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Building With Intention: A Conversation with Keerat Kaur

I feel with my different crafts they've all ended up informing one or the other somehow. It's really exciting to see that too, because sometimes there's this anxiety that “oh, am I wasting time doing this when I should be doing that?” I feel like that's hardly ever the case if you're doing each thing with intent. 

Works of art that resonate with us require us to live with each piece in order to unfold all of their layers. Songs that captivate us demand multiple listens to uncover the hidden harmonies and the various meanings behind the lyrics; illustrations and paintings that spark our imaginations require close observation to reveal all the smaller details that enrich the whole; embroidery that fascinates us must be felt and worn repeatedly until the piece feels like home. It’s rare that one person can be responsible for making us feel all of the above, but London, Ontario’s Keerat Kaur is a virtuoso across multiple mediums.

Currently based in Vancouver, BC, Keerat recently released “Panjabi Garden,” a book focused on exploring the Gurmukhi alphabet and the Punjabi language through poetry, illustrations, and storytelling using imagery rooted in themes of nature. An exhibition expanding on the philosophy behind the book visited the Peel Art Gallery, Museum & Archive (PAMA) in Brampton, and Keerat’s interdisciplinary prowess was on full display: she deftly switched between reading original poems, and singing classical Punjabi folk songs, all while slideshows and moving graphics of her visual art flashed on the screen behind her. Having had the chance to experience the exhibition in person and then living with the book for several weeks afterwards, I spoke with Keerat about the science of language, balancing all of her artistic disciplines, going full circle from seeking mentorship to providing mentorship to others, fighting stagnancy, her experience witnessing Diljit perform at Coachella, and what this moment of prominent Punjabi art means to her.

Noyz: How was your recent stay here in Brampton? You got to perform, share your art, and run a workshop. How was that for you?

Keerat: It was really nice. When I refer to “Panjabi Garden” I don't mean just the book, but I mean everything that has come from it: the exhibition, the various performances, artist talks, workshops. Anything that's come from that feels like it's beyond just me as the artist. It feels like it belongs to the whole community. I think because of the book’s focus on language, it feels like everyone has embraced it as their own project. Anytime I have done something related to that, I feel very supported and held by the community and anyone who's there. It always feels like a bit of a collaboration because, although the way that I presented it may have been my decision, the content itself belongs to all of us.

Noyz: Last summer, I took a Punjabi class focusing on reading and writing. It was something that I learned when I was young, but I didn’t practice it regularly to maintain it. The great thing about the class is that it was open and accessible. There were people from all ages there, all parts of the world, with different levels of comfort with speaking, reading, and writing. It was an effective and meaningful class for everybody, regardless of their background. I feel like that’s the approach you took with the “Panjabi Garden” book. It feels very accessible where anybody could just pick it up and get back to a practice they might have lost, or start an entirely new practice.

Keerat: Exactly. This might sound like a strong statement, but I feel I'm actually really socialist in a lot of my tendencies in the sense that I want art to be accessible to people no matter what their financial background, no matter what their status class-wise is in society because it is such a beauty-infused thing. I feel that shouldn't be kept exclusive. I understand that there's certain things that have to be compensated fairly, obviously. I definitely understand that and I support that as well but at the same time, I feel there has to be art that is also accessible to everyone.

With the book as well, I want people to be able to passively experience it. What I mean by that is, even if you just open up the book, and let's say you don't know Punjabi at all, let's say you don't know anything about what this book is about. Let's say you open up the second half of the book, which is the short story section that connects all the letters, you're still able to follow along the English story and see how each noun connects. I wanted each part of the book to be accessible to people no matter where they are. Even in experiencing the book, they could just pick it up and take it in. They could take in the writing, they could take in the imagery. That's another reason why I've been wanting to do more public art projects and fuse that with my architectural practice because again, you don't have to step into a gallery, which can be an intimidating space, to experience the work. It's just there. You stumble upon it. That's what I wanted for the book as well.

Noyz: When creating the book, did you find it difficult to balance the science of it, as far as teaching things like pronunciation, with overall accessibility?

