s four-year-old nephew, and partly because we felt happy to be there. At the library, we solicited a light from some teenage boys; Diane thanked them by saying “Happy Diwali!” They looked a little stunned. “Happy Eid!” I offered instead, and they broke into grins. We gave sparklers to some children and made big trails of light in the air, swaying with the mesmerizing song-and-dance extravaganzas of Bollywood on the big screen that spanned the street.

ALNOOR SAYANI, an Ismaili who came to Toronto in 1974 from Uganda by way of the U.K., is trying to bring the Muslim faction into the BIA. Eight years ago, he turned an old Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet into a popular Pakistani-style eatery: Lahore Tikka House quickly burst its confines and, for some time, consisted of a chaotic concatenation of portable trailers connected to the main building by plywood walkways, awnings and outdoor picnic tables. Now undergoing a rebuilding from the ground up, the place spills out onto the sidewalk on summer nights; squads of waiters in purple T-shirts, some of whom were lawyers, doctors and aerospace engineers in their countries of birth, serve a mean butter chicken.

Sayani is a dapper man of 50 who looks much younger. “This area has the potential to rival Greektown,” he says, and the BIA members think so too, which is why they hired a marketing consultant to help bridge the ethnic divisions on Gerrard and to promote the Bazaar to a wider audience (aside from the Festival of South Asia and Diwali- Eid, the BIA also celebrates Christmas, with horse-and-wagon rides and Victorian-costumed carollers on the street corners).

Will the locals go along with it? Most residents recognize that without the Bazaar the area would be pretty dodgy, though a few years back, when somebody suggested Gerrard change its name to Mahatma Gandhi Boulevard, crude signs appeared on telephone poles, proclaiming “Gerrard Forever!” A recent report on the future of the Bazaar by Ryerson University’s planning department proposed less contentious changes. One of its supervisors, Professor Sandeep Kumar, says the group looked for themes that would resonate with everybody. They came up with Bollywood films, something that hearkens back to the origins of the Bazaar in the Naaz Theatre. They proposed plastering movie murals on the sides of buildings, installing a Bollywood walk of fame with stars embedded in the sidewalk and dressing up the 506 streetcar like an Indian-style cycle rickshaw.

I’m not sure I want to live in a Bollywood theme park. I suppose it would be nice to see the street spruced up a little, but the neighbourhood’s charm comes from its authenticity, as fuzzy as that word may be. Nobody would ever have planned such a place, but in many ways, it works. There isn’t a shred of intentional irony (though there’s plenty of the natural kind), nor a hint of cool as far as the eye can see. Starbucks? Not a chance. It’s the classic gentrification tradeoff: when we “clean up” an older, urban district, we kill some of its appeal along with its organically grown grittiness.

Gerrard’s grittiness doesn’t come just from pigeon poop. Before Alnoor Sayani improved the landscaping and lighting behind the Lahore Tikka House and put up a security camera, cleaners regularly picked up 150 syringes a month. Directly across the street from him is a scene that is, in some ways, as foreign to me as it is to him.

“HAVE YOU HEARD about the lonesome loser?” the Little River Band blares from the Kick ’n’ Stab. Neither I nor my neighbourhood pals ever set foot inside the place my brother warned me about. Though it’s not much bigger than my living room, rimmed by a corner full of windows and a wide chunk of sidewalk, it dominates life on our street. Officially called Jenny’s Place, even its regulars call it The Kick. Its menu is mainly restricted to North American beer; you could get a hamburger or a pickled egg if you asked, but I don’t think anybody goes there to eat. The customers, mostly white, reside locally, drink abundantly and lack a number of things, such as full sets of teeth.

Jenny is not around anymore. The bar is now run by a sweet and clean-cut couple—Ali from Iraq and Cathy from China—who appear to get along just fine with their customers. Occasionally, I hear about the incidents that gave the place its nickname. But in 10 years of waiting for my streetcar in front of The Kick, I’ve never witnessed any kicking or stabbing, only a lot of staggering and loud exchanges. There seems to be a solid, if dysfunctional, sense of community there. Drinkers congregate around the door, comparing notes on their welfare case workers or their Percocet prescriptions, while their kids play hopscotch a couple of metres away. They never bother me, and we rarely converse.

