Desh Pardesh: Historicizing a new brown, queer artist scene in Toronto

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“Not a Place on the Map” is an oral history project initiated by the South Asian Visual Arts Center (SAVAC), concerning Desh Pardesh, the queer South Asian arts festival in the 90’s which ran roughly from 1988 to 2001. Interviews show that Desh provided a sense of community and gave a platform for marginalized artists. The Collaboratory, SAVAC, the CLGA, and the Jackman Scholars in Residence are working to exhibit these interviews in a digital collection.

When we started this project, I knew that “exploring the politics of South Asian cultures in the West” would be a massive endeavour. From previous experience, I know that almost any question of South Asian (specifically Indian) culture stumbles upon the prejudices of caste and the pain of colonization, two subject areas with a ton of scholarship that is new to me. On top of this, there remains my queer identity, which until very recently I refused to acknowledge. My journey into Desh Pardesh’s story has provided a history for me. Looking at these files, I am learning how people made space in a white society for a queer and brown body. This knowledge is particularly inaccessible to me—growing up, I was very much isolated from my culture in my dominantly white and Catholic schools and neighbourhoods.

Promotional postcard from 1994 Desh Pardesh Festival. Photo by Rachel Kalpana James. Source: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives vertical files.

Promotional postcard from 1994 Desh Pardesh Festival. Photo by Rachel Kalpana James. Source: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives vertical files.

It is also interesting to think about the politics of categorization and my own personal biases in research. My family is almost exclusively Indian (with potentially a distant Portuguese relative), and given the state of Hindu right-wing radicalism oppressing large portions of the Indian and South Asian population, I am trying to be conscious of excluding other South Asian and diasporic countries. The Desh Pardesh festival’s contributors show the same blind-spot as well. Even the name—“Desh Pardesh”—can come from Hindi or Urdu, but I’ve mostly seen it explained via Hindi in the oral history interviews.

Looking back at this record forces me to reflect not only on the contemporary moment, but the long history of exceptionalism and segregation which brings us to the present. Our picture of Desh is shaping up to not just acknowledge the history of a new brown, queer artist scene in Toronto, but a snapshot of competing patriotism and the consequent increasing centrism. Right now, we are trying to navigate the influences of historical and colonial divisions which reveal themselves in what seems to be standard, leftist in-fighting.