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Indian Summer feature artist Manjot Kaur asks what the world would be like if trees were rulers and kings

Manjot Kaur
Artist Manjot Kaur sometimes aims to elevate ecological awareness with works of art tied to Indian mythology. Photo by Manpreet Verma.

Vancouver is a dozen time zones from the sprawling Indian metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai. But the cultural vibe will be within easy reach for Metro Vancouver residents at the 14th annual Indian Summer Festival. It runs from July 4 to 14, with most of the events taking place at Granville Island.

This year’s ISF2024 feature artist is Manjot Kaur, winner of a Sustaina India Fellowship in 2022 for her work bridging ecological awareness with Indian mythological narratives. The Ludhiana-born and Metro Vancouver–based artist also received a fellowship from Harvard University’s Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute.

When reached by phone, Kaur tells Pancouver that she is bringing a painting to the festival entitled The Portrait of a Tree in Jharokha.

“This painting takes reference from existing Indian Moghul miniature paintings,” Kaur explains. “Jharokha is basically a stone window. It is a characteristic of Indian architecture that protrudes from the wall of a building.”

The Moghuls were Muslims with roots in what is now Uzbekistan. They ruled much of northern India from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries.

In their havelis (mansions) and palaces, they would include jharokhas. According to Kaur, queens and male rulers would look out these windows to open spaces.

“Their portraits are also made with the background of this window—and they stand inside this window in Indian miniature paintings,” Kaur says.

“What I do in this painting is I replace the image of the ruler with that of a tree,” the artist adds. “Here, the idea is that the tree becomes the protagonist, acknowledging the plant’s intelligence and giving voice to the plant. For me, this cultivates the ability to envision flora as regal figures.”

Manjot Kaur
The Portrait of a Tree in Jharokha by Manjot Kaur.

Kaur subverts traditional attitudes

Moreover, The Portrait of a Tree in Jharokha seeks to champion the idea of granting personhood to the botanical world.

“It challenges the prevailing patriarchal attitude toward ecology,” Kaur insists. “So, for me, this painting reflects the idea of interconnectedness of nature and humanity.”

She maintains that her work of art also subverts traditional attitudes that marginalize the significance of ecological balance.

“I ask this singular question: what kind of world would we inhabit if trees were the rulers and kings?”

She acknowledges that some leading thinkers and writers have influenced her world view. The list includes botanist and Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Robin Wall Kimmerer, U.S. feminist scholar Donna Haraway, French philosopher Bruno Latour, and U.S. environmental historian Carolyn Merchant.

Indian environmental activist and food-sovereignty advocate Vandana Shiva has also shaped Kaur’s outlook on life. Shiva was featured at the Indian Summer Festival in 2020 in conversation with Vancouver environmentalist and writer David Suzuki.

Kaur praises Shiva for raising awareness about the intertwining of forests and agricultural land.

“I am very much inspired from the way she brings perspective to a lot of issues, especially in relation to capitalism,” Kaur reveals. “And how ecology is viewed through the lens of capital, and how ecology is only seen as resources.”

While Kaur has political views, she’s not trying to make a statement through her art about the Bhartiya Janata Party headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Forget the natural world,” she declares. “If they could care about people, that would be more than enough.”

Kaur believes that there needs to be much more discussion about the extent of poverty and human suffering in India. At the same time, she acknowledges that India is facing disastrous heat waves.

Manjot Kaur
Manjot Kaur (at the Louvre in Paris) is a rising star in the international art world. Photo by Gilles Nijsten.

Mother goddesses for forests?

Yet it seems to Kaur that the government of India only wants to talk about religion, which doesn’t bring solutions to problems that she mentions in the interview.

In her art, Kaur sometimes invokes the mother goddesses in connection with the botanical world.

“Because in India, there are already so many people, you do not need a mother goddess or a fertility goddess for protection,” Kaur states. “The conditions are so ripe for reproduction. But for the forests, conditions are not so ripe.”

In this regard, she sees parallels with her adopted home of Canada.

“I take a lot of references from Indian mythology to comment on the idea of motherhood and to comment on the idea of the sovereignty of ecology and sovereignty of women.”

As the interview draws to a close, Kaur has one more thing to add. “Indian streets are not at all safe spaces for women to roam around… When out at night, there is a very strong male gaze. People would spontaneously stare at you. They might also physically abuse you. They might want to touch you here and there.”

She says that this existed long before the BJP came to power. However, she doesn’t believe that the current government has done anything to address this situation.

Raagaverse
Raagaverse members Noah Franche-Nolan, Shruti Ramani, Jodi Proznick, and Nicholas Bracewell.

Festival opens with PARADOX

This year’s Indian Summer Festival opening party is entitled PARADOX, which speaks to contradictions that Kaur is highlighting. The event will take place on Thursday (July 4) at Performance Works on Granville Island in the “Jharokha Garden”, which is a reference to Kaur’s painting.

PARADOX will feature the jazz-infused music of Raagaverse. The band is fronted by Mumbai-raised classically trained Hindustani singer Shruti Ramani. She grew up singing ghazals and moved to British Columbia as an international student in 2017.

Raagaverse’s melodies are mainly rooted in Indian classical music. According to Ramani, this means that they’re rhythmically loaded, intricate, and full of ornaments. The harmonies come from traditional western jazz.

“So, my intention is basically for the western audience to indulge in Indian music because I’m coming halfway,” Ramani told Pancouver last year. “I’m giving them harmony, which they are familiar with.”

PARADOX will also include culinary treats prepared by Chef Tushar Tondvalkar, founder of The Indian Pantry. The evening’s emcee will be CBC journalist Baneet Braich and the event is curated by Indian Summer Festival executive director of programming Pawan Deol.

For more information on the Indian Summer Festival, visit the website. Follow Pancouver on X (formerly Twitter) @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.