If you discount the odd Muslim who slips across the street to The Kick for a forbidden drink while waiting for his food to arrive at Lahore Tikka House (which doesn’t serve alcohol), there couldn’t be a more disparate set of regulars sharing an intersection. The customers at The Kick appear to ignore the hijab- and pyjama-clad diners across the way in what used to be their KFC, next to a jewellery store (one of almost two dozen in the space of just a few blocks) that used to be their Brewer’s Retail. The disregard is returned politely. Mostly, the two groups play their parts in the weird science fiction that
is urban life, in which clumps of us exist in parallel dimensions, each occupying the same territory but seemingly oblivious
to one another.

Jane Jacobs would love The Kick and its juxtaposition with the South Asian stores. Strangers, she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, can live together safely and prosperously by creating a delicate civic dance that doesn’t bring them too close together nor force them too far apart. Still, I was curious enough to exceed the boundaries of that delicate dance. Since I’d been to Lahore Tikka House, I decided it was time to cross the street. Inside The Kick, I sat down for a beer with a guy named Sid, whose son, I later realized, shovels my snow for small change—another multiplex connection! Then I was drawn to Herbie, who looked a bit like a cheerier version of Pete Townshend, with a long face and kind, black-ringed eyes. Originally from Gambo, Newfoundland, he’d been in Toronto since 1963 and was just getting ready to retire from an aluminum extrusion company.

“It’s just this little town, you know,” said Herbie in a chesty, smoke-cured rumble. “The people from India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka—they’re all beautiful people, you know, they’re all friendly.” “Mommy, can I have six dollars?” shouted a little girl from somewhere near the bar door. I glanced across to the Lahore Tikka House and realized that the sense of family I’d detected when I first moved here didn’t flow only from the South Asian tourists.

But this is not a little town, and I’ve learned to live with that. Along with the sense of comfort and security that dense, multiplex networks can bestow, they also breed conformity and suspicion of outside influences. They ensure that everybody in little towns thinks the same, talks the same, looks the same and acts the same. Which is why I left the place where I grew up. Maybe that’s why Herbie left Gambo, too. Herbie turned his lined face toward me and blew away some smoke. “Anyways, little lady,” he said, “this is a beautiful community. Clashes? No, no, no, my darling. That’s an old thing. Being prejudiced is a passé thing, you know. It’s not in today.” The only people Herbie hates, he said, are socialists. We may not be pals, Herbie and I, or Sam, or B. J. “A neighbourhood is not the primary venue of social blending,” wrote Ryerson’s Sandeep Kumar and his colleague Mohammad Qadeer in The Ontario Planning Journal. “One’s interactions with neighbours may not advance beyond the level of polite nodding, except in times of emergencies and collective actions.”

In that nod, there is both distance and connection. There’s tolerance, too, though that’s clearly not enough. But maybe there’s also the potential for respect, if not friendliness. It’s the Toronto way. In a neighbourhood where we are all tourists, at least we have that in common.

“Indian Summer,” Toronto Life

Aparita Bhandari

Demystifying Gerrard Street

When I arrived in Toronto from New Delhi in 1998, I heard about Little India. By that time other South Asian strip malls such as the ones in Malton, Scarborough and Brampton had opened; and so my first trek to Gerrard India Bazaar was as a tourist rather than a shopping trip.

It was a warm summer day. The clothing stores had put out racks of ‘on sale’ saris – garishly coloured synthetic numbers I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. Bold store signs looked tacky in the bright sun. Gaudy gold earrings and necklaces glinted in the storefront of jewellery stores. The gol-gappe were stale and the jalebis left a bitter aftertaste. I fled Little India, wondering why everyone raved about it. Then I started hearing my friends’ stories about going to the bazaar when they were growing up. They took me on trips, pointing out their favourite stores and sharing stories of buying bhangra tapes or saris for their university group dance performance. Starving, we ate naan, karahi chicken and dal-makhani made with generous helpings of butter, downing it all with mango lassi. Pretty soon, I was going to the bazaar on my own. I’ve bought a Hawkins pressure cooker, a Mahabharata comic set and, yes, garishly coloured saris to make cushion covers among other things. During these trips, I spoke with the storeowners, finding out their stories about coming to Canada and setting up shop in Toronto.

