Lighting the Way: Dr. Tom Hunter

Article by Tatiana Zamorano-Henriquez

Over the years the integral humanizing qualities of humanity have become almost non-existent, as our economic model is responsible for prioritizing monetary endeavours rather than the arts. Theses values have fragmented our way of being and devalued the arts as art has now become commercialized for profit and disconnected from our culture.  This almost irreversible divide has hindered our relationships with others and ourselves as it has detached us from our histories, cultures and knowledge.  The formation of this divide has left us stranded and we have become like a wave of sailors trying to navigate the seas without a compass where we have not only lost our sense of direction but also our purpose. However, art has the power to steer us back in the right direction as it illuminates our path by reconnecting us with our origins, which allows us to embrace diversity, and knowledge that then has the potential to lead to community. The world carries with it a kaleidoscope of art forms and rooted within them are diverse cultures that are entrenched with an array of histories and knowledge that shape our values. This is paramount as it is our values that construct the stories that we relay to others and ourselves about what is important. Therefore, it is these values that shape not only who we are as human beings but who we will become and the responsibility we hold to the future generations. Values create empathy and it is this compassion that allows individuals to embrace new cultures and form profound and intricate relationships that have the power to produce viable communities where culture becomes a way of life.  This is why art is integral to human society as it enhances our ability to become more knowledgeable and tolerant of diversity, it humanizes us, which is pivotal as it helps us in the process of advancing our society and evolving the human race into better human beings.

One inspiring individual that has devoted his life and time into creating a space for art in our society is Dr. Tom Hunter who is nearly seventy years old and a Lecturer at UBC in Arts and Asian Studies. He plays the sarod, a lute-like instrument with 25 strings and has also studied Hindustani vocal music and the tabla. Since the age of twenty years he was involved in the culture, history and music of South and South East Asia and began studying Indian music at the age of twenty-two. His interest in music flourished from his admiration of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar who were popular in the late sixties and early seventies during the “hippie era” when Indian music had become extremely popular. His musical background started with the piano at the age of nine when he played to accompany his father while he sang. This gave Dr. Hunter a first taste of what it meant to be an evolving musician and set him on a path that led to a lifelong love of Indian music. As he grew older his interest in Asian cultures and arts intensified, but at the time his career was long and arduous as he was pursuing his doctoral degree in Linguistics and following this lived for many years in South and South East Asia where he was an Academic Director for SIT Study Abroad Programs that brought college students to study in Bali and Java, Indonesia and Jaipur, India. From this experience he learned to teach the Indonesian, Sanskrit and Old Javanese languages, and gained the unforgettable experience of living in Bali for almost twenty years. Through his travels Dr. Hunter’s artistic and life journey led him to believe and discover that when fused together arts and culture have the ability to create viable communities. His experience gave him the opportunity to witness and practice how arts and culture in India and Indonesia had become a way of life, which is central to generating community. Thus, this drove him to want to achieve this way of being in our current society, as:

“along the way… [he]… got really interested in how we can take the energy of the arts… [as India and Indonesia had]… and make it relevant in our societies, as much as it…[was and still is]… in those societies.”  


This societal model is vital as we can achieve a community where arts and culture are not just an afterthought but instead are intricately linked to one another and embedded within our daily lives. Hence, Dr. Hunter wants to bring this way of life into our society because he feels that presently in our society  “the arts are underestimated because we have made the mistake of thinking that arts are entertainment” and this is where our societies have gone wrong. Art is more profound than mere entertainment, and should not be a disjointed part of society; it is integral to our society as it embodies our histories, cultures and knowledge. Dr. Hunter experienced this in Bali where he explained the fundamental role that art plays in the Bali community by saying:

“In a place like Bali you don’t have a ritual without art. We do not even call it art there. I mean a ritual has dancing, it has music, it has literature it has all those things and it’s part of religion. It was like this in the west too in the age of the great cathedrals, but somehow or other we have put the arts into a category of entertainment and forgotten that that is only part of the picture.”  

For Dr. Hunter this illustrates why our society has become so far removed from our culture, histories and our identities because we have confined and restricted art to a form of visual admiration rather than a form of profound emotional and cultural expression that conveys individual’s stories. Dr. Hunter is a living example of an individual who has experienced arts and culture as a way of being. In this way he has become one with art and that has enabled him to connect with others and himself. Through his artistic pathway art played an essential role in shaping his values, his way of being and the relationships he forged along the way, which all worked to create a humble, cultured and compassionate human being.  He recounted how music was a central part of his life and he explained,

“I heard classical North Indian music, Hindustani music, when I was about 17 and then when I was 22 I was aware that there was a school of Indian music and a friend of mine invited me to it. I walked in the door and sat in for a lesson with the great sarod player and composer Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and… I just was overwhelmed. I thought this could really be good for me and was amazed at having the chance to study with a great master who became a loving guru for many of us.  At the time I felt that I was really undisciplined and kind of a mess and that the music was going to help. I think I was right actually; it was a good idea to start with such enthusiasm and sense of purpose because I did get better in a general sense. Every day we would have to practice and every day we would have to go to class so you could not just slack off. I guess I felt I had been a bit of a slacker and found to my surprise that music itself could provide a framework for a better way of doing things.”  

