My week began witnessing the launch of a new website created to explore global stories that have gone unheard or ignored. The Lighthouse Collective’s first published work, titled ‘Labh’, is an exquisite longform literary piece that touched on a subject matter dear to my heart. As a result, I pondered whether my promotion of the site was justified or due to my personal bias, which further led to me exploring how I perceived present day mediums for cultural transmission and the creators who utilise them. The question that my thoughts have ultimately brought me to is whether we are seeing the progressive development of Sikh creators into purely creators, and if so, are they still retaining the messages of equality and justice from where everything began in recent years?
It was with the greatest of excitement that I came to know of a literary work being published about one of the most inspiring Sikhs of recent times, General Labh Singh. A new, talented group of young writers and artists joined forces to form the Lighthouse Collective – a journalism collective using journalism, art, tech, and film to pursue global narratives. ‘Labh‘, their first work, authored by a gifted writer Rattanamol Singh, is based on interviews with Devinder Kaur, the late General’s wife. In this longform piece (think half-way between a Sunday broadsheet feature and a novel) we gain an eye-opening insight into the Sikh struggle that is commonly depicted only through staid photographs and sloganeering headlines. This writing captivated me across all eight acts, taking the reader on a journey through the transition of Labh Singh from an unremarkable character into a living legend.
Those of you who know me personally are aware that I am entirely enamoured by this Sikh freedom fighter who was murdered 27 years ago this week. Throughout the significant moments of my life, the shadow of this man whom I revere as my captain has been ever-present, from the first time I performed on a stage alongside my younger brother singing a eulogy in his honour, to the name my wife and I gave our daughter when she was born last year. It was only natural then that I wondered whether I was looking at the Lighthouse Collective’s endeavour through rose-tinted glasses.
Had I allowed my heart strings to be pulled and blind me from the quality, or lack thereof of the published work, or was this sincerely as masterful as I had been thinking? The answer is resoundingly in favour of the latter, suggesting that this is indeed the birth of a new manner of artistic engagement emanating from within the Sikh Diaspora. Reading the work back aloud for a personal podcast edition of ‘Labh’, I was reminded repeatedly of why General Labh Singh has had such a profound impact on my life; the longform style elegantly presented the human face of the man, whilst simultaneously elevating his status as an immortal character, beyond reproach. This was due to the creative nature of longform literature, combining the diligence of a journalist, with the zeal of a novelist, and both the author and the wider Lighthouse Collective deserve praise for making such a bold choice in their selection of art form. As their future work promises, the subject matter will not be limited to Sikh personalities or causes, nor will the format regress from its present heady heights. It is in that light, a truly ‘Sikh’ project to be concerned with issues that pertain to all humanity and not just one subset community, but similarly will save the author from the debilitating moniker of a ‘Sikh writer’, determining him instead simply a ‘writer’ without diminishing his contribution to the Panth.
Accounts of Sikhs whose names were made during times of struggle are plentiful, but they are rarely so well told in the modern era as to have an almost film-like captivation. I was reminded of this midway through the working week when watching the short film ‘Ananke‘, the product of Canadian film-maker Kiran Rai. Rai who is becoming increasingly known for her Youtube persona ‘KayRay‘ was visiting London this week where she premiered the work – a symbolically powerful piece tendering the inevitability of physical force being exerted upon a South Asian female by her partner. With a screenplay by Rakhi Mutta, an experienced community activist and visual story-teller, the quality and quantity of research that had gone into creating this narrative on domestic violence was matched by the performance given by Rai and her co-lead Seth Mohan. The intensity of their performance left me deep in contemplation, not only of the subject matter, but pertaining to the medium of film which when done well can transcend languages and continents. Although film as an art form is gaining popularity in the Diaspora, it is all too commonly through short videos made for the small, digital screen focusing on a particular community audience; the trend is to create something of a comedic nature, rather than something thought-provoking. But as Kiran Rai has shown, issues of deep significance can be tastefully produced for the big screen, and like the work of the Lighthouse Collective, she speaks to, and of people beyond her own.
Further more, this evening I had the opportunity to hear the Canadian poet Rupi Kaur and singer/visual artist Keerat Kaur who travelled to London with their fellow collaborator Kiran Rai. Rupi Kaur’s poetry has garnered much attention through social media channels leading to strong worldwide sales of her debut work ‘Milk and Honey‘. Upon hearing her up close and in-person I could see why, as she painted a vivid picture of the female experience which holds true for not only South Asian women, but beyond. Hers is a talent that belies her youthful age, but is simply an opening of the heart and pouring forth, following in the footsteps of luminaries such as the revered Harinder Singh Mehboob. Although Rupi Kaur’s subject matter is vastly different, her work, whilst occasionally controversial and not to everyones taste, is filled with honest emotion and most importantly is entirely relevant to the times in which we live, just as Mehboob’s was. I cannot recall seeing her depicted as a ‘Sikh poet’ in the few years that she has been active, pointing further to this development of ‘Sikh produced art’ that has gone beyond the labels applied to it by the west. Her subject matter empowers women of all backgrounds to love themselves, their bodies, and to value their existence. Without encroaching on her work and application, there are fewer messages that one could consider more Sikh-inspired to be delivered to so many females and one would hope, males too.
Nowhere perhaps though has the transition from ‘Sikh creator’ to ‘creator’ been more evident than in the field of art. Keerat Kaur who performed vocally alongside and in support of Rupi Kaur’s poetry exposition, is a skilled artist who has produced a number of works that speak to both Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. She has captured the essence of the human experience in some of her work, most notably in her work titled ‘portrait‘. Similarly, the UK-based artist Inkquisitive has increasingly begun to present work that reflects his inner voice, moving beyond the production of work that speaks to a specific community or generation, towards one that speaks to, and of, all humanity. ‘The Kollective‘ formed by a trio of UK artists (Raj Singh Tattal, Jagmohan Singh and Joti Singh Dhanjal) offer a different dimension to this artistic development, as they are about to embark on a considerable exhibition of Sikh art in London. That they are able to work and exhibit together, whilst being of differing styles, backgrounds and positions is a testament to their diminishing of ego and self-publication, for the overarching aim of purely exhibiting art.
The world may have changed dramatically since the days of General Labh Singh, but the struggle in Punjab is still ongoing; creative work like that of the Lighthouse Collective imbibes upon us how we can apply that same state of mind to the present day. The tone and delivery of the message might be unfamiliar, but it is of no less impact. Creators like Kiran Rai and Rupi Kaur continue to tackle injustice and confront a world full of fear buoyed by the unmistakeable inspiration of their roots, whilst artists such as Keerat Kaur, Inkquisitive and the Kollective present the vision of this present day World, as seen by a Sikh, Punjabi and South Asian Diaspora, but without labelling it as such. We are witnessing, in my opinion, a development of Sikh creators into simply creators, a move that will benefit both them and the Panth as a whole. Whether the origins and inspiration for such artists is kept at the heart of their work will no doubt have some part to play in their ongoing success, as it is an intrinsic part of who they are and instructs the voice with which they speak to the World – a fact not lost on them I’m sure. But it is for me refreshing to see the dynamism with which this development has occured and is occuring, for the World moves on in every second of every day, and in order to find solutions to the problems that continue to plague us – from annihilation of the Punjab to the denegration of women – we must find a way to combine relevance to the now and remaining true to yesterday.