An artistic approach to exploring a cultural convention: forbidden love

Dooja Ghar, which opens Friday in Langley, is a modern-day interpretation of a popular 17th century Punjabi folktale. But it’s not a re-telling of the tragic love story; instead, it spotlights the culture that creates the pain

By Joti Grewal | August 4, 2022 |5:00 am

This weekend Andy Kalirai will make his debut as a playwright and lead in a starring role.

But there is more at stake for Kalirai than making sure he remembers his lines—he’s also trying to challenge archaic cultural standards. Many kids today are free to find their own life partner but that wasn’t always true.

Kalirai explores those themes in his play, Dooja Ghar, which opens Friday in Langley. The play is a modern-day interpretation of a popular 17th century Punjabi folktale. But it’s not a re-telling of the tragic love story; instead, it spotlights the culture that creates the pain.

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Historically in India, it was common for a family to arrange their child’s marriage. Some immigrant families continued that practice even after they moved to Canada. But it’s uncommon today. Families now may still facilitate introductions, but without the obligation of a commitment. Although, for some, parental approval of a partner is still important.

Kalirai’s play attempts to explore what life was like for some Indian people growing up in Canada and the challenges they might have faced entering a relationship not supported by their family.

Dooja Ghar (The Other House) is set in the late 1990s/early 2000s and was inspired by a well-known 17th century Punjabi folktale: Mirza-Sahiban.

That tragic romance begins with the pair falling in love. But Sahiban’s family forbids her relationship with Mirza, so the two run away together. During their travels they stop to rest and Mirza falls asleep. Knowing her brothers are searching for them, Sahiban destroys Mirza’s arrows to avoid bloodshed. Sahiban believes she could reason with her brothers should they find the couple. But the story of the lovers ends in tragedy. Sahiban’s brothers find and attack Mirza, who is left defenceless. Sahiban, unable to live with her guilt, takes her own life.

Kalirai wondered how the story could have gone had the couple not been taken by surprise.

Once he started pursuing the theme of forbidden love, he was reminded how an extreme example of the subject once surfaced in BC. Kalirai recalled the alleged honour killing of Jaswinder Sidhu in 2000, a Maple Ridge resident who married a rickshaw driver in India against her family’s wishes. Sidhu’s mother and uncle were accused of her murder and the siblings were extradited to India in 2019.

“Mirza-Sahiban reminded me of that story, actually. And then it just reminded me of how people still, to this day, break up with their boyfriends or girlfriends because of their parents, or all these other things where they feel constricted,” Kalirai said.

And he wanted to explore those themes in the play.

Dooja Ghar will premiere on Friday in Langley’s Campbell Valley during the seventh annual ​​Monsoon Festival presented by the South Asian Arts Society. The venue, a red barn in Campbell Valley, was a conscious choice, society co-founder Gurp Sian told The Current.

Like in Punjab, farming is a major industry in the Fraser Valley.

“It was deliberate to have it be way out in this sort of very quiet, natural environment,” Sian said.

The production is meant to mimic what Sian called a naqal form of theatre that is traditional to Punjab.

“Imagine a traveling show in villages in India… where there’s a troop of performers and artists who come into town and they just set up in the corner of a village somewhere on the street, and they perform a show and people gather around and they watch,” he said.

“It’s just a different approach to creating a performance piece. And so the aesthetic of this show, the way that it’s being presented is, we’re trying to be as authentic as we can.”

Reaching this point in his career wasn’t easy for Sian.

“I remember when we started out people would ask us: ‘Are you a professional performer?’ And, you know, when you’re teaching, and you’ve learned those things sort of organically through the community as a group, how do you prove your professionalism?”

Twenty years ago Sian didn’t see South Asian people represented in the industry. He set out to change that in 2005 when he co-founded the South Asian Arts Society.

Since its humble beginnings the non-profit has gone on to host annual events like the Monsoon Festival. They also provide free workshops to support artists with acting, directing, or writing. And even those who are just looking to try a new experience.

“It was hard to justify to your peers, your legitimacy or your professionalism to organizations,” he said.

“But now, I think there’s a different level of understanding when it comes to those things.”

Like Sian, Kalirai also wants to showcase the successes of creative South Asian performers in the community. As a second-generation Canadian, Kalirai’s career goal is to continue to tell stories about his culture, but he also wants to inspire the next generation. When Kalrai first set out to train as an actor six years ago, no one really took him seriously.

“Honestly, nobody really cared at first. Because it’s kind of like when a kid says, ‘Oh, I’m gonna play in the NBA one day,’” he said. “I want to see more brown kids in acting class, film, school, pursuing theater, that kind of thing. So they can tell their own stories, too.”

And that’s part of what he wanted Dooja Ghar to address: the pressure faced by some children of immigrants who are left straddling an old and new life.

“It’s just about all the cultural rules and traditions that get passed down from generation to generation,” he said. “Now that we’re here in Canada, we’re trying to break free of it, but it’s still difficult.”

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Joti Grewal

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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