Nevertheless, music changed his way of life it motivated him and challenged him to become disciplined and driven, which in turn allowed him to uncover what he was passionate about and his purpose, which was to promote the arts with the hopes of opening the minds and hearts of others so they too could find their way. To accomplish this Dr. Hunter incorporates arts into his lectures where he teaches his students about arts and culture through innovative methods such as using cultural dance videos from YouTube, visual power points that include for example miniature paintings that demonstrate how love is treated in the Indian tradition. Lastly, he invites artists from the South Asian heritage community to perform in his classroom. These lecture demonstrations are his biggest success as he gives artists a full hour and a half to share their culture and art with students. Thus, by doing this he puts the performing arts at the forefront of his lectures and makes sure that “the performing arts are the center piece, not just entertainment …[as]… they are how people see themselves.” He wants to make sure that this component of the performing arts is preserved. Additionally, outside the classroom Dr. Hunter actively participates in the South Asian community in the city. He believes that the promotion of arts in Vancouver could be improved and feels that arts and culture in Vancouver “could be stronger I think, I am pretty sure that too many things are aimed towards economic advancement rather than education and the arts” and he believes that “the more we promote the arts the better.” This is why he is actively involved in community art initiatives to create more artistic and culturally diverse opportunities in our society. Hence, he is a part of the Tagore Society that promotes the understanding of the music and poetry of the great Nobel-laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. This is a non-profit organization in the Lower Mainland, which encourages culture, especially Bengali culture, through programs and activities throughout the area. Dr. Hunter has become an honorary member of the Tagore Society as he works with them musically. Furthermore, on June 8th he is also participating in Revolution 2017: Engaging Human Creativity where he will be providing innovative solutions on how we can engage our imaginations and creative potential to create a better world where diversity is encouraged and art and culture are celebrated. The other community work that Dr. Hunter is involved in is more informal where he works with Indian families in our society. He stated,

I teach sarod in the traditional way. At present I have only one student, Hriday Buddhdev who lives in Coquitlam. He is a very fine young tabla player who has been studying the tabla since he was four. I teach him in the traditional way which is one to one. Our practice includes vocal music and my playing phrases that he copies and learns to incorporate into his playing. We also practice together with him playing tabla. That kind of education is very difficult to maintain in the western context or even nowadays in the Indian context but it is a really special way to connect with another person and help them bring out something in themselves.”


With this work, his aim is to keep arts and culture alive and to teach art without restrictions or constraints to the future generations where they can internalize there art form and feel it in their hearts. His vision behind this work is to encourage culture as a way of life and to implement this way of being into our society so that he can make others understand and bring awareness to the fact that performing arts needs support,” as it has the power to shift our society in a better direction. Nevertheless, this must begin with community support that should then be followed by institutional support, which will enable arts and culture to thrive in our society. It is finding ways of attaining institutional support that is the difficult challenge that we must overcome so that we can “foster the over all picture in creative and positive ways”.  Dr. Hunter truly believes that culture, as a way of being is attainable in our society. When speaking on how this can be developed in British Columbia he explained that one thing that immediately comes to mind is:

“The Sikh communities that practice singing Shabad… they are pretty strong here. They generate a sense of community in a large part through the practice of singing in the Gurdwara. The practice of singing in the Gurdwara brings them together as a community. Just like in Bali the gamelan ensembles and the dancers are part of the community and they reflect the community. I do believe it is possible, you just need a critical mass in terms of a supporting community.”


Hence, this highlights that there are sparks of arts and culture occurring in our society, sparks that need to be ignited so that we can achieve a sustainable community where arts and culture becomes central to our way of life, so that the future generations can experience and exist in a society of diversity, compassion and a society of better human beings like Dr. Hunter. Although Dr. Hunter was very humble about the work that he does I believe that his work is of great importance as found within his work lie the answers to achieving a successful community. Thus, with art at the forefront he is transforming individuals and fostering community through profound relationships that enable us to reconnect with our roots, embrace diversity, and acquire knowledge that can shape and mould us into better human beings which can lead us to a more humble and humanized society. I applaud Dr. Hunter for his work and devotion to creating spaces for arts and culture to thrive, his perseverance and wisdom give me hope for a brighter future. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world”; and Dr. Hunter has done just that.


Caption for images: tatianacaption



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