For decades, the area around Main Street and East 49th Avenue was the hub of North America’s largest South Asian market. According to the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, the neighbourhood had more than 300 shops at its peak, including 24 jewellery stores.
In recent years, some of those merchants have moved to Fraser Street or farther out to Surrey, but the area’s Indian heritage continues through many small- and medium-size businesses, including Himalaya Restaurant, A Class Fancy Jewellers, and Punjab Food Center. And this month, the owners of buildings housing those three establishments—along with the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective and Vancouver Mural Festival—will be unveiling new murals as part of a neighbourhood revitalization initiative.
A fourth mural is being painted on a mixed-use Orr Development project on the southwest corner of Main and East 49th.
The guest curator of the project is Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver president Jas Lally, whose parents immigrated from northern India in the early 1980s.
“The Punjabi Market at Main and 49th has always been a part of my childhood growing up here,” Lally told the Straight by phone. “On the weekends and on any special occasions, I often spent a week at my aunt’s, who still lives in the area.”
They would always drop by Himalaya, which, she said, was the first store in the region to sell Indian sweets. According to Lally, the four murals will help revive the warm and nostalgic feelings that people of Indian ancestry have about the neighbourhood.
The mural on the south wall of Himalaya, painted by Sandeep Johal, shows off Indian sweets, including one design of amriti, which is made from dal and soaked in sweet batter. This also happens to be one of the restaurant’s specialties.
Lally, also president of the Richmond Art Gallery Association board, described Johal as “a mentor to so many young South Asian artists”, which is one reason why she was included.
In addition, Lally appreciates Johal’s geometric patterns and bold and vibrant colours, which really stand out on the wall.
Nearby, Guntaj Deep Singh painted a traditional Punjabi harvest celebration, featuring a bhangra dancer and a woman churning milk to make butter, on a wall behind Punjab Food Center.
“Guntaj is brilliant in the way that he handles figures and this dreamlike sky that he’s created,” Lally said. “It’s very warm when you look at it.”
Minahil Bukhari and Mustaali Raj delivered a more contemporary mural behind A Class Fancy Jewellers. According to Lally, the couple created a “great celebration of Indian architecture” while showing off the type of jewellery that Indian royalty used to wear when they ruled northern India.
The fourth mural was painted by Musqueam artist Diamond Point on the Orr building at 6509 Main Street. Lally revealed that the Orr family was really impressed by Point’s plan to focus on water and its connection to the land because there’s actually a stream that runs underneath the property.
“The artists that were selected resonated with the landowners with what they were wanting to see,” Lally said. “And also, for the South Asian artists, it was for them a chance to express their culture, their nostalgia, and the warmth that they also felt for the market.”
Lally, an assistant of Art Rental & Sales at the Vancouver Art Gallery, pointed out that it's now become "a thing" for people to visit different areas of the city to take photos of murals and then tag these images to those they know. And she expects this to occur in the Punjabi Market with the new works of art.
"People from the community will come who haven't been there before and maybe visit the shops, do a takeaway food item, and bring back that foot traffic that's been affected because of the pandemic and some of the businesses that closed earlier," Lally said. "The murals are going to be such a connecting point and a starting point to bring back community to the area. We're really excited.”
To her, the artists, the building owners, the Vancouver Mural Festival, and the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective are making history in the market.
"The landowners have been so receptive to everything and they want to learn more," Lally said. "And all the landowners want murals on their walls, which is great for next year, because this project will continue for years and years."