Diwali in B.C. artistic director Rohit Chokhani.
Diwali in B.C. artistic director Rohit Chokhani.

Having produced and curated numerous Diwali celebrations throughout Metro Vancouver over the years through his Raghupriya Arts and Culture Society, artistic director Rohit Chokhani has now set his sights on taking his Diwali in B.C. celebrations province-wide in the next five. 2018 will mark the second year of his ambitious plan.

For Chokhani, the expansion has come about for a couple of reasons. The first is in helping to give an extended life to some of the programming.

“As a curator and a producer I was feeling like sometimes we put in a lot of effort into shows, and the idea was how can we make these artists who come together have a life beyond just the one time,” says Chokhani.

The second reason comes from audience members who expressed interest in seeing the shows in their own communities.

“I was getting a lot of messages either on Facebook or at events where we might be doing something in Coquitlam and somebody would come from Abbotsford or Richmond and they would didn’t want to have to commute to access the programming,” says Chokhani. “But if there’s a way to make it accessible to bring it to other localities, then we can make it happen.”

And while Chokhani says there are still many communities across the province he is looking to target, this year’s expansion will feature programming in Vancouver, Coquitlam, Vernon, Maple Ridge, and Nanaimo.

Shiamak Vancouver will headline shows in Vernon this year as Diwali in B.C. continues its expansion.
Shiamak Vancouver will headline shows in Vernon this year as Diwali in B.C. continues its expansion.

Given the growth of Diwali in B.C. it is perhaps not surprising Chokani has chosen “New Horizons” as  this year’s theme. Again, there are two rationales behind the choice.

“Not only is the new horizons for us as an organization and as an initiative and a platform for marginalized, underrepresented artists, but also in the sense we are entering new territories geographically this year,” he explains.

The second speaks to specifically to this year’s programming.

“The other aspect to the theme is around new perspectives and new ways of looking at things,” he says. “Specifically, we’re seeing a lot of gender abuse and cultural clashes in society right now, and the shows that we are programming look at those issues at a much more deeper level.”

Chokhani points to the remount of A Vancouver Guldasta, which opens Diwali in B.C. this week at The Cultch as one example.

“We are having fresh conversations around trauma and healing through the lens of a Punjabi Sikh family, living with a Vietnamese refugee in Vancouver,” he says. “The story is set in 1984, responding to an event that happened in Punjab, but how did that affect the people who were here?”

Members of the cast of A Vancouver Guldasta
Members of the cast of A Vancouver Guldasta which opens this year’s Diwali in B.C.

And while A Vancouver Guldasta may be set over 30 years ago, Chokhani sees parallels today, something he also sees in The Believers Are But Brothers, another of this year’s offerings.

“It takes a much deeper look at the toxic masculinity, and this underground world that exists in the worldwide web and all the things that go on there,” he says.

While the shows presented as part of Diwali in B.C. will resonate with Southeast Asian communities, Chokhani insists there is something in it for a more diverse audience, going beyond the spiritual nature of what is India’s biggest and arguably most important holiday of the year.

“It’s an artistic platform and a multicultural artistic platform to bring together diverse cultures and different communities together, to have a celebration,” he says.

That sense of community arises from the reason why Chokhani first came to Vancouver. Having lived and studied in Boston for his master’s degree in computer science after leaving India at the age of 22, Chokhani found himself missing the connection to his South Asian community.

“I mean, there are South Asians in Boston, but it’s not like Toronto or Surrey, and so my uncle who lives in Langley said if I decide not to go back to India it might be worth looking into Canada,” he explains.

After a two-year journey through Canada immigration, he eventually landed in Vancouver just two days before the city began playing host to the Winter Olympics. “I remember thinking, wow, this city is quite happening.”

But while Chokhani found himself on the West Coast to be closer to his cultural community, it was also a bigger transition from a being a techie who does arts, into completely immersing himself in the arts.

“I always had the passion for the arts, but as a teenager, like many cultures, there were warnings about how the arts were not super sustainable financially when compared to becoming an engineer, doctor, or a lawyer,” he says. “We are a very status-conscious community and making money and getting married early is something that I was raised on.”

Fortunately for Chokhani, while still faced with cultural pressures, his family remained largely supportive.

“They were always supportive, but cautious,” he says. “The advice I got was to think about the long-term and be realistic as to what it takes.”

Chokhani says he was grateful for the advice, and it pushed him even harder to make a career in the arts sustainable.

“In a way, computer science was a blessing because when I graduated with my masters, even right out of school, you get pretty decent paying jobs. So what I could do was actually hold a daytime good paying job, and then save money to do the arts,” he explains “And when I’d saved enough, I came to Canada.”

Initially relying on his savings Chokhani launched himself headfirst into the arts community.

“I’m super privileged and honored now that I survived, and it’s not like it’s a lot of money, but I have a career in the arts and I don’t have to do other jobs to make money, but it did take eight, nine years to get there,” he says.

It is obvious Chokhani isn’t one for looking back for too long though. No doubt buoyed by winning the Vancouver NOW Representation and Inclusion Award at this year’s Jessie Awards, he has his sights clearly focused on the next five years.

Diwali in B.C. takes place in various cities from October 3 through November 17. Visit diwalibc.ca for the complete line-up.