Keerat: Yes. I guess with the book for example, because it is in print, there's certain things that you're not going to be able to take in for the language. This is definitely a key. It's not all the keys. For example, I feel one of the other keys is language immersion and immersion in the arts that are surrounded by the language like listening to Punjabi music or reading a Punjabi newspaper or a book. With this for example, I did my best to look at things like pronunciation in the book, but this is why I want “Panjabi Garden” to be more than just the book. I want it to be a multimedia experience through artist talks, through performances, through all of that because that actually gives you more of an immersive experience which again, allows you to actually better understand the content and the language and all the little scientific aspects of it also.

I feel that so many of us speak the language but we don't know how it's spelled. We don't know how what we're saying is spelled, We don't know the difference between the tonal letters. There's so many different subtleties that a lot of us can say really well but then we don't know what it looks like on paper. I feel to really have a grasp on it, you need to know the math behind it. The book is important in that sense but I feel it needs much more to do what you want essentially.

Noyz: That's where you fill in some of the gaps with the broader “Panjabi Garden” experience?

Keerat: Exactly, with all the different other media that I've brought into it like the artist talk, the visual exhibition, the performance. The first place that we did this was at the Surrey Art Gallery. That was a full-fledged exhibition. What we brought to PAMA was definitely a small slice of that but the Surrey Art Gallery, when you walked into the room, you heard a loop of dhaad and sarangi. That touched on the auditory experience even within the exhibition space. You walk in and it definitely feels like you've walked into a different world. That's what I want to create. I want “Panjabi Garden” to just continuously evolve as a world of its own.

I think that the more that we give to the community, the more they give back. I feel like whenever you have a chance to do that, the results are like a boomerang. However far you throw it out, it's going to come back that same distance. I feel like all the diaspora has been very interested in the book for sure. I've noticed that wherever we've been able to do more events and different kinds of events, there's naturally been more engagement there.

Noyz: One thing that comes to mind as I've been able to go through the book and hear you speak about it is this idea that art can carry a political message without being explicitly political. There's this perception of Punjabi as being an ugly language or an uneducated language. Is that something that informed your work in how you approached it with this project?

Keerat: Totally. 100%. I did a couple of years of schooling in India. We would get in trouble for speaking Punjabi in a school that was situated in Panjab. We got in trouble. They wanted us to either speak English or Hindi. I think that's maybe a little bit of this overarching agenda of wanting to unify India even though it is so different state by state. As opposed to lifting up each unique quality that the state has culturally, they're stifling it a little bit. I think it's a combination of everything. It's also remnants of colonization seeing English as the top-tier and everything else comes below that. It's hard to say everything that led to Punjabi being seen that way. I think pop culture, especially in India, doesn't really help when it comes to Bollywood tropes of making fun of Punjabis and Sikhs the way that they do.

I think a lot of things have added up. I think we've been fortunate enough to experience Punjabi as one of the most beautiful things that we know through poetry. It's not less than anything. It's top-tier in its own way. I wanted people to be able to connect back to that. Although this book is quite simple in a lot of the literary elements that are included in it, it's still trying to beautify the language through these motifs of nature, and through the way that I curated the design of the book. I just wanted everything to be very well thought out and be as sophisticated as I could do at that point in my career so that people can see that this beautiful thing can be packaged in this sophisticated way and it deserves the same respect that other languages get as well.

Noyz: You talked about being in school in Panjab for a number of years when you were younger, but you also grew up in London [Ontario]. Was it hard to stay connected to Punjabi culture and the Punjabi language in a town where there isn't a whole lot of that culture there?

Keerat: It was hard for sure. I think my parents made a lot of effort with my brother and I to make sure we took a lot of trips to Panjab, to make sure we lived there for a couple of years, and also visit Brampton, which is obviously a diaspora capital. I had so many relatives and family friends there. I think without that, I definitely wouldn't have had that connection that I do to Punjabi, because to be honest, it's not just about what your parents do for you, it's also about everybody else that you're surrounded by. Also just seeing other Punjabi kids and other Sikh kids connecting to their language, their roots, their culture and them being seen as cool. Like, "Oh, that's someone that I admire, they care about this thing, it can be cool to care about this thing.” To just see other people that you respect, them carrying it forward inspires you as well. We talk about this stuff all the time, but visibility is really important because it gives the next generation and everyone else around you the inspiration to be able to be in that space comfortably and in a respectful way.

