The producer of the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts took an unusual route to becoming a cultural entrepreneur.
Gurpreet Sian grew up in the small town of Clearwater, 124 kilometres north of Kamloops at the edge of Wells Gray Provincial Park.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Sian recalled that there were no traffic lights, shopping malls, or fast-food restaurants in his hometown. The local gas station sold slurpees, but there wasn't even a traffic light.
According to Sian, who was part of the minority Sikh community, there was also very little racism.
“It’s like this hidden little gem, this jewel of a place in B.C., where everyone knew each other,” Sian said. “It didn’t matter if you were white or brown. There was just one Black family. There was one Chinese family for as long as I can remember. There was just this peaceful harmony that existed in this place that nobody had ever heard of.”
When Sian was about 10 years old, a Sikh granthi (reader of scripture) came from India to live at the local gurdwara. This man wanted to incorporate shabads—hymns from the Sikh holy text—and he could play the harmonium. But he needed someone to accompany him on the tabla, dholak, or some other percussion instrument.
At first, the granthi tried to teach Sian’s father, but that was a bust because the man didn’t have any rhythm.
“My dad is not a musician,” Sian said with a laugh. “He’s a hardworking blue-collar kind of a guy.”
The granthi then asked Sian to start drumming. “He showed me a couple of beats; I copied him, played it well enough, and he said, ‘Okay, this Sunday you are joining me on-stage and we’re doing this in front of everybody, right?’ ” Sian recalled. “And I was, like, ‘Okay, sure.’ ”
Sian fell in love with playing the dholak and, later, a bigger drum called the dhol that required him to use sticks. After enrolling at Simon Fraser University, he immersed himself in Punjabi arts and culture and attended classes to improve his skills.
“I joined bhangra teams at SFU and became part of the Punjabi student association,” Sian said. “We put on sold-out culture shows at Massey Theatre. We made movies. We edited them. We wrote screenplays for theatre, like comedy shows on-stage. We acted in them. We did costumes. We did everything.”
Festival launched in 2016
Sian is now the executive director of the South Asian Arts Society, which has been presenting independent, stand-alone productions since 2005. In 2016, he and former Vancouver Fringe Festival executive director Rohit Chokhani founded the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.
“It was to create this platform—literally and figuratively speaking—for local South Asian artists but also for presenting international works alongside these local artists,” Sian explained.
In addition, the Monsoon fest provides workshops. And in August, he has created a stellar lineup of “Workshop Wednesdays” over Zoom for those hoping to be inspired by successful artists of South Asian ancestry.
The first, on August 4, features Vancouver musician, composer, and producer ishQ Bector. He’s perhaps best known for the song “Aye Hip Hopper”, but his credits in Bollywood include being the playback singer on the title track for megastar Ranbir Kapoor’s Besharam.
In addition, Bector supplied a popular track, “Har Gham Mein Khushi Hai”, for the 2019 Bollywood hit Gully Boy, starring two other big names in Hindi cinema, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt.
According to Sian, the 39-year-old Bector is hoping to inspire the next generation of art makers and musicians in his workshop.
“We’re going to gather some sound samples from any participants who sign up,” Sian said. “And he’ll listen to them prior and give them his honest feedback and criticism from a musical point of view and marketing point of view.”
Ruby Singh will discuss creating soundscapes
The next workshop, on August 11, features beatboxer, filmmaker, musician, poet, and sound engineer Ruby Singh. He recently created a documentary based on his 2020 album, Jhalaak, which melded Sufi music originating in Rajasthan with rap and EDM.
Sian described the Alberta-born Singh’s artistic journey as “incredible”.
“He’s taken all of his life experiences, skills, and art that he’s created to where he’s now doing sound design and soundscaping work for film and theatre, which is phenomenal,” Sian said. “I personally thought that would be a very valuable workshop to offer for artists, producers—anybody, really—who’s looking to take their skill set to the next level and apply it somewhere else.”
The third workshop, entitled “Freeing Your Character: Script Analysis for Actors”, is being offered on August 18 by actor, writer, and theatre maker Adele Noronha. A graduate of Langara College’s Studio 58, Noronha has acted in plays presented by Touchstone Theatre, the Arts Club, Pandemic Theatre, and Bard on the Beach.
This year’s Monsoon fest will also offer four “Sunday Funday Dance Lessons” and a livestreamed Monsoon Music Night on August 15, featuring artists Des Raj, Jaswinder Raj, Rana Dholi, Kunda Culture, Uzume Taiko, on Israel "Toto"" Berriel & Friends.
A week later, on August 22, there's a panel discussion with artists who will have just completed four murals as part of a Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective initiative, as well as guest curator Jas Lally. The murals are being created by Guntaj Deep Singh, Sandeep Johal, Diamond Point, and jointly by Mustaali Raj and Minahil Bukhari.
In addition, the festival will host a digital marketplace to enable artists to sell their works online. “It’s accessible to anybody around the world,” Sian said.
He noted that initially, the Monsoon festival was created, in particular, to showcase theatre artists of South Asian ancestry. An example of that came in 2018 when the fest presented The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, which was written by Paneet Singh.
It told the tale of Mewa Singh, who bravely went to the gallows in 1915 after shooting a notorious immigration inspector on the steps of the courthouse (now the Vancouver Art Gallery). Prior to the murder, Hopkinson had a network of spies keeping tabs on the South Asian community before and after the expulsion of the Komagata Maru from Vancouver's harbour. One of Hopkinson's spies killed a local gurdwara leader and an associate, prompting Mewa Singh's actions.
Last year, the festival incorporated visual arts into its lineup.
"Representation absolutely matters," Sian said. "When young children and other South Asian community members see South Asian community members presenting on a large-scale level, it plants a seed, essentially, inside the youth, who think 'Okay, we can do this too. it's not just for people who don't look like us.' "