Innocence and A Punjabi Experience: A Conversation With Baldeep Pooni

by | Nov 15, 2021 | ART

There is a quiet confidence you can feel in people with conviction. Baldeep Pooni has conviction wrapped in a sense of deep consideration. What is happening right now? How is his presence affecting those around him? He speaks with purpose and explains himself carefully. I have met a lot of people in the city but how many people have I met who do that? Not many.

He has written a book titled innocence with his convictions, considerations and thoughts put down in prose that speaks like an older wise man trapped inside a young man’s body. Also, he recently released a short film exploring his grandfather’s life as a Punjabi farmer titled i never went to school. If you get a chance to explore either or both, you get a sense of what it is like to grow up in Chesterfield/Richmond born to immigrant parents — given a chance to create these works at all.

Deep was nice enough to come by the studio and here is our conversation.

baldeep pooni article
by Kimberly Frost

Baldeep Pooni: My name is Deep and I just published my first book, innocence. It’s a collection of short stories and narratives on the concept of ‘innocence’. The last few years, my work has been centered on spreading yoga and mindfulness and meditation. And so this book is an introspection into a different part of myself, a creative part of myself, and the concept of innocence is something that I expand upon and reinterpret as a subjective and objective experience.

R. Anthony Harris: What brought you to the idea to create this book?

BP: Really, I had no intention of creating something for a purpose, it wasn’t an idea to create a book. In April 2020, when I had this time and space during the holy month of Ramadan, which I decided to fast that month, in that time and space I had a lot of different emotions that came to me because it was also a period of rest. As I was resting, all of these emotions needed to be expressed and needed to be understood. And so I just started writing, in a very cathartic way, on paper, which also became some drawings as well — which you will see in the book innocence.

And with my meditation practice and with some of the vows that I’ve made in the past, when I create or express I normally would just destroy it, because it’s a transient experience — but I decided to share with a few people and they gave me some feedback, to share it with the world. After some reflection, I realized that was something that I also wanted to do. The idea of creating this book was more so a collection of what I had already expressed for myself, and then sharing it with people. Of course, that is a different process, and a bit more logical, but the inherent idea and the experience of it was more from the emotional spiritual experience that I had during those 30-plus days.

RAH: Being someone that is connected to your own spirituality, and I would assume balance in your life, how did the period of COVID affect you? Was that a sign of imbalance in the world?

BP: What is very important to me in life is accepting and understanding death as a concept and as a practice. When I began to notice that COVID was becoming a reality, which was early February, when I was noticing reports and everything from China, I could tell there was a change coming.

Also, as someone who has studied history as a profession and as a fascination, I knew what sort of pattern we were about to go into. COVID is a pandemic that is still going on — massive widespread death, hysteria — and typically, that leaves a lot of people in a state of imbalance, where people are pondering perhaps the deeper meanings of life.

For me, I didn’t really need an external stimulus. This was something that was internally a battle that would go on top of years of depression, and that depression, not in the western lens, but in a different perspective on depression, of just seeing reality in a ‘slower state’ and having the ability to speed up how I process time and the way I spent my time.

It was interesting because I had actually voiced something out to myself around December 2019. I was going to have a month of silence, which was supposed to be in June of 2020, but what I got from the natural world was the whole time period to do exactly that, be silent.

Honestly, it was very fascinating, because I was able to see the vibe that I would have for myself internally be kind of projected onto the world. And so, you know, one way or another it was actually like seeing an image or a visual that was painted inside for so long, be shown outside to people. And it led to a lot of different things. It sparked this collective experience of suffering, and the polarities of the experiences of suffering, but it also led to this heightened awareness of self that led to all these collective protest movements like the passing of George Floyd, and the protests in India for farmers rights, which is still been going on.

I really don’t think that would have been possible if it wasn’t for… in one way or another, if you see it as meditative or not, it’s essential to be able to sit with an experience. And I feel like that’s exactly what COVID [brought], through either losing somebody or just noticing all the restrictions and changes that we as humans have to go through. So for me, it was kind of an introspection that somehow was external.

