12 South Asian Canadian Creators and Artists to Watch Right Now
We’re kicking off Diwali celebrations by letting South Asian fashion, beauty and art shine.
by : Aman Dosanj- Oct 31st, 2023
Courtesy of Sandeep Johal, Vancouver Art Gallery (What Hope Shall We Gather, What Dreams Shall We Sow?  by Sandeep Johal)
Like many who grew up carrying the burden of assimilation as a first-generation kid in the 1990s, I sometimes felt embarrassed by my South Asian heritage. Back then, our only examples of representation in mainstream media were gross generalizations, like the monkey-brains-eating characters in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Apu, the head-bobbing Kwik-E-Mart clerk from The Simpsons, neither of which reflected me or brown folks more broadly. Nowadays, things have shifted: South Asian culture is experiencing a meteoric rise (and not in a turmeric-latte, yoga or disheartening brown-face-fiasco kind of way).
Canada is home to one of the fastest-growing Indian communities in the world, with a population of just under two million. From the global popularity of Mississauga’s own Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (who stars in Mindy Kaling’s hit show Never Have I Ever) to the recent announcement that Canadian actor Iman Vellani is writing—and starring in—the next chapter of Ms. Marvel on Disney+ to Punjabi singer (and part-time Toronto resident) Diljit Dosanjh’s groundbreaking performance at Coachella this year, South Asian performance artists are repping hard in the entertainment world. On our home turf, a new generation of brilliant fashion designers, authors and wellness-brand creators are also stepping into the limelight.
With Diwali, India’s festival of light, just around the corner, we thought we’d share some of our favourite under-the-radar Canadian makers. Incorporating bits and pieces from their birth country or the culture of their immigrant parents, this crop of South Asians are increasing representation, and, unlike when I was growing up, there is so much to be proud of.
Ghee (shelf-stable clarified butter commonly used in South Asian cooking) has been a part of everyday beauty routines and ancient Ayurvedic (which translates to “the science of life”) wellness rituals for centuries—just ask any bibi (granny or elder). Toronto-based Ghlee is among the first modern-day skincare brands to keep our traditions alive by incorporating the natural substance—oozing with skin-soothing properties, nourishing vitamins A, D, E and K and natural fatty acids—into its lip- care lineup, which includes healing balms, a moisturizing mask and a brightening scrub.
Since 2013, North Brewing Co. has grown into its Nova Scotia community with locations in Dartmouth, Cole Harbour and Timberlea. As a biracial Gujarati Muslim woman with East African roots, co-owner Rozina Darvesh navigates the often troubled craft-beer industry by opening doors and creating more-inclusive community spaces. The newly re-released Kem Cho? pale ale—lightly malted with mesmerizing hits of kesar (saffron) and elaichi (green cardamom) and a spritz of lemon zest—taps into her childhood memories of wolfing down celebratory mithai (sweets) as a third-culture kid.
In the Bag
Mubarak Clutches, which was launched by a 70-year-old auntie who was struggling with retirement, delivers a heart-warming story along with its personality-packed bags. The brand was founded last February by Sunaina Sharma and her daughter, Shivani, and its glitzy creations quickly grabbed international attention when one was spotted on the Instagram account of acclaimed American writer and LGBTQIA2S+ icon Alok Vaid-Menon. Handcrafted by a team of skilful karigars (craftspeople in India), the Priyanka clutch—named after actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas—features ivory-coloured raw silk with delicate gold zardozi embroidery for a touch of elegance, while the Hina collection combines chic mother-of-pearl with a striking V-shaped handle.
Without a Trace
Vasanti Cosmetics’ Liquid VO2 dark-circle eraser is a game-changer for those with warm to medium skin tones. The orange colour-correcting formula makes light work of dark shadows without all the pasty-white nonsense of concealers past. Made right here in Canada, the vegan-friendly product is also cruelty- and paraben-free.