It was definitely tough in London. I think that there were some times - more so when I was really young - when you're growing up and you need a lot of validation. I think with me, Punjabiness and Sikhness, nobody knew what that was in London. Then as I grew a little bit older, when I was in high school everyone knew what a Middle Eastern person was. I had a lot of Palestinian friends growing up. I would get lumped in with them. I'm super thankful to that community and my friends for holding me because I feel they were the closest thing that understood my cultural sensibilities. I'm obviously super thankful for that. There was some erasure of who I am and what I am. I think it was definitely a bit of an uphill battle for a really long time. But in some small dose, there was always just some culture that was being infused in my life. Like I mentioned trips to Brampton, learning how to read and write Gurmukhi, going to Gurudwara every Sunday. There were just little things that we were immersed in that I think kept me connected.

Noyz: I think we're in a really unique time for the Punjabi language and culture as a whole where you have so many prominent speakers that are crossing over. You look at somebody like Sidhu Moosewala who's been shouted out by Drake or AP Dhillon at the Junos or Diljit at Coachella. What was that experience like for you seeing a Punjabi artist on the biggest stage where you don't normally see that type of art?

Keerat: I think when I was seeing Diljit perform [at Coachella], my brain couldn't make sense of it because I was in this very Western-centric place. You hear about all these Western musicians mostly from North America that perform there. Then all of a sudden there's Diljit with a bhangra team behind him. He's speaking only in Punjabi on stage. He wasn't even addressing anyone in English, which was so cool. He wasn't trying to be anything that he is not. He is such a diverse performer and artist, but it just felt very authentic to what he was.

It was also nice to see other people from other communities enjoying him as well. There were obviously so many Punjabis in the crowd, but then there were people who were clearly not Punjabi visibly. They were really enjoying it. It was a packed crowd. There was so many people there in front of the stage. My brain definitely couldn't make sense of it at first. I felt like I was on a different planet, like “how is this collage happening in front of my eyes?”

It was also a proud moment because I feel like our generation has seen a lot. We've seen a pretty varying experience for Punjabis. We've seen our parents go through intense racism, and us too in school. Slowly Punjabi, Punjabiness, and music became cool, then to it being part of the mainstream as well. We've just seen that journey. I feel like it means that much more to us because we've seen what it's like when it's not cool to be Punjabi or Sikh, when no one even knows who that is or what that is. I feel like we've seen both spectrums. It was just a surreal moment I think. I think I'm still processing it. It was crazy. There wasn't a moment where my mind was at rest. I was just in a very celebratory mood for the whole duration of that concert. Then once he completed his set, all the emotions settled and I was taking it all in. It was amazing.

Noyz: How would you describe the importance of having an ustaad or a mentor to guide you through your progression as an artist?

Keerat: I feel like a teacher is more than just someone who passes down knowledge, but they're also a mirror, a very good mirror to show you your faults, to show you your strengths, to show you just how you're presenting what you're presenting and how you're embodying it. I feel like my teachers have definitely been very good with that as well. I'm not saying that every teacher is great, you have to be very careful as to who you take on as a teacher, and I guess them as well who they take on as a student.

I feel like it's just a way of getting out of complacency and just a way of bettering your craft. I'm a pretty big believer in never staying stagnant, just constantly growing and expanding. I feel like having a mentor, a guide or a teacher is just one way of doing that, because you're able to imbibe experiences that have already been had. Not to say that you don't have to go through your own, but it's like you get double the benefit. You see what that other person has been through, and then just the fact that they're a mirror to show you yourself, I think that's super important.

I think that guides and mentors can take a lot of different forms. Any conversation that I've ever had, very few have ever felt wasteful. Anytime I do interact with someone on a meaningful level, it's gone somewhere. Even if I'm talking to my mom about my work, I feel that betters my craft. I think just staying in dialogue with people around you, especially people that you respect, that's also very important.

Noyz: While you were here in Brampton, you had the art workshop that you helped facilitate. How does it feel to step from the student role to the teacher role yourself?

Keerat: It's actually really tough being a teacher because you never really know how the student or the attendees are perceiving what you're saying or what you're trying to teach. But I also think that sometimes we underestimate how much people can imbibe and how much they understand. It's really difficult to gauge whether you're getting through to people especially in a larger crowd, because sometimes people feel intimidated and shy to speak up or ask a question or even just affirm that they understood something. I feel like it's easier being a student in a way, because at least you know what you're taking in, you know what you have to do. Obviously, it's hard work, but when you're a teacher you really don't know. You feel like you're throwing something into a black hole until you see the result.