RAH: I ask that question because for you to put out not only a book that is meditative, but a film about your grandfather this year — it seems like those seeds were planted last year, a time when everyone had to reflect on their own life and their own mortality. A lot of people made life-changing decisions last year, when they realized that whatever they were doing in their lives had maybe not as much purpose, or as much care, as they would like. I connected the two, the pandemic and your projects, in my mind.

Where did the want to do a film about your grandfather come from?

BP: I will say in terms of creating, I’m just kind of more with the spontaneity, and there are some things that are like foresight. Emotionally I feel something, and I want to create it. So for me, I really go off of emotional intuition. And if I feel like something is necessary or worth doing, then I start taking the time to explore what that feeling elicits in me.

The movie that I recently produced with two local film directors from Richmond, Virginia, is titled i never went to school. And honestly, if I were to sit here and describe a logical process of how it went, it wouldn’t be accurate, nor would it give justice to the aspect of how it happened. In the creation process, I had this idea initially to have a space where I would have my grandfather share something about his life, and perhaps I would be in some of the mix of that. It was just an idea. The reason for that idea was because I’m not someone that wants to take possession of “innocence” as a concept, nor as the book itself.

It’s been experienced and created through me, but as a concept “innocence” is a subjective and objective experience of one’s essence, and so what better way to witness that and explore that than to have someone explore their “innocence” in real time. My grandfather, who doesn’t speak English, has never done anything creative before. But in the aspect of his work he’s creative, he is a farmer. The creativity that is inherent in farming is that you take a seed and somehow miraculously, this seed, which you can relate to an idea, becomes something else, which literally becomes sustenance which you eat.

My book, innocence was so influenced by my grandmother’s passing, which happened over 17 to 18 years ago. For me, because I connect with death so heavily, I know my grandfather only has a certain number of years left. And because he only has a certain number of years left, I knew that I wanted to celebrate my grandfather’s life and who he is as a person, right now, before he passed. And so it was beautiful to witness how that turned out to actually become a short film, because it is inspired, in some ways, by the book, but it’s its own inherent creation. And I think that’s the beautiful part of this; how quickly and how organically the whole process came together.

RAH: And did your grandfather watch the movie? What was that experience like for you?

BP: (laughs) It was pretty surreal. So I premiered at the Byrd Theatre. So there was there was a lot of processing in terms of how to set that up, and what that process would look like. It was really fun, it was very engaging and to have a space that is set up exclusively for this purpose. And then for the entire community of people that decided to come out, as well as a heavy Punjabi community.

(Pause) For someone to be from the Punjabi community and watch a film essentially entirely in Punjabi, for that experience, to be something that they were able to experience directly through a person that they knew, in some aspects, was very interesting. And it was beautiful for me, because I was able to watch everyone really be ‘mindfucked’ a little bit about what the whole thing was about, but at the same time, really being open to the idea of something that was familiar as well.

baldeep pooni article
by Kimberly Frost

RAH: We had we had discussed this before and for people reading this, what is the distinction between Punjabi and Indian? To make a blanket statement to someone that is of a certain ethnicity, it is offensive in ways and/or is it an opportunity to educate?

BP: I always welcome moments of ignorance as not something that is inherently negative, but as an opportunity to grow and understand each other because that’s how knowledge is spread, right? It’s opportunity for conversation and dialogue.

So, when somebody refers to something as “Indian” or “India,” you’re talking about a nationalistic concept that became a country in 1947. That’s what “India” or “Indian” typically designates now. “India” for the word itself, as well as the concept itself, is very much influenced by British occupation. The people that took control of India were mostly British-educated, and most of them were Hindu in terms of their religion and spirituality and perspectives.

Now, “Punjab” (pause) “Pun” means “five” and “jab” means “river.” So Punjab is a region that is located in the northern part of the subcontinent. In order to make India — and also make Pakistan, because those two countries were made at the same time, because of British occupation — half of Punjab was divided up. So the lower portion went to India, and then the upper portion went to Pakistan. Essentially, East Punjab is in India and West Punjab is in Pakistan.