One day, I met a photographer. Sabu Qureshi. He told me he had grown up in the bazaar. I asked him a simple question: How? The answer turned out to be a fascinating tale of a family from Pakistan immigrating to a new country, working hard to start a new life and succeeding. He told me about the families who used to make up the bazaar in its early days, how they looked out for each other, keeping the neighbourhood kids out of trouble. Sabu’s story stayed with me. I wanted to find out more about the people who made up Little India, which now also includes Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi stores. Or the now-defunct Naz Theatre, which once drew hordes to watch movies such as Silsila. Or the families who left Gerrard India Bazaar.

It was with this idea in mind that I put together these stories. I started with Sabu, who told me about Gulnaam Singh Multani. ‘He’s one of the oldest storeowners in the bazaar,’ Sabu said. Mr. Multani in turn suggested I speak with Kamaljeet Khorana, another one of the bazaar veterans. Project coordinator Punam Sawhney suggested I speak with librarian Hansa Patel, who had been working in the Gerrard-Ashdale branch of the Toronto Public Library for 30 years.

These are just some of the many stories that make up Little India. There are many, many more to uncover and tell. Hopefully, this project will inspire you to find your own.

Deepali Dewan

Memories of Gerrard India Bazaar

My name is Deepali Dewan, and I am the curator of South Asian Art at the Royal Ontario Museum. I’ve been in Toronto for six years now and I was born in India, but grew up largely in the United States. And came to Canada for school in Montreal and did graduate studies in Minneapolis, but have been in Toronto primarily with this job at the museum.

When I first came to Toronto people would tell me about Gerrard Street like-“oh you must go there, you must go there”– partly because I was the curator of South Asian art but then also because I had a South Asian background. So anyway I would hear about Gerrard Street and when I first went there it was like, strange. And wonderful and scary all at the same time, because it brought out those old issues of like authenticity like, because it was more of a kind of authentic India, you know, because of the sights and the smells and all that stuff. It was wonderful, just like, through my senses other than just sight but like smell and sound, to feel something familiar that I hadn’t felt in a really long time–it was just familiar.

Deepali Dewan, “Memories of Gerrard India Bazaar”

Sabu Qureshi

Memories of Gerrard India Bazaar

What we’re doing here today is we’re going to be exploring the Gerrard India Bazaar through different sets of eyes. And we’re going to check out the history and the textures and the colours and the people of the Indian Bazaar. The Bazaar has a very rich history, it’s been here since the early ’70s and there’s a lot of stories behind the scenes. There’s great characters, and there’s fabrics and bangles and fruit and vegetables and what not, so it’s a very, very eclectic mix of people, culture and tradition.

What photography can do during this particular project is capture the immediacy of certain events that are going on.

Sabu Qureshi, “Memories of Gerrard India Bazaar”

Hansa Patel

Memories of Gerrard India Bazaar

My name is Hansa Patel and I have been working at this Gerrard Ashdale Library from last 28 years and it is located right in Gerrard India Bazaar.

The collection here started because of the theatre. Once the theatre was established, stores, South Asian stores, moved in. People continued to visit and so South Asian Collections was started here at the library. It started with Hindi, Gujrati Punjabi, and then gradually people started coming, and when I would speak to them in Hindi and Gujrati, they would become very happy. Especially when people arrive from Pakistan, and I speak with them in Hindi. People come from villages, villages in Pakistan, and they wonder how I am fluent in Urdu, but they don’t realize that for me it is Hindi, because the languages are similar.