It's tricky but it's also fulfilling, just seeing how certain things impact people. I know that the brief interactions that I've had with people have been really impactful for me. You might not realize how you end up impacting someone just based off a few sentences that you said to them. It's also fulfilling and it feels like full circle as well. I feel like it's important to share. I feel like you have to make time for that in your career, to pass it on, because you've got it from somewhere and someone.

Noyz: You talked a little bit about not wanting to be stagnant. From my own experience, going from being known as a rapper and as a performer, and then switching to writing and releasing a book a couple of years back, in my own mind there was a lot of anxiety and worry about how it would be accepted because it's not a craft that people know me for. You've released and shared a lot of work in a lot of different mediums from music, to visual arts, to ceramics. Is there ever some of that worry of how you’ll be viewed when you present a new medium?

Keerat: I think that's always there. I think it was maybe there a little bit more early on when I was sharing and creating just because I was younger and I cared more about what people think. I definitely still care about what people think, but I feel like now my interest in the thing usually outweighs how people are going to react to it. I'm just really excited about the thing. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't care. That usually takes precedence.

That's always been my advice to people too, just do something that you're obsessed with, because then you think about everything else so much less, like all of the crappy feelings, and all of the judgment feelings, and all of the feelings of worry about what other people are going to think. They just matter less because you're just focused on your obsession with the thing. I think that has definitely taken precedence over the years.

Noyz: You've had to do a lot of study for the different types of disciplines that you're involved in. How do you walk that line between observation and study versus practice and doing?

Keerat: I think that observation and study and taking in these traditional methods is really important because I feel like you really need to meditate on something to understand it well. I feel like I've done that with a lot of the different art forms that I'm involved in. Then taking it to that next level and evolving it, that's very much dependent on you and all of your experiences and what interests you. I feel like no matter how much of a traditionalist you are, two people could be learning the same thing in the same class, but the way that their output is going to present itself is going to be very unique.

Again, it's just like you take in all these different things, but then you incorporate it the way that is most interesting to you. Otherwise, it's not going to take shape. You're not going to do something that you're not really that in to. I feel like I have learned a lot of things that were interesting and cool, but I'm not necessarily incorporating them in my practice. That's fine as well because that's like a way of filtering out what doesn't interest you.

Noyz: By working in multiple mediums, does one medium inform how you approach another one? Is there that interplay between disciplines?

Keerat: Oh yes, all the time. Doesn't matter what the medium is or what it is that I'm doing. I feel like it ends up sharpening a part of your brain that another medium needs, and you just end up thinking about it. I remember when I was training with my vocalist, she taught me things about music and voice and sound that I had no idea existed, and things that I was doing with my voice that were damaging to it. Those things just end up staying with you forever. Then that makes you think a little bit closely and a little bit more critically about how you're doing everything else and how a habit that you're used to might actually be damaging or how it can be improved.

I feel like ever since I trained as an architect and started working in architecture, I've been a lot more thoughtful about the different processes, the different steps in the process of creating things and having to think far ahead about what the outcome is going to be. In architecture you always have to think about “is this design buildable, is it structurally sound?” There's so many things that you have to think about, you can't just be up in the air all the time. I feel with my different crafts they've all ended up informing one or the other somehow. It's really exciting to see that too, because sometimes there's this anxiety that “oh, am I wasting time doing this when I should be doing that?” I feel like that's hardly ever the case if you're doing each thing with intent. 

Noyz: If you could fill in the blank. “Creativity helps me”

Keerat: Sleep. Helps me sleep better at night. I feel more at ease when I can be creative.

Noyz: What is your why?

Keerat: To make the world more beautiful.

Noyz: How do you define happiness?

Keerat: Connectedness.

Noyz: How do you define power?

Keerat: Through kindness.

Noyz: What's in your headphones right now? What are you listening to?

Keerat: Oh, I listen to a lot of weird stuff. It's weird, but Algerian Rai music. Really, really good.

Noyz: Cool. Any artists to check out that you'd recommend?

Keerat: Houari Manar is a really good one. Very good artist.


Follow Keerat Kaur here and order Panjabi Garden here.
Learn more about Noyz here.
Photos c/o Baljit Singh, Johanne, Pardeep Singh 


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