'Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story' on Display at the Museum of Surrey

The exhibit showcases the rich cultural history of the Punjabi community in Surrey

Art by Puneet Datewas. (Saggal Gara)

Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story is a multimedia exhibition at the Museum of Surrey that presents 16 local Punjabi voices using the written word, audio recordings, video, artifacts, art, and images.

According to the Museum of Surrey’s website, “the exhibition defines Punjabi as anyone whose family of origin is from the Punjabi regions of India and Pakistan.”

It is the first time the Museum of Surrey has presented a cultural exhibition of this kind, although the first Punjabis came to Canada in 1897. Today, the city of Surrey is home to over 100,000 Punjabis.

The free exhibit opened on Oct. 2, 2019 and will close on Feb. 23. Museum curator Colleen Sharpe says that 150 people attended the opening day.

“We got the word out that we were doing these community sessions, and we invited people to come — if they had a story or an object, to just come and meet us and tell us about it and participate,” she says.

Sharpe says that people who lent objects and submitted pieces for the exhibit were really happy with how it turned out.

“We saw a lot of people that have brought their family and their children. They were so proud to show them that their stuff was in this exhibit,” she says.

Daniella Murphy, who visited the exhibition, says that she and her kids often go to the Museum of Surrey.

“I think [this exhibit] is very important. It’s a huge part of our demographic here, the Punjabi culture. I think it’s great to learn more about it,” she says. “I actually didn’t know what the exhibit was when we came, so I was pretty excited to check it out when I saw that it was a Punjabi exhibit.”

The museum’s website states that “41 per cent of Surrey’s recent immigrants come from South Asia.”

“In fact, Punjabi is the second most spoken language in Surrey,” it reads. “As such, Punjabi was selected as the first community-led feature exhibition at the Museum of Surrey.”

The exhibition included many different texts on subjects like being Punjabi in Surrey and women’s experience in the Punjabi community. Other texts described paintings or artifacts, such as a painting by Puneet Datewas.

The oil on canvas painting depicts Wazir Singh, a man who was in the Indian Army and served in World War I. He later helped fund the construction of a school and advocated for building a railway station.

The painting shows his face. He has a short black beard, a long mustache that covers his upper lip, and bright brown eyes. He is painted on a multicoloured background in a white long-sleeved button-up. On his head, he wears a white turban adorned with a train, school, and blue and yellow flag. Above, there are bright green trees and red and orange flowers that gracefully hang from his turban. Little birds fly around his face picking at the flowers.

Gagandeep, an attendee who came with her two kids, says that the exhibition is more for the people who don’t know anything about the Punjabi culture than it is for Punjabis themselves.

“Since I am Punjabi, we already know everything about our culture,” she says. “All of the other cultures who don’t know about the Punjabi culture, if they are interested, they [should] come here to find out.”

In the middle of the room, there was a little space with red chairs and red pillows where attendees could grab a book or magazine from a desk and read. There were also children’s books and fashion magazines which taught attendees more about Punjabi pop culture.

Bali K. Deol is a Surrey radio host who contributed an audio exhibit to Being Punjabi. Her exhibit focused on Punjabi music and musicians from the city.

“I’m from England and I talked a lot about my journey as an immigrant, and also as an immigrant that was born outside of Punjab in the UK,” she says. “You can see Punjabis from politics, to music, to sports, to media, and you know … it really shows how well we have done.”

The exhibition also had two bridal Lehenga that were donated by the brides themselves to the City of Surrey Heritage collection. One of them was bright pink, made in 1984 in India and considered rare at the time. The other was peach-coloured with gold flakes throughout.

“I loved the fact that the Museum of Surrey actually reached out to community members to engage them and tell their stories from their perspective. It seems pretty authentic,” says Anita Lal, a community advocate. “We celebrate the fact that South Asians have such a rich history and we are so proud to be part of the Canadian identity.”

The exhibit also features a brick from the Komagata Maru and cooking tools onced owned by Vikram Vij, a renowned Vancouver chef.

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship used to transport Indian immigrants across the Pacific Ocean towards Canada. According to The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, “the ship set off from Hong Kong on [Apr. 4 of 1914] carrying 376 Indian passengers — 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus.”

Many months later, the Komagata Maru arrived on the coast of British Columbia in Vancouver. However, its passengers did not step foot off the boat, as the Canadian government rejected their access to the country unless they had $200. None of them did. During this and the voyage back to India, 19 passengers died, and many were imprisoned upon their return.

One hundred years after this, Justin Trudeau made a public apology in 2016 for the racist incident.

In the same space where Being Punjabi is on display, there will be a sketching series at the Museum of Surrey on Feb. 21 from 5:30 am to 8:00 pm. Anyone is welcome to sketch their favourite display from the exhibit.

Another attendee, Rita Murphy, says she’s glad she was able to experience the exhibit.

“We came to bring our grandchildren here because we heard this was a wonderful place for kids to come, and we saw this exhibit and we were curious because we don’t know much about the Punjabi [people],” says Murphy.

“The more we know about each other the better,” she says.