For this month’s artivist feature, Brown boy had the honor of sitting down with Mx. Puja Singh. Scroll through to follow their journey in becoming a multi-faceted musician who seeks to decolonize yoga and Hindu-based spirituality/ies.
Throughout my whole life, music has been my biggest passion. My parents told me that I was singing before I could speak. My mom tells the story of how we were in Delhi at some hotel, and I got up on stage after some people had performed and started playing the tabla. So it’s always been in me.
I sang in a choir in school and got into the musical theater when I was really young. That was a really big part of forming my musical identity. There was always pop music that I was very obsessed with. The Spice Girls were my everything. I thought I was going to be a Spice Girl when I grew up. When I was in my mid-20s, I started writing and producing music. That’s when the more electronic and techno-inspired kind of stuff really started to come in.
I started practicing yoga eight or nine years ago and teaching about six or seven years ago. That’s when I started chanting and doing kirtan and bhajan, but I had grown up hearing that stuff.
I had always grown up hearing kirtan in the gurdwara. It never felt like something I could do. I don’t remember ever thinking, “I could be a Ragi in a gurdwara.” It wasn’t until I got reintroduced to kirtan from a Western perspective, ironically and somewhat tragically, but it’s led me on this whole journey.
My experience in India is so different than my experience here. I am very light-skinned and look like a gora. So, a lot of people don’t know that I’m Indian. It was one of the things that kind of made me own my Brownness and my desi side more because it’s always been really important to me.
In India, because a lot of men are more feminine, I feel like I move through in a way that people generally don’t notice my queerness as much.
There will be days when I’ll wear a sari out, and I get why people are looking at me. But then, there are days when I wear jeans and a T-shirt (what I consider low-key), and people will stare at me almost more than when I’m turning it up.
My queerness is such an integral part of me. I’ve done so much work within myself that my queerness is not like something I’m ashamed of. In a lot of ways, that confidence somehow protects me.
There’s quite a clear distinction between religion in a political sense and religion in a spiritual sense. They’re two very different things to me.
Hinduism is not a real thing. It’s a concept created by non-South Asians to classify a philosophy that is beyond religion. They’ve kind of put it into this box of Hinduism as a religion. So even that in itself is such a kind of colonization of indigenous knowledge and practices.
The big question that’s always asked is, “What’s the difference between appropriation and appreciation?” It’s about self-inquiry. No one can give you the answer. You have to make this decision for yourself. If you feel like you’re culturally appropriating something, you have to dig deep within yourself and figure out why you feel that way and whether you want to continue doing that or how you can change that.
In order to honor the culture more, there has to be an acknowledgment of your own privilege. There has to be an acknowledgment of the power that you hold with that privilege. Whether you are consciously wielding it or not — it’s in play.
The problem with kirtan is not that white people are doing it. It’s not because white people are teaching it or leading it. It’s because white people are looked at as the authorities and the masters. Even with bhajans and stuff, people will listen to white artists for pronunciation. Why wouldn’t you listen to a native speaker? Why are you going to a white person for that reference?
It’s not to say white people can’t be doing kirtan or leading kirtan. Same with yoga. But to be put on a pedestal above South Asians — how do we elevate South Asians and actually give them the credit, support and platforms that they deserve to share their own indigenous knowledge?
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.