The Di­as­pora That Never Hap­pened

Search­ing for por­trai­ture in the ar­chives of the Ko­ma­gata Maru

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Aa­ditya Aggarwal

Search­ing for por­trai­ture in the ar­chives of the Ko­ma­gata Maru by Aa­ditya Aggarwal

On a wall in Desh Bha­gat Yadgar Hall in Jalandhar, In­dia, as part of a memo­rial for those who fought against Bri­tish colo­nial­ism, there hangs a por­trait of Gur­dit Singh, the Sin­ga­pore-based Sikh en­tre­pre­neur who, in 1914, char­tered a steamship from Bri­tish In­dia car­ry­ing 376 pas­sen­gers seek­ing refuge in Canada. Only 24 made it off the boat.

In this anony­mously cre­ated de­pic­tion, Singh’s fea­tures are soft­ened. Still, he wears an ex­pres­sion of in­sis­tence. The black-and-white pho­to­graphs taken of him fol­low­ing the May 23, 1914, ar­rival of the Ko­ma­gata Maru at Van­cou­ver’s Bur­rard In­let show a man who looks less hum­ble.

Singh was pho­tographed along­side the mostly Sikh pas­sen­gers, all star­ing bleakly into the cam­era, their eyes squint­ing in the sun. Ger­man Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Leonard Frank was com­mis­sioned by a govern­ment agency to cap­ture the stills. In one of Frank’s pho­to­graphs, Sikh Men and Boy On­board the Ko­ma­gata Maru (1914)—ex­hib­ited in “Ko­ma­gata Maru: A Jour­ney to Canada,” a show cu­rated by Lally Mar­wah at the Peel Art Gallery Mu­seum and Ar­chives in Bramp­ton in sum­mer 2017—the sub­jects are shown stand­ing like cav­alry at ease.

Phys­i­cal clues be­tray the te­dium of travel: most of the men wear tur­bans that are creased along fine, rich folds around their heads, an ar­range­ment that feels windswept, cloth loos­ened by a Pa­cific drift.

Singh char­tered the Ko­ma­gata Maru on April 4, 1914, af­ter meet­ing with a group of im­mi­grants of In­dian ori­gin in a Hong Kong gur­d­wara, the Sikh place of wor­ship, one month prior. They were en­cour­aged by news that the pre­vi­ous year, 39 Sikhs had ar­rived in Vic­to­ria via Hong Kong on the Panama Maru, a Ja­panese car­rier.

Ini­tially, the 39 were de­tained on the ba­sis of the Con­tin­u­ous Jour­ney Reg­u­la­tion, a racist amend­ment to the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1906, stat­ing that “all im­mi­grants must come to Canada via a through ticket and by con­tin­u­ous jour­ney from their coun­try of birth or cit­i­zen­ship.”

Worded in shrewd, xeno­pho­bic legalese, the act in­sisted upon a di­rect, un­in­ter­rupted voy­age from a coun­try of ori­gin to Canada, mak­ing it nearly im­pos­si­ble for mi­grants from South Asia, who would usu­ally stop on the coast of Ja­pan or Hawaii, to im­mi­grate.

In the case of the 1913 ar­rivals on the Panama Maru, Van­cou­ver-based lawyer J. Ed­ward Bird was hired on be­half of the South Asian com­mu­nity to de­fend the de­tained Sikh mi­grants in court. Be­cause of a lin­guis­tic loop­hole in the law, it was ruled that the South Asian men would be ad­mit­ted. Trou­bled by the ver­dict, govern­ment of­fi­cials added more strin­gent re­stric­tions to the Con­tin­u­ous Jour­ney Reg­u­la­tion, aug­ment­ing an al­ready ram­pant anti-im­mi­grant, white su­prem­a­cist sen­ti­ment.

Singh char­tered the Ko­ma­gata Maru, whose pas­sen­gers in­cluded many farm­ers from Pun­jab in Bri­tish In­dia, Bri­tish Malaya and Hong Kong, to the coast of Van­cou­ver. Of the 376 pas­sen­gers, 340 were Sikh, 24 were Mus­lim and 12 were Hindu, all Bri­tish sub­jects claim­ing en­try within the con­fines of the em­pire.

