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Posted at: Apr 13, 2019, 8:32 AM; last updated: Apr 13, 2019, 8:32 AM (IST)

When culture springs

The annual Baisakhi parade in Canada, which celebrates the advent of spring there, is slowly turning into a week-long mela

Iqbal Sidhu

When the first Punjabi immigrants landed on the shores of British Columbia, Canada, more than 100 years ago, they brought with them the hope of a better, abundant life as well as nostalgia of their native land. Even today, in the age of digital intimacy and smartphone-apparition, themes of homesickness and nostalgia about Punjab dominate the collective psyche of the first-generation Punjabi immigrants. Community gatherings and commemorative festivities are a few sources of rejuvenating the bond of nativity for many who no longer live in the land where they were born. Baisakhi can, therefore, be called the most important festival of the calendar year, given its Punjabi roots and perfect timing. Every year, the festival is celebrated with great fervour as it gives perfect opportunity for the community to get together and create a sense of home-away-from-home. 

Most important of all, what distinguishes Baisakhi from other festivals is the fact that it is the festival of spring: the happiest time of the year, especially in Canada. As people emerge from the mind-numbing cold of winter, which in many parts of Canada can last as long as six months, Baisakhi, for many Punjabis, is the affirmation that the spring has arrived and it’s safe to venture outside without parkas and thermals. It is, perhaps, also because of this affirmation that the festivities of Baisakhi have invariably come to include a nagarkirtan. The annual Baisakhi celebration held in Surrey, British Columbia, is famous across North America for the size of crowd it attracts. 

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated a crowd upwards of five lakh during the Baisakhi nagarkirtan — or Surrey Baisakhi Parade as it is popularly known — of 2018. The parade included a performance of the traditional musical instruments by young Sikh children, a march by the Canadian Armed Forces, a float carrying the Sikh scriptures as well as a drive-by by the Sikh Motorcycle Club. The number of participants has only gone up over the past years, and it will continue going up given the ‘parade’ is slowly turning into a carnival lasting well over a week and people from across Canada, as well as Europe and India attend. The celebrations also include amusement park rides, cultural fair, sideshows and exhibitions.

  There are, of course, other smaller festivities that go on for the better part of the month under the nom de jure of Baisakhi. These include concerts of visiting Punjabi singers, who usually tour the whole of North America on their trips so they make a stop in every North American city with sufficient Punjabi population to fill up a concert hall — tickets can usually start at around $35 CAD or Rs 1,800 and go up to $150 CAD or Rs 7,800. There are also other cultural events involving folk dances and authentic Punjabi cuisine at local banquet halls in every major Canadian city. These cultural events are especially important since most of the participants are children who, in most cases, are born and brought up in Canada and the events serve as a testament to the unflinching fidelity of the diaspora community to their roots. “I used to come here as a toddler with my dad and it always fascinated me, the colours and the sounds of it all. I knew from a very young age that bhangra was my calling, and nothing excites me more than the prospect of performing it. April is always the most awaited time of the year for us as we get to do a whole lot more than usual in terms of our bhangra performances. Baisakhi is truly great,” says 14-year-old Rasmeet, who is a middle school student and also member of a well-known bhangra club. Rasmeet’s team  will be performing across Canada throughout April and the beginning of May. They are looking forward to performing sometime in May at a kabaddi tournament in Toronto. 

The advent of nagarkirtan, or Sikh parade in the West has also brought with it the concept of langar. It’s not uncommon to find different types of food stalls serving all finer Punjabi street delicacies, as well as pizzas and the occasional macaroni and cheese stall. The food served is free and vegetarian, which  intrigues the non-Punjabi Canadian population. It’s not uncommon to find an occasional visitor at the parades. 

“I have been doing the ‘seva’ for five years now. We really look forward to this time of the year since we can get together and meet people we haven’t seen in a long time. Ever since I started my business, I have made it a point to donate and what better way to donate than contributing to a langar at the nagarkirtan,” says Sukhdev Sandhu, an entrepreneur based out of Montreal. He has been setting up his own food stall at the Montreal Baisakhi parade for the past five years. About his stall, he says, “It’s different every year. We ask the organising committee in advance and they give us a list of what foods are already taken, and which ones are missing.”

As the Punjabi community abroad grows and prospers further, the urge to ascertain its identity anew will be perpetually felt. Baisakhi will also be forever important and continue to be celebrated with renewed joy since no other festival is as distinctively Punjabi or feels as homely. Its idea today encompasses for the average Punjabi-Canadian, the feeling of rejuvenation and ecstasy. The idea of not being homesick, not being nostalgic about a land left long ago, albeit if only for a day. 

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