Women’s weavings part of the ongoing story of Punjabis in Surrey

posted on October 9, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

Being Punjabi includes a brick from the Komagata Maru and cooking tools from chef Vikram Vij along with the stories of prominent Punjabis such as Anita Lal, Fauzio Rafique and Charan Gill

For Gurmeet Khosa and Amarjeet Boparai, part of the story of being Punjabi includes something each of them made by hand: a dhurrie.

Traditionally, a girl growing up in Punjab would learn how to hand weave a dhurrie as a bed covering. It was a time-consuming job that also meant learning how to hand spin cotton into thread and adding the dyes for colour.

The two women so valued their dhurries that they brought them from India to Canada. The handmade items are part of the exhibition Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story at the Museum of Surrey which opens Wednesday.

In video interviews in the exhibition, the two women also tell their stories of becoming part of Surrey’s diverse Punjabi community.

“It is my desire for people to come to watch the culture not only of Punjabis but other ones too,” she said.

Punjabis, Khosa said, “are very lucky” because they got the chance to be among the first immigrants to Canada more than a century ago.

The first Punjabis came to the country in 1897 during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Nearly 125 years later, Surrey is home to more than 100,000 Punjabis, said Colleen Sharpe, curator of exhibits and the coordinating curator for Being Punjabi.

The exhibition is the first community-led exhibition at the Museum of Surrey’s newly expanded $16 million premises in Cloverdale.

While the idea for Being Punjabi was developed more than two years ago, the exhibition was created following a new approach in museums to allow people to lead exhibitions rather than curators.

“It doesn’t mean just workshopping with people,” she said.

“In every way possible, the people are the voice — we’re facilitating it. The content comes entirely from the community.”

Making sure that happened involved sending out 100 letters to gurdwaras, mosques and social and community groups along with holding seven community engagement events.

In that process, Sharpe said one thing was emphasized: make sure the exhibition is diverse.

The diversity is the reason for using the word Punjabi. It comes from the word Punjab, a historic region in South Asia that was divided in 1947 between Pakistan where there are mostly Muslims and in India where there are mostly Sikhs.

“People don’t realize that there is a Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab,” she said. “There are Muslim Punjabis — not just Sikh Punjabis.”

Sharpe also learned that Punjabi is one of the few languages with two written forms: Shahmukhi used by Punjabis in Pakistan and Gurmukhi by Punjabis in India.

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