Upon the ship’s ar­rival, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials sur­rounded the ves­sel and pas­sen­gers were not al­lowed to dis­em­bark. For two months, the pas­sen­gers were de­tained on board with lit­tle ac­cess to food or water. Fi­nally, only 24 were ad­mit­ted to Canada. The re­main­ing 352 were sent back to In­dia, di­vert­ing at Budge Budge, a vil­lage near Cal­cutta. There, the Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties re­sponded to the re­turn with gun­fire, sus­pi­cious that the pas­sen­gers were Ghadarites, mem­bers of the Ghadar Party, a Sikh-led rev­o­lu­tion­ary an­ti­colo­nial group based in North Amer­ica with the aim to free In­dia from Bri­tish rule. On Septem­ber 29, 1914, in what is now known as the Budge Budge Riot, at least 19 pas­sen­gers were shot dead, and more than 200 were im­pris­oned. Singh man­aged to es­cape and lived in hid­ing un­til 1921. He then sur­ren­dered to the po­lice and served a five-year sen­tence in prison.

Most pho­to­graphic ac­counts of the Ko­ma­gata Maru in­ci­dent frame the pas­sen­gers in re­la­tion to the phys­i­cal con­tents of the car­rier. In one photo, they gather by the main mast, heads hud­dled in con­ver­sa­tion. There is uni­for­mity in th­ese vi­su­als: the grace­ful, muted stature of the men, suited, tur­bans peak­ing softly, crushed blazers sta­tioned like old ar­mour.

“Pho­to­graphs of the Ko­ma­gata Maru are char­ac­ter­ized by same­ness,” writes Deepali De­wan in “We’ll Take Your Ar­ti­facts but Not Your Peo­ple: The Ko­ma­gata Maru in Canada’s South Asian Di­as­poric His­tory.” Here, De­wan, the Dan Mishra Cu­ra­tor of South Asian Art and Cul­ture at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum, stud­ies the mark of plu­ral­ity, the repli­ca­tion of the mi­grant, in archival pho­tog­ra­phy.

Re­gard­ing Frank’s Sikh Men and Boy On­board the Ko­ma­gata Maru, a widely used pho­to­graph that doc­u­ments the Ko­ma­gata Maru in­ci­dent, De­wan notes the still pa­rade of South Asian men, mostly Sikh, as­sem­bled in dark suits on the ship’s deck. Singh stands with his young son, Bal­want.

He is fur­ther dis­tin­guished from the group by a grey­ing beard and sig­nif­i­cantly lighter shade of out­fit. In his book Un­de­sir­ables: White Canada and the Ko­ma­gata Maru, film­maker and scholar Ali Kaz­imi de­scribes Singh as “a com­pact man in his mid-fifties,” with a “keen sar­to­rial sense [that] kept him look­ing sharp.”

Ed­mon­ton-based il­lus­tra­tor Glo­ria Ho takes Frank’s pho­to­graph as a start­ing point in Faces of the Ko­ma­gata Maru (2014), a se­ries of por­traits that imag­ines the face of each pas­sen­ger up close, us­ing pas­tel hues in water­colour. Ho’s ren­di­tion of Singh is un­like both the orig­i­nal pho­to­graph and the un­known artist’s draw­ing: in Ho’s work, Singh is pris­tine, sur­rounded by white neg­a­tive space, his beard un­furl­ing like a tuft of cloud. Also no­tice­able is a deep black patka (in­ner un­der-tur­ban), wrapped around his head and faded along the pleat.

Maybe the read­ing of a por­trait rests on its lim­its, the frame re­mov­ing any­one not seen inside of it. Ho’s im­ages in­clude two women—pre­sum­ably the two mar­ried women who also formed part of the pas­sen­ger list. One wears an off-white du­patta (scarf) fil­tered with rose-pink; an­other, her eyes closed as though in prayer, has a firozi (flo­ral) olive-green and laven­der– pat­terned scarf tied around her head.

An­other way of re­mem­ber­ing what De­wan calls “a di­as­pora that never hap­pened” is by fo­cus­ing on what is not de­picted. The mes­sage of the pho­to­graphic archive, al­ways me­di­ated through the pho­tog­ra­pher’s lens, rou­tinely fails the sub­ject be­ing cap­tured; it of­ten ei­ther vic­tim­izes or de­mo­nizes the sub­ject (or both).

The pas­sen­gers of the Ko­ma­gata Maru ex­pe­ri­ence a sim­i­lar fate in visual mem­ory. Their im­ages shape and de­sign a tragedy—an “in­ci­dent”—by virtue of what each cap­ture fails to reg­is­ter: an on­go­ing wait. The pho­to­graph of each pas­sen­ger un­know­ingly ob­serves an ab­sence, in­stalling a bar­rier be­tween what one imag­ines the in­ci­dent to be and what it was. It feels right, then, to not be able to know a por­trait com­pletely. In a pic­ture of Singh that es­says a mo­ment in de­ten­tion, it feels ar­rest­ing, even ap­pro­pri­ate, to not know ev­ery­thing. ■


Leonard Frank Sikh Men and Boy On­board the Ko­ma­gata Maru May 23 to July 23, 1914

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