British Columbia

B.C. artist honours memories of past Lower Mainland Vaisakhi parades with new illustrated series

Every April, millions of Sikhs around the world celebrate Vaisakhi, and for the third year in a row, those celebrations are cancelled in the Lower Mainland. Visual artist Jag Nagra's series 'Lost Vaisakhi' shows what people are missing.

Celebrations have been cancelled in Vancouver and Surrey for 3 years in a row

Vancouver-based visual artist Jag Nagra captures the sights of past Lower Mainland Vaisakhi celebrations in her new series 'Lost Vaisakhi.' (Jag Nagra)

Sikhs around the world are celebrating Vaisakhi today, and while there are no parades to mark the occasion in the Lower Mainland this year, a B.C. visual artist is paying tribute to past celebrations with a project she hopes will bring joy to the hundreds of thousands of people who would usually gather to mark the occasion.

This is the third consecutive year that Vaisakhi parades have been cancelled in Vancouver and Surrey because of COVID-19. When Vancouver-based artist Jag Nagra heard the events were called off once again, she was inspired to create Lost Vaisakhi — a series of 10 illustrations of scenes people could expect to see at one of the processions.

The holiday is celebrated by millions of Sikhs around the world and started as a harvest festival in the Punjabi region of northern India. It also celebrates the creation of the Khalsa order — devout members of the Sikh community — and dates back to 1699 when a Sikh guru (a mentor) named Guru Gobind Singh Ji tested the faith of his followers.

Nagra plays on the emotion of nostalgia in her series, pairing some of the images with quotes she got on social media, by asking people what they missed most about the parades. She said one of the themes that kept coming up was the sense of community pride.

The Vaisakhi parades are usually led by local Sikh motorcycle clubs. (Jag Nagra)

"There weren't too many brown families that lived here when I was growing up. And every year, going to the Vaisakhi … you felt seen, you felt like you belonged somewhere," said Nagra, speaking on CBC's The Early Edition.

She said it was a tough blow to the community to learn that the 2022 events were cancelled. Nagra said the project was also a way to work through her own feelings of disappointment.

"We feel like this is our space to belong — there's a huge sense of pride that comes with that," she said. "What we celebrate involves gathering with people, so that's been really tough."

The day usually begins with a visit to the gurdwara for worship. After religious services are held, people celebrate the day by parading and dancing in the streets in colourful traditional clothing, singing and chanting religious hymns and giving out free food.

Singing hymns and shabads is a big part of Vaisakhi celebrations. (Jag Nagra)

Moninder Singh, the president of Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar in Surrey, told CBC in early March it was a difficult decision to decide to cancel the parade in that city but one taken in the interest of community safety. He hopes it will return in full force in 2023.

In addition to the public safety aspect with such large crowds, Singh says constantly changing public health orders and uncertainty about pandemic-related restrictions also made them hesitant to go forward with the event.

Surrey's Vaisakhi parade has been hailed as the largest parade of its kind outside India, attracting anywhere between 300,000 to half a million people. Vancouver's is attended by up to 300,000, making it the city's largest single-day festival.

Giving back to the community is a big part of the Vaisakhi celebrations and there is always much food to share and give to those in need during the holiday. (Jag Nagra)

With files from The Early Edition and CBC Kids