Hansa Patel, “Memories of Gerrard India Bazaar”

 

“Getting the Real Story on Little India,” The Globe and Mail “Little India: Six Blocks, Many Stories,” Toronto Star

Ambereen Siddiqui

Ambereen Siddiqui is a graduate of the joint Art and Art History Program at the University of Toronto and Sheridan. Born in Toronto and raised in Karachi, Ambereen’s photographic work explores the documentation and classification of identity.

Siddiqui’s photomontages draw on documentary research regarding the development of the Little India neighbourhood. Through her archival research, Siddiqui found letters concerning a proposal to change the name of Gerrard Street to Mahatma Gandhi Road. The work explores cultural attitudes and racial hostilities experienced by immigrant communities in Toronto.

DISCUSS

  1. Discuss the history of photography as an art form. What forms of photography have you come across?
  2. Discuss the different effects on the viewer of black and white and color photography
  3. Is the artist’s choice of black and white photography a choice you would have made to depict Little India? Why or why not?
  4. What are the images saying about the history of Gerrard Street? What parts of history are they leaving out?
  5. Find three images (using magazines, books, the internet) that represent Little India for you. Find or create text to go along with each of the images you have chosen. Explain why you think the text and the image work well together.

The Story of Moti Mahal

LOCATION  Sonu Sari Palace, 1422 Gerrard St. East
STORYTELLER  Salma Latif

We are standing in front of a very popular Indian restaurant. It has been here for around 25 years, and we used to visit it quite a bit. This is a story form some years ago. We were standing in line at this restaurant to place our orders. There was a woman ahead of us, and she suddenly became quite angry with a man for having inappropriately touched her. She got quite upset, and the owner of the restaurant asked for them to leave, perhaps because she was fearful of having a confrontation in her restaurant. Then the woman, with whom the incident had taken place, said she would call the police. From what I remember, I said to the owner that she shouldn’t have asked them to leave, that she should have been supportive of the woman.

After that, some time later, the police arrived, and two white officers came over. And then I thought about whether the two white officers would treat this desi man, who had behaved in an inappropriate manner, fairly. Whether they would treat him differently, or whether they would treat him the way they would a white man who had behaved in the same way. Then, for a few minutes, I forgot about how the woman felt about the situation. Then the Police took him away in their cruiser.

My name is Salma.

Salma Latif, “The Story of Moti Mahal”

Amin Rehman

Amin Rehman is a painter whose work explores politicized cultural interactions, communal narratives, linguistic forces and globalization. Amin’s art practice comprises works on paper, canvas, and board, as well as wall-hung installations.

Working with materials used for commercial signage, Rehman produces vinyl-cut text installations that examine the colonial histories and origins of names and words connected to the Gerrard Street business community. Rehman suggests the irony of their usage in the post-colonial immigrant context and explores the nostalgic re-construction of history in this South Asian diaspora community.

DISCUSS

  1. What is the relationship between the text and the canvas (the store fronts)? How is Amin’s text different from store signage?
  2. Which elements of design have been used to create a sense of unity among the works?
  3. Many words in English are adapted from other languages. Amin explores some of these words. How many English words that have roots in other languages can you come up with?
  4. What are some words you would like to incorporate into English from another language?
  5. Sketch spaces you would like to display definitions of the words to make them known.

The Little Bangladesh

LOCATION  The Little Bangladesh, 1396 Gerrard St. East
STORYTELLER  Suraira

My store name is the Little Bangladesh.

Even my country people sometimes ask me why you put the Little Bangladesh.

Actually I think Bangladesh is not so little. But big.

But my collection I try to very little–I can try to show at least a clothing size but I think it’s a very little at my sense, I put the name “The Little Bangladesh”

I have very good experience one time. Sometimes I feel excellent when I remember this experience.

One customer came just 2-3 years before, and she’s from Mexica and she… That day I wear one sari, it was very old, almost 10 yrs-but that lady likes this sari, I don’t know why too much and she asked me why, “Have you this sari?”

And I said “No, almost same you will get some of them because this is cotton sari but i have nothing same in that one because that one very old, think you will like something almost … at least this colour.”

