Turning Toronto into a global hub of South Asian talent
"You are performing at the Oscars!" screams Kama Mama, aka Iman Grewal, 31, perched on a stool, a waif like figure, her hips bouncing in time to the beat. "This is what you wanted and now you are going to get it!"
The seven South Asian men glance up briefly in acknowledgement, then return to practicing their first single, Nachle
, a mournful Indian melody spiced up by a drum and bass beat. It's a rainy summer's night and they listen closely to her instructions, readying themselves for a hectic summer schedule of concerts, weddings and festivals.
The band Avalla
is one of growing number of musicians and dancers managed by Kama Entertainment
, a talent agency that aims to bring South Asian culture into the Toronto and Canadian mainstream. As a dancer, Grewal
started training in classical Indian dance from the age of six, even moving to Punjab for several years to train. She has performed with some major names in the industry, including Bare Naked Ladies, Apache Indian
, and Roach Killa
, and at such venues as the Vancouver Olympics
and for Bill Clinton at the 2007 and 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos
. But in 2009, she began to shift her attention towards mentoring and managing other artists, although she continues to dance. The push, she explains, was to pass on her skill set on to the next generation, helping them move into a bigger arena, beyond just friends' parties and family functions. For the past two years, she has helped Avalla work on their stage presence, and they shifted their sound from traditional Indian folk songs and pop covers into Bhangra and Indian-infused rock. With the change came larger audiences, and they went from Saturdays evenings at Indian weddings to major venues such as Harborfront Centre, Exhibition Place, Dundas Square and the IFFAs
, which Iman affectionately calls "the Oscars."
"We aren't just for the Indian community," explains Sav Hunjan, 29, a lead percussionist with Avalla. "Iman has really opened a lot of doors for us in the industry."
For performer and singer Taj Grewal
, who is also Iman's sister, 'Kama Mama' encouraged her to broaden her talents, and the dancer is now taking on acting roles, appearing in the Bollywood film Kismet Konnection
, shot in Toronto and Mumbai and released worldwide, and the Russell Peter's new comedy Breakaway
, in which Taj Grewal plays the part of the dream girl, to be released this September. Ms. Grewal, 23, is also pursuing a singing career, and together with a voice coach, Iman is helping her stylize her sound and image, and she is hoping to sign with one of the UK-based record companies who have taken an interest, she says. "She's always been honest with me and given me a lot of artistic freedom," Taj explains. "I wouldn't be at this point if it wasn't for her."
Some of this success is fortuitous: their broadening reach coincides with a new wave of South Asian culture permeating the city. Indian talent has long been a part of Toronto's identity, ever since the first immigrants, initially mainly Sikhs, started arriving on mass from the end of the nineteenth century
. But this year, a number of events have pushed it to the foreground, explains filmmaker Srinivas Krishna. The Canadian and Indian government have partnered to make it the Year of India in Canada
. Toronto has been chosen as the North American site for a massive cultural centre, which will be one of the world's largest
according to the Indian ministry of external affairs. Krishna's installation piece "My Name is Raj
," about Indian film pioneer Raj Kapoor, is on exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and invites viewers to imagine themselves as actors inside a Bollywood film. Deepa Mehta is currently editing her film adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in Toronto
, and plans to be finished next year. "India is becoming a bigger commercial player since liberalization," explains Krishna. "There's a sense that people are following the money. That's not the only motivation for what's happening, but it drives a lot of what we do."
For Iman, the timing coincides with plans for her artists to stretch themselves by working with producers and performers based in London and Bollywood. "Mainstream managers tend to think South Asian is very niche and don't recognize its mainstream and global appeal," she explains. "My kids are helping them overcome that." Alexandra Shimo is an author and journalist based on the Ossington strip. Her first book ,The Environment Equation, was published in seven countries. A former editor at Maclean's, she is currently researching her second.