Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

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Yask Desai
Pooran Singh

Pooran Singh was an Indian from Punjab who migrated alone to Australia as a 30-year-old in 1899 to earn money for his extended family in India. He took up hawking in the state of Victoria and continued to work in the profession for the entire 48 years that he spent in Australia. Pooran purchased goods, including food items, haberdashery and children toys, from department stores in larger towns and then, traveling by horse and cart, he called upon remote farms and cattle stations and sold his wares to their occupants. 

Almost 50 years later Pooran Singh passed away after a short illness in 1947. Throughout his working life in Australia, he repatriated money to his family in Punjab and upon his death he left 1500 pounds in equal shares to his four nephews, as he was never married and had no children of his own. The family used the money to build a house and placed a plaque upon the house bearing Pooran Singh’s name. 

Shortly before he died Pooran told his friend’s wife (who was caring for him during his final days) that he wished for his ashes to be sent to India upon his death. The executors of his will, however, failed to ensure that the ashes were returned to his family in India and instead they remained uncollected at the Guyett Funeral Home in Warrnambool for 63 years. 

Initially, they were safeguarded by the home’s proprietor, Jack Guyett until, shortly before his own death in 1986, he expressed a longing to his daughter Alice (who still runs the business today) that Pooran’s ashes would one day be collected by his family. Alice continued to keep the ashes within the family business.  

Finally, in 2010, Melbourne based historians Kenna and Jordan discovered the existence and whereabouts of the ashes. Then, in conjunction with an Australian-Indian journalist, they located Harmel Uppal, Pooran Singh’s great nephew who lived in Wolverhampton in the UK. Upon becoming aware of the ashes Harmel, a keen clay pigeon shooter, duly flew to Australia and collected them. He then travelled to India and repatriated his great uncles’ remains, immersing them in the Ganges River in Haridwar in Northern India and fulfilling his forefather’s final wish, 63 years after his passing. Harmel credits his own family's financial success with the sacrifices made by Pooran Singh. 

My latest work Telia involves the use of archival materials, documentation and the creation of self-authored photographs to pay a subjective homage to the men who migrated from undivided India and worked as hawkers in rural Australia between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

I have sought to discover a balance between the creation of new imagery and the utilisation of existing visual material. In this sense, Telia is heavily influenced by methodologies employed by Joan Fontcuberta and especially this statement: “preserving a sustainable equilibrium within the universe of images requires coordinating the containment of production with acts of recovery.”

The purpose of the work is not to create a definitive reinterpretation of existing histories of the men who worked as hawkers but instead an attempt to adopt a methodology that combines the study of existing subjective histories with visually based production and recovery that creates meaning and offers a historically orientated sociopolitical narrative concerning specific race relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries within colonial Australia.

Telia is important because much of the existing academic and visually based discussion of the hawkers positions them in a singularly historical context and separates them from present conceptions and discussions of Australian identity. Telia however links contemporary notions of contemporary Australian identity with past historical milieus and constructs.

Written Note: Gayle McNaly a resident of Wodonga who contacted me when she heard about my research. She can remember seeing the hawkers as a little girl when they used come to her farm.

Yask Desai is a Melbourne-based Australian-Indian visual artist who works with photography, video, archives and text. His work concerns itself with themes of place and collective and individual identity. Desai often combines historical and social research to explore the cultural connections between imagery, history and constructions of identity.