Off the Wall
Sandeep Johal is a Vancouver-based visual artist who, after the birth of her son, followed her dream of making art full-time starting in 2016. Her drawings, textiles, collages and large-scale murals—which have an Indo-folk feminine aesthetic—highlight issues around identity and start a much-needed cultural conversation about gender justice and the daily threat of violence against women. You can find the self-proclaimed maximalist’s stunning indoor and outdoor murals, with their intricate black-and-white line work and vibrant geometric shapes, throughout B.C.’s Lower Mainland (which consists of the Metro Vancouver area and Fraser Valley), including at the Art Gallery at Evergreen in Coquitlam until November 26.
At natural-skincare brand Sahajan, 5,000 years of Ayurvedic wisdom gets backed up by modern-day science. Take, for example, its brightening mask, which was inspired by the tradition of smearing a detoxifying haldi (turmeric) paste on the face of a bride or a groom for an amped-up wedding-day glow. The mask also has a smidge of alchemy thrown in—with adaptogenic holy basil, calming hemp-seed oil and exfoliating fruit-based glycolic acids—for radiant skin.
When it comes to finding high-quality South Asian pantry essentials in Canada, the struggle is real, which is why Vreshin Naga and Thomas Theoharis co-founded Vresh Foods, a ghee purveyor in Calgary. Fresh butter from local creameries is simmered for hours until the milk solids caramelize, and then it’s strained. The resulting nutty golden elixir has a high smoking point, making it perfect for tempering spices, searing meats or even deep-frying. It’s only a matter of time before this ancient MVP becomes a go-to in kitchens across Canada.
South Asian authors produce brown characters who are more nuanced, relatable and generally free of cringey representation, making for instant page-turners. From sparkly romance novels like Much Ado About Nada by bestselling author Uzma Jalaluddin to Charlotte Gill‘s tender truths in Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir, there’s no shortage of freshly released tomes to get lost in—and characters to root for.
Growing up in Mumbai with a woodworker dada (grandpa) left a lasting impression on Pooja Pawaskar. “He taught me the value of treating wood as a collaborator rather than just a material,” says the Whirl & Whittle founder. Influenced by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, the Ottawa-based wood turner finds beauty in the natural world by embracing imperfections. Her curvaceous spalted-beech Ruhi and Nia vases, which are part of her Your Scars Are Beautiful collection, are symbols of self-acceptance and self-love.
Rajen Toor was born and raised on his family’s vineyard in Oliver, B.C., and is now blazing a trail in the natural-wine world with Ursa Major Winery . “Since this project is so personal, I decided to tell my stories through each wine,” he says. Whether he’s reminiscing about fuzzy childhood memories of running around the vineyard while eating parathas via Only Memories Remain Riesling, fumbling through the complexities of identity with Portrait of the Artist Drowning Syrah or tackling parental pressures with Welcome to Hard Times, his 2022 Cabernet Franc, the conversations are always as honest as the fruit.
Outside the Lines
“I want to help uplift our people and give our community representation,” says visual artist Jag Nagra. “I celebrate brown skin on all my figures because that was something I never saw in art when I was growing up.” Deeply influenced by her Punjabi roots, the activist creates illustrations and large-scale murals that are saturated in pink, yellow, teal and green hues and reimagine Indian motifs and embroidery patterns while honouring brown skin tones and advocating for LGBTQIA2S+ South Asians.
Punjab-born Mani Jassal‘s professional accomplishments include launching a luxury bridalwear and eveningwear brand in 2014 and curating poet Rupi Kaur’s wardrobe for the entire North American and European legs of her recent world tour, so it seems safe to say that her career is aglow. Whether it’s an elegant delicate-blush sari with a white floral appliqué hem or a flowy peacock-coloured lehenga with gold-thread floral motifs, each piece is modern but undeniably steeped in tradition. “Living in the diaspora pushed me to create a brand that [offers] the best of both worlds,” says the Toronto-based fashion designer.
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