Keerat Kaur - a Polymath Leaning Into Herself
Keerat Kaur’s work is rooted in her practice of contemplation. Kaur excels in bringing into form archetypal imagery from the formless. The depth reflected throughout her work speaks of her dedication to expansion as an artist. I first came across Kaur’s work almost a decade ago through Tumblr. Back then, I knew her as a Punjabi-Canadian internet presence who covered Umm Kulthum songs and beautifully depicting feminine forms.
Having enjoyed Kaur’s work as a viewer, I requested to speak with her in an attempt to better understand her process. Describing herself as introverted with a vivid imagination, she says:
“Growing up I would make anything that was not otherwise available to me in a tangible form”
As our conversation went on, I was struck by the sheer breadth of Kaur’s presence as a creator and found myself in awe of the person behind the creation.
A lot can be said about being a Punjabi woman in today’s world. Often we inherit a culture we never get the privilege to peruse, due to lack of time and space. We stand witness to beauty, tradition, royalty, grief and loss. We listen to our elders and keep pushing forward. Onwards and upwards, on and on. However, the climb can come at the cost of contemplation. Sometimes, it requires ceding individuality.
Incredibly so, this is not the case with Kaur. Embodying the warrior mindset, so prominent in Punjabi and Sikhi traditions; Kaur strengthens her creative stamina by sharpening her skillset and conquering new disciplines. To date, her work has been exhibited across Canada at exhibitions, galleries and museums.
Kaur’s work has touched audiences around the world with her online presence, in particular striking a chord across the Punjabi and Sikh diaspora.
The devotion required to continuously unfold and expand, as Kaur does, is also grounded in her studies of the Sikhi scripture Suraj Prakash Granth. Kaur was initiated into the sacred text by her father as a young child. This teaching grounds her, as she inhabits seemingly different worlds all at once.
“Reading about Guru Nanak’s tears flowing like a stream of water from which fish pour out I can’t help but fixate on the vivid imagery of the Suraj Prakash Granth.”
Keerat Kaur is akin to a tree – her growth being both lateral and medial. She often recreates her own work through a variety of mediums. Pen to paper, digital design, needle and thread. Ancient amulets transmuted as modern-day jewellery and NFTs. By leaning into herself, Kaur reclaims a heritage otherwise said to be lost.
To know of Kaur as an artist so steeped in Punjabiyat is empowering. She pays homage to the days of old, without resorting to caricatures. Her work reaffirms authentic ways of being, by doing away with complacency in tradition. Revisiting values passed onto us through qissa, her audience understands what it means to live with a code of honour in the modern world.
As Punjabi women, we often grow up hearing about the dreams our mothers swallowed whole to maintain the peace and keep traditions alive. The beauty rituals they gave up on to make time for productivity. Their youth memorialized in photographs and folksongs – a time otherwise lost to financial hardship.
Often our narratives as Punjabi women are tinged with loss. All that we have had to sacrifice to find a semblance of security. The seas our elders crossed for stable livelihoods, the childhood homes they unknowingly and indelibly bid farewell to. Punjabi poetry and folksongs speak of daughters who bid alvida to their parents at a tender age – dedicating their whole existence to the sustenance of the land within, the lineage and the collective.
Though Kaur’s work is informed by these themes, by exercising her free will, over her subject matter and method – she does away with the grief. And there opens up a place that allows for the exploration of joy, celebration and reflection.
The prospect of learning about Punjabi culture through art being made in real-time, by a Punjabi-Sikhi woman, is powerful. By choosing to share the philosophy underlying her creations, she inspires curiosity in her audience. Kaur’s choice of marble inlays depicting pomegranates, blue horses and falcons bring into the present a work otherwise relegated to the past.
Another important aspect of Kaur’s work is her relationship with Punjabi as her mother tongue. In her view, often our patriarchal or colonial illusions limit our self-exploration.
“Punjabi is an androgynous language in my view. It is often our conditioning that limits our relationship to it”
Kaur shares with me about her being encouraged to speak Hindi more than Punjabi as a teenager in Patiala, Punjab. I had a similar experience whilst working in Lahore. Punjabi is often considered to be the tongue of the ‘paindu’ or the ‘gawar’ in post-partition Punjab. Working on her current publication – Kaur shares that she has been able to immerse herself in the distinct vernacular and etymology of the language.
Speaking with Keerat Kaur about Punjab as a place carried within our memory and bodies is a loving conversation. Punj-aab: the land of five rivers. The birthplace of warriors, farmers and families. Its boisterous spirit dances through its language, stories and the land itself. The home of Sikh Gurus and Sufi poets who preached freedom, honour and respect for all living creatures. Punjab is alive and well in Kaur’s work and through her visualization, we see possibilities of the heritage we can traverse.
By choosing to exercise precision and intentionality through all her mediums, Kaur learns the rules only to break free from them. Kaur often makes sense of the senseless by “knowing the maths behind it”. Her attention to detail is rooted in her architectural studies. Bringing into form the imaginal realm, down to the millimetre. One example is her Master’s thesis – exploring the Quila Mubarak in Patiala, Punjab. This piece explores how architecture reflects our social hierarchies and the possibility of subverting the status quo through reexamination.
Kaur says that there is no trade-off for hard work and consistency. In seeking guidance, the journey begins with the intention. In Sufi philosophy, this is understood as the teacher appearing when the student is committed to the work. This is also understood as Riyaaz in South Asia. Constant repetition of basic principles that lead to evolutionary breakthroughs. Some also call it the definition of insanity but perhaps it just depends on your angle of approach.
Towards the end of our conversation, I shared with Kaur a matrilineal memory associated with her work. Her cover of the folksong mainu heeré heeré aakhé became a celebratory anthem for me, my mother and my Nanu (maternal grandmother) before she passed. Today when I listen to this song, in my mind’s eye, I see my elders waking up at sunrise to walk to the well and swerve on shadaii munde in rural Punjab.
Ultimately Keerat Kaur does what she wants. Others’ tendency to pigeonhole is not her concern. That is the prerogative of the viewer, never her lived experience. Creatively waxing and waning, Kaur lives as a Punjabi-Sikhi polymath breathing new life into that which was exiled to history.
Visit Keerat Kaur’s website to see her work.
Artwork copyright © Keerat Kaur 2022