But she told me, “No I like your sari, so I want to take your sari.”

I says “How can this possible, because this is very old sari and now I shouldn’t–”

“It’s not a matter, you can give me this sari I’ll give from your store any gift, that means give to any sari you like I’ll give you that one but I want to purchase your sari.”

And I told her, “No this is 10 years old, how can you want to… try these saris, at least take it,” maybe 100 times.

“No, it’s not my matter, I like that one I think it’s mine–like antiques–I want to take that one.”

And she didn’t agree to go without that sari, that time I request, “You can come tomorrow I’ll give this sari free for you, but now I have no other sari so how can I give you that sari?”

She told me “No, I want to give you something gift, then I’ll take your sari, otherwise I’m not also take your sari.” That time she request, “Please try to give me this sari because I’ll go, tomorrow my flight is 6, very early in the morning, so it’s not possible for me to come. So you’ll give this sari and you can make any choice I’ll give that.”

That time, some customer saw us also there and they told us also, “Please, you can do something for her, because she like that one.”

That time she took my sari and i took one – cheapest cotton saris from here- and she paid for mine.

Still I remember sometimes for that customer I feel very exciting sometimes.

I’m Suraira, I came Canada 1995, almost 13 years running.

Suraira, “The Little Bangladesh”

Avantika Bawa

Avantika Bawa is a visual artist and curator, based in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has an MFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1998) and a BFA  (in Painting) from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda (1995) India.

Bawa’s abstract site-specific interventions found in a variety of stores and restaurants in the Gerrard Street neighbourhood resonate with the celebratory mood and occasion suggested by a visit to this area. Working with simple materials including electrical tape, painted bricks and stick-on coloured paper, Bawa explores the spatial dimensions and conditions of her chosen sites in order to transform mundane architectural spaces.

DISCUSS

  1. Avantika’s works are interventions, have you seen any other artworks that are interventions?
  2. Discuss how color and pattern have been used in her work.
  3. Lahore Tikkah House has been under construction for over seven years, Avanktika painted two bricks bright yellow, and placed them on the pile of bricks already there. What could some of her reasons have been?
  4. Decide on a temporary intervention at your school (make sure it can be taken down without damaging property). Where would you create the intervention? What materials would you use? Who do you think will notice?

Stories from Home Hardware

LOCATION  Home Hardware, 257 Coxwell
STORYTELLERS  Pat Sullivan and Neal Blackburn

Hello, my name is Pat Sullivan, I am standing in a Home Hardware store at the corner of Coxwell Gerrard in the east end of Toronto…adjacent to an Asian community that’s goes, stretches along Gerrard for a number of blocks. And this store originally was established in the, I believe, late 20s or 30s. Has been a hardware store for that length of time.

I was fortunate one time when I bought the buildings at a later date the original owner and he showed me some pictures of this store where actually the city boundaries stopped at Greenwood Avenue which is about a mile down and it was just like a rogue a dirt road it wandered down and this store was standing here by itself with another store or two nothing much, they sold gasoline out front for those people heading out to wherever…

I took the store over in 1964 and I at that time-with the original was the 4th owner of the store, and I been and stayed in the business till 2003. Fortunately my son stepped forward and said that he’d like to get in the business which is great, so he’s now in this and he’s now the 5th owner. So there hasn’t been a lot of changeover in people over the years-of course I was the longest. And the store has withstood a lot of competition – the threat of the big box stores and other elements coming in.

We’re in a very, very good location in the heart of the city here where a lot of the homes here are in constantly need of repair and we do offer a very high-service store because we find that’s what we have to offer today is the service, which you cannot get at the big box stores.

Pat Sullivan, “Stories from Home Hardware”

So my name’s Neil Blackburn. I am standing in the back room of “Pat’s Home Hardware, at Coxswell and Gerrard, just outside of Little India. I’ve been an employee of the store since 1997, and purchased the store from my stepfather Pat in 2003, and I’ve been the owner since.

