Three Punjabi Sikh artists in Calgary recently came together to create a mural to pay homage to the ongoing Farmers’ protests in India.
The mural, entitled “Still I Rise,” was a culmination of months of work, collaboration, and community efforts, to represent many of the ongoing struggles of farmers that are seen and felt even right here in the diaspora.
"Still, I Rise," is also the name of a famous poem by poet Maya Angelou, that the three artists said they were introduced to after the creation of the mural.
Harneet Kaur Chahal, Zoe Harveen Kaur Sihota, and Ravina Kaur Toor, three artists who individually have created an impressive portfolio of work, came together to bring this project to life as part of the Beltline Urban Murals Project (BUMP).
The trio sat down with 5X Press to chat about the mural, the importance of the protests to the diaspora, using art for advocacy, and the importance of sisterhood.
Chahal talked about how the project first came to be.
“There’s a group of Punjabi Sikh youth here in Calgary that have been trying to raise continued awareness around the farmers’ protests in India right now, and so we were trying to explore avenues as to how we can best engage the public in this matter, and keep the conversation about it alive,” said Chahal.
“That’s how the three of us came together, was actually through a conversation of, is there a possibility that we can use art as a medium to try to continue this conversation around the farmers protests?”
The three artists had never met prior to the project, but they say their shared goals and vision made the project go beyond them as individuals.
“It's bigger than the three of us, we’re just the medium through which were trying to translate this message,” said Chahal
The artists say their own connections to farming made the project feel personal but simultaneously universal, given that the struggles of the farmers’ protests encompass a number of different interconnected issues.
Toor says that this is what made it so important to connect this piece back to their roots.
“We all have roots that go back to farming, and even just being first-generation kids in Canada, the reason we’re sitting here is because of our grandparents, and parents, and great grandparents that did all the farming and kind of laid out the foundation for us to be living the life that we are living today,” she said.
“The farmers that are protesting right now, the biggest message they have is that they’re doing it for us, they’re doing it for the kids, they’re doing it for our future, so it’s important for us as kids, even though we’re sitting so far away, it’s important for us to make noise for them.”
For this reason, they say that they felt a responsibility to use their art as a means of advocacy, and speak up for the community.
The mural itself is imbued with a number of different messages that speak to the core of why the farmers’ protests are so important, especially given that the protests have been going on for over 200 days.
Women, who have been a backbone of the farmers’ protests, are also seen anchoring the mural, Chahal explained.
“One of the key things is often the role that women play in our communities, so the central point of the image we’ve got the bibi that it’s in the middle holding the food in her hand and she grounds the image, often how women ground our own communities,” said Chahal.
“A lot of our culture and our experience of it is passed through the women in our communities and that’s why she anchors the image.”
The piece is also intended to show how the struggles and hard work of our ancestors in the past are relevant today, and will continue to be in the future.
“We also wanted to not only pay homage to all of the hard work that our previous generations have done to bring us here, [but] to draw attention to things that are relevant now and in the future, that includes things like food security, water security, and making sure that we have sustainable agricultural practices,” she said.
She added that the chunni covering her face is intended to resemble flowing water, to draw attention to the polluted water as a result of corporatization.
“Punjab as a result of the Green Revolution has not only depleted its water table, but often has a significantly polluted water table as well, and that’s a result of the corporatization of agriculture and the use of these chemicals that are foreign.”
Sihota added that they also wanted the piece to convey how the issues surrounding the protest impact many more than just those in India and the diaspora.
“It affects everyone,” said Sihota.
“Closer to the middle and the bottom of the image we have a lot of different hands holding different household products like chai latte, or turmeric latte, and garam masala, to show that it doesn’t just affect the diaspora. All these different resources that we collect and things we see in grocery stores is because of our farmers. We really have to be a voice for them.”
Lastly, the senior who is seen working in the fields of the farms is juxtaposed with the city skyline on the other side, to highlight the corporatization of farming.
“We wanted to emphasize where we come from and where these laws are taking us,” said Toor.
Overall, the project’s intention, creation, and the collaboration between the three artists comes down to two things; community, and sisterhood.
“Women are so powerful on their own, imagine them together,” she added.
“Being around like minded individuals, I feel like you have no boundaries, you have no limitations to what you can do.”
Beyond the painting itself, Chahal said that the painting was pushed forward entirely by women, exemplifying, “Punjabi Sikh women, supporting Punjabi Sikh women.”
“The beauty of us three coming from such different backgrounds being able to support one another, one of the big learning lessons and words of wisdom is that your success is a reflection of those around you and the community you have around you,” said Chahal.
“Support one another and leave the door open wider for those that are coming behind you as well.”
Coincidentally, that is precisely what the farmers are trying to do all the way in India: coming together to ensure a future for the next generation, with community and togetherness a central pillar of the fight, which is far from over.
About the author: Rumneek is a journalist, host, and Editor-in-Chief of 5X Press. She is also host of 5X's Youtube and IGTV show What's the Vibe breaking down hot topics inside Surrey and out. She is a graduate of The University of British Columbia's Masters of Journalism program, and has previously worked as a host/producer at Decomplicated, and as a writer at Daily Hive Vancouver and CBC Toronto. She thinks she's funny on twitter @rumneeek