Now bringing the conversation back around to the Punjab that I’m referring to, there’s a heavy population there that refers to themselves as Sikh. Sikh is a specific religion, spirituality, and set of experiences that are different than the majority, the majority is 90% Hindu.

And so the laws, for example in the US, if you’re Indigenous, or if you’re African American, this country has been more designed for Caucasian white Americans. In the same ways in India, there is systemic oppression on many levels that are from that Hindu domination. The state of Punjab is mostly farmers, so it is the land that is heavily based on farming. And there’s now development of other cities in Punjab, but natively speaking, it is just a land of farmers.

The experience of Punjabi people in India itself, as well as the experience of Punjabi people in general, even getting the opportunity to come to the US, is very different than other Indians — [those] that will claim themselves as Indians. Now, there has been systemic genocides committed by the Indian government from the 1980s onward, and some would say even earlier than that, on the Punjabi people. But because of the ties between India and the US, they did not recognize it as a genocide, even though people were forced to flee as refugees, just not designated as refugees. They found creative ways to get here and create themselves, which for me, as a first generation American, is very important, because my father struggled to get to this country. I’m not really going to get into depth about that, because I do have something in the future that I’m going to create surrounding that. But you know, connecting this with my book, as well as with the movie, i never went to school. It’s essentially connected to that experience.

I grew up in the south side of Richmond. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. We grew up where we grew up, and that was kind of the vibe and experience. When I would go to school — and I went to schools that were a little bit more integrated with the deeper aspects of the suburbs, borderline in Chesterfield County — I would encounter Indians that had completely different experiences than I did. And they weren’t Punjabi. They were from different parts of India that typically have some sort of commerce or something that they developed in India, and they just simply carried it over or they were very educated. I’m the first person to ever go to school in my family ever, yet alone to produce a book.

I don’t find it offensive if somebody calls me “Indian” if they don’t know it, but I definitely find it offensive if somebody, for example, an Indian, wants to refer to me as “Indian.” It’s not something that I don’t allow myself to be referred to, but I am open to somebody calling me “Indian” and then expanding upon what that means, and reinterpreting the word as well. But I think it’s important to have that clarification, because I remember when you had said it — it wasn’t something that you said intentionally, it just triggered something inside of me, which was, “No, I’m a type of Indian that you haven’t seen before.”

And the other thing, India as a country, in many ways in terms of their culture, and Bollywood and other things in terms of art, they have appropriated Punjabi culture heavily. And they’ve always tried to portray Punjabi people as dumb and ignorant, even though they bite off of our culture — and some can say that’s adjacent in the US to Black Culture or Indigenous Culture to Latino Culture. That’s the backstory on it and as you can see, there’s so much layers and depth on is that you kind of have to compartmentalize all of that, when you feel triggered by that word.

RAH: I felt that was obviously very important to you, so I wanted to address that and allow you to expand on that conversation.

So as someone that’s on the outside looking in on the projects that you are taking on and the things that you’re contemplating, it feels like you are exploring your past, understanding how you feel in the present, and then having to all that done before being able to go forward. And so a good final question would be — where do you go from here? And what do you see in the near future and and down the line?

baldeep pooni
by Kimberly Frost

BP: Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know right now is that I’m going to be spending a lot of time just resting and recovering. Because that experience of innocence, and i never went to school came from like a deep state of rest.

I think more than ever, this is an important time to just chill, relax, enjoy the vibe of what I’ve been able to create. Just enjoying life for a little bit more and then spontaneously, whatever emotion or state nature that I’m in, that will kind of create itself. I don’t really have an idea of how I would want this to go, but I’m sure that one of the things that I’d like to do is throw up ideas into the air or emotions and then once I start feeling them out or processing them, then it’s very easy for me to bring it into manifestation. But if I am true, logical and grounded with what moves I am about to make next or things that I want to do, it’ll take away from this experience.

In other words, more invested in the journey and the experience rather than the tangible experience of what’s next.

RAH: Thank you so much for taking the time Deep.

BP: Thank you for the space and time to share this.

For more information, or to purchase innocence by Baldeep Pooni, please click HERE

Photos by Kimberly Frost

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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