The thing i’ve enjoyed most, and has been the biggest surprise probably of being at this store is the community in general. Whether it’s Little India or whether it’s the Beaches. Because we’re kinda centrally located, we get people from all over, also being a tourist industry, we have people from the suburbs and even out of the city coming to see us.

It’s the friendly nature of the people, whether you meet them in the store, in a business environment or whether you meet them on the street you’re always seeing the same faces over and over again, and they’re always quick to say hello – they remember your name, and they really make you feel like they enjoy your company which is a nice change of pace.

I’ve also mentioned the story when I was in London, running across a customer while I was waiting for a cancelled flight-someone across from me in the lounge just having a drink, and was able to sit down and have a couple of minute chat with him, which was a very surreal experience being on the other side of the world. But it really shows the kind of people we have in this neighbourhood and how friendly they are.

Neal Blackburn, “Stories from Home Hardware”

Brendan Fernandes

Brendan Fernandes earned his MFA from The University of Western Ontario and his BFA from York University in Canada. Fernandes recently completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and is presently participating in The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Work Space Residency program.

“Made in Little India” reflects on the significance of the Little India Bazaar as a ‘tourist destination’ for Canada’s large South Asian community, and as a site of social, cultural and economic exchange. Originally conceived as a poster and postcard project, Fernandes’ work engages with the phenomena of the second-generation immigrant’s understanding of his or her birth culture through a second-hand experience of it in neighbourhoods such as Gerrard Street.

DISCUSS

  1. Brendan chose to create works that were ephemeral (lasting for a very short time).What are some other works of art that are ephemeral?
  2. Brendan asks for the viewers of his art to write to him. Create a short story about an incident that could take place in Little India. What is added to Brendan’s work through the viewer becoming a participant in the art?
  3. Design a postcard for a space you are familiar with. What would you include, what would you chose not to include? What would make people want to visit?

The Story of Udupi Palace

LOCATION  Udupi Palace, 1460 Gerrard St. East
STORYTELLER  Herbert De Mello

Hi, my name is Herbert, manager for Udupi Palace Restaurant on Gerrard street in Toronto. Udupi Palace was built in the year 2001 and we started this in the month of September.

We serve Southern Indian food over here. And just wanted to say that there are very few South Indian restaurants in Toronto and we are one of them and we really serve good food over here. The most popular item over here is masala dosa which is very well known nowadays amongst most of the people–Indians, South Asian as well as the North Americans. We take pride in being one of the best South Indian restaurants.

Udupi Palace was started in States in the beginning and they thought of diversifying themselves or getting in some other country, and for them to come to Canada was a little more easier and when they came here they seen there is a lot of opportunity over here and a lot of South Asians to support this kind of cuisine. So we thought Toronto would be the best bet and since they thought Toronto was the best bet when they came to Gerrard they found Gerrard was the place to start this kind of food as you have lot of floating population over here, lot of visitors coming from States as well as… so things have been pretty good over here. Toronto is a nice place to do business. I mean if you guys are coming to Toronto, especially to Gerrard Indian Bazaar I hope to see you over here.

My name is Herbert, managing Udupi Palace on Gerrard.

Herbert De Mello, “The Story of Udupi Palace”

Rashmi Varma

Rashmi Varma is a multidisciplinary designer and artist, who divides her time between Toronto and New Delhi. She produces her own clothing label ‘rashmi varma’, while exploring the dualities of fashion as both wearable object and art.

Designed for the shop window of the Sonu Saree Palace on Gerrard Street, Varma’s playful installation satirises the status aspirations of a new generation of Indians. Engaging with concepts associated with Occidentalism and evoking ideas of romance and travel, the Baroque decadence of Varma’s installation addresses issues of wealth, class, status and social mobility.

DISCUSS

  1. How is this window display different from others you have seen? Can all window displays be viewed as art?
  2. Discuss the significance of color in this work. How does it reflect the theme that the artist is working with?
  3. Discuss how this installation might be different if it were installed differently, or in a different space. (e.g. if it show-cased clothes from 19th century England, or if it were a window display for H&M?)
  4. Design/sketch a storefront display for your favorite store using at least four of the objects used in Rashmi’s display. What would you include? Why?

