Naveen Girn is a guest curator and cultural researcher for the Museum of Vancouver’s Bhangra.me: Vancouver’s Bhangra’s Story, an interactive exhibit which connects Vancouver’s unique Bhangra music and dance scene with politics, identity, and diasporic life. “What we tried to do is see Bhangra as a cultural tool,” he says. “It’s a tool to use to look at issues of gender, labour, politics and transnationalism and identity and all sorts of things, and those are the takes we’re doing.” The 30-year old South Vancouver native took Schema Magazine’s Beth Hong on a walking tour through the exhibit, and explained why this exhibit is an important step in bridging gaps in Vancouver’s South Asian community history.
Can you tell me about the origins of Bhangra.me?
Bhangra.me is a co-production between the Museum of Vancouver and Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration—they used to hold an annual art exhibition as part of the festival, and one year they decided to work together and the idea became Bhangra.me. Usually it takes a couple of years to properly design and build an exhibition but we created this exhibition within 11 months! It was kind of a sped up process in terms of the acquisition of materials, the oral history of interviews, development of the idea of the exhibition, but I think it worked really well.
How do you identify yourself personally?
My parents are from Fiji, but we have grandparents from the Punjab. I’m not the typical Punjabi person who is putting together this exhibition. I consider myself South Asian, but I never really think about it too much because it changes from place to place. In some contexts I’m Canadian, other places I’m South Asian. It’s something I’m trying to work out—but I’m fine with Canadian right now.
What motivates your work as a cultural researcher on South Asian history and culture?
Through the course of these exhibitions what I really found was a gap; a silence in the archive. For instance, when I was researching Bhangra.me, the first thing I did was go to Vancouver city archives, the Sikh archives, Museum’s archives. If you type in ‘Bhangra’ or if you type in ‘Sikh’ there’s hardly nothing there. Especially for Bhangra, there’s nothing there at all. It speaks to what’s valued and what’s important to study and keep records of. What I get to do with my work is bring that alternate perspective—not arrogantly claim that I can voice that silence, but that I allow these alternate voices to speak and have a place where they can be heard for the first time outside of their small circles, whether it be a home or a small group of friends.
Why is it important for these voices to be heard?
We get to understand each other on a deeper intercultural basis and give voice to that living reality of people’s lives, or that we aren’t engaging with one another in stereotypes or in perceived opinions of what it’s going to be like and through that build bridges of communication that lead to understanding in our city of Vancouver.
How can this be relevant for future generations?
We had school groups coming here, and when kids come in here and see a face like theirs reflected back to them from a huge wall, it’s inspiring to them—it makes them feel legitimized. It shows that there can be other stories than the Komagata Maru in Canada’s South Asian history.
Are there any upcoming events at the Museum of Vancouver for Bhangra.me?
Yes, at the Museum on Thursday September 22 at 7:00 pm the UBC Girlz Dancestravaganza is not to be missed. There will be discussion about Bhangra and gender following the performance.
Bhangra.me: Vancouver’s Bhangra Story runs from May 5 to October 23, 2011 at the Museum of Vancouver. Check out Bhangra.me, which features an interactive map for personal stories from across the Lower Mainland.
Check out some of Naveen’s video productions for Bhangra.me at the Museum of Vancouver YouTube Channel:
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Beth Hong is a freelance journalist and managing editor of InDepth at Schema Magazine. She likes kimchi, poutine, and everything in between. You can follow her on Twitter @metrolens or check out her site BethHong.com.