The Story of Sonu Sari Palace

LOCATION  Sonu Sari Palace, 1420 Gerrard St. East
STORYTELLER  Inder Jandoo

I’m Inder Jandhu, owner of Sonu Sari Palace. I’ve been here for the last 28 years, we opened up our business in 1979 in a store which was 200 square feet, then we moved out to 600 sq feet, and today we have three floors over 6000 sq feet. So this was a transition in last 28 years.

Basically we opened up this store, this was a store for Japanese saris, not for the fashions. Japanese saris were not available in India at that time and we had a contact, we opened up a store for Japanese saris and Japanese fabrics. Slowly and slowly in the whole transition period we have come to now almost about 95% our import is from India because the Indian fashion is more in fashion now: Indian saris, silk saris, embroidered saris, lenghas, wedding outfits.

Stratford is one of our best customers – we use lot of saris to make costumes. I remember when they were having the production done for “King Edward the Fifth” in Stratford they came here and they bought lot of saris to make robes of kings, and they bought lot of jewellery which they transformed into medallions and all.

We are catering to a lot of people who are either desiging their fabrics or designing their clothes. Remember there was a designer from Europe who came here and he was doing for some big shot, three different villas in three different places one in Spain, one in one in Mexico and one in New York – three! And he bought all the fabric here. He bought the saris… crepe dashin saris with embroidery and lehngas with embroideries

Inder Jandoo, “The Story of Sonu Sari Palace”

Zaheed Mawani

Zaheed Mawani has a B.A. in Political Science from Middlebury College. His credits include working as a production assistant on filmmaker Ali Kazimi’s Gemini Award winning documentary Runaway Grooms. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in Film Production at York University.

Mawani’s Super-8 film depicts the proprietors of the Gerrard Street businesses in front of their stores. Drawing on the tradition of portraiture, Mawani produces an evocative social record of the characters and personalities that comprise the Little India community.

DISCUSS

  1. How are these portraits similar or different from portraits you have come across?
  2. What creates unity within the work?
  3. What does the video say about people working in this community? What does it not show?
  4. Create a portrait of your street/ neighborhood. Who would you portray? Why? Who did you forget to include? Why might that be the case?

Attending Glen Rhodes United Church

LOCATION  Glen Rhodes United Church, 1470 Gerrard St. East
STORYTELLER  Anonymous

Well I’ve been coming here for about 10 years, and the first time I walked into this church I knew it was a really special place. It’s just, it’s very friendly and very open and there’s just so much going on in this place, and it’s a lively building throughout the week as well as on Sunday morning and it’s a very, very welcoming community and it’s a very interesting spiritual place in that it … the people here carry out a ministry that is very important in terms of reaching out to the community and helping people who are poor and needy in a lot of differet ways. and I just think it’s a very, very special place.

I remember the first time I came to a Christmas Eve service and I’d been rushing, I’d been at work and I was rushing to get here and all of the lights that are on outside on the street are just amazing that time of year.

There are a lot of the festivals for the Asian community going on around that time of year and there is just this wonderful sense of light coming over here. And then that particular Christmas Eve Rena Singh who is a wonderful dancer and teaches in this building, and she was part of the service that night, and she carried in the light and it was this sense of bringing in the light from those lights outside and that came in. She danced in the light and then the Christ candle was lit from that light and it was this lovely sense of our being part the street life as well.

Anonymous, “Attending Glen Rhodes United Church”

Community Workshops

SAVAC organized three community workshops with the diverse community on Gerard Street East’s “ Little India” with an aim to consolidate and reach out to a wider inter-generational, cross-cultural community on Gerard Street East. Through the mediums of photography, drawings and audio documentary, SAVAC in collaboration with murmur were able to consolidate our ties within the “Little India” community and familiarize the community with our project. The workshops provided a forum for community participants to engage in art-making.

“Little India” Through the Lens

This was a dynamic workshop with 10 young adults, who explored different aspects of photography on Gerard Street East’s “Little India” neighborhood. The workshop was a hands-on, how-to process, where participants could ask questions and shoot photographs during a fun-filled day. Participants used digital, film and disposable cameras during this workshop. The workshop was designed so the young adults could explore the Gerrard Street India Bazaar through a lens while learning about documentary photography.  Armed with cameras, each person explored the rich history, textures, colours and characters of the Bazaar in their own unique way.

The workshop was conducted by Sabu Qureshi, an award-winning photographer running an established commercial studio since 1997. He has conducted numerous workshops with youth, co-op students and photo assistants – mentoring and critiquing portfolios. He is a member of SAVAC.

Drawing on Memory 

Artist Shelagh Keeley conducted a workshop at Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre at 1326 Gerrard Street East on Friday, May 16 in the. Keeley worked with the settlement counselor, Izzat Kassam, at the centre, who helped her meet and work with a small community group of senior South Asian women who meet at the centre every Friday afternoon. At the workshop Keeley and the participants made drawings based on their memories and family histories. While many of the women were shy and apprehensive at first saying that they could not remember drawing since they were children, as they drew their stories emerged. In the drawings, Keeley asked the ladies to think about their life stories and experiences, where they come from, their families and important meaningful experiences they have had in their lives. Everyone sat around a table and through their drawings they engaged in personal and profound dialogues and conversations.

Born in Oakville, Ontario, Shelagh Keeley has spent more than two decades living and producing artwork in places such as New York, Paris and New Delhi, India. Recently re-located to Toronto, Keeley’s exhibition An Encyclopedia of Memory and Slowness at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto marked her return to her homeland.

Gerrard Street Walk and Tell

This walking workshop began with a short talk on the ideas behind and history of [murmur], the location-based cell phone documentary project. [murmur] records memories and stories about specific geographic locations then installs a sign with a phone number that passerby can call with their mobile phone anytime to hear that recording about that spot. The experience is like going for a walk with somebody and listening to them tell you about the neighbourhood — sometimes it’s historical details, other times personal anecdotes. The walking workshop was a “live” version of [murmur] that provided an opportunity for the community participants to familiarize themselves with the concept of Big Stories Little India. Participants strolled together down Gerrard, stopping whenever somebody had something to say about a location. A stop could be as simple as pointing out a detail — such as a piece of public art or a nice tree. Stories about events that took place along the street, what used to be in a particular location or other bits of information were also shared. At each stop, participants asked questions or added their own details and Gerrard Street became a catalyst for conversation, allowing participants to get to know each other and the neighbourhood while engaged in activity humans have been doing forever: walking and talking.

This workshop was led by the co-founders of [murmur] – Gabe Sawhney and Shawn Micallef. [murmur] was initially developed while the two were residents at the Canadian Film Centre’s new media lab and has since spread throughout Toronto and to other cities including Montreal, Vancouver, San Jose, Sao Paulo, Edinburgh and Dublin.

Educational Resources

SAVAC has created short lesson plans to help generate discussions around the works of art created by the six artists for Big Stories, Little India. The lesson plans also encourage students and teachers to explore ideas like diversity, histories of migration and the effects of globalization in their own artwork.

The lesson plans incorporate expectations from the Ontario Visual Arts Curriculum where possible, with an emphasis on critical thinking, and can be adapted for different grade levels. Students will begin by studying a history of Little India in Toronto, and go on to examine other neighbourhoods in the city. They will also explore the relationship between tradition, ritual and culture, discussing personal family histories. The lesson plans are relevant for students taking Media Studies, Geography, History, Political Science, Art History. Here are some general questions to get you started:

  1. Discuss the artworks in Big Stories, Little India as interventions in daily life. How successful are they at attracting attention?
  2. What people, cultures and experiences are represented in the different works?
  3. Who is the intended audience for this project?
  4. What stories do these interventions tell about the history of immigration in Canada?

Lesson Plan: The Evolution of Immigrant Communities in Canada Appendices: The Evolution of Immigrant Communities in Canada


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