May. 3, 2004
Artist Fahim Hamid Ali and Dr. Avtar Singh Dhanoa at the Bombay Bhel. Ali's bold and colourful artwork adorns the walls and tables of the Thornhill establishment.

Art, food bridge cultural divide
Restaurant's art blends Eastern cultures, images
Project blossomed out of new-found friendship




Two different faiths, two different cultures, and decades as sworn enemies.


For some, this could be a recipe for disaster. For Dr. Avtar Singh Dhanoa and artist Fahim Hamid Ali, it was an opportunity to use art and food to build bridges across religious and cultural divides.


After a chance meeting arranged by a mutual friend, Dhanoa, 43, an Indian Sikh, and Ali, 45, a Pakistani Muslim, found they have uncannily similar passions — a love of art and a zeal to build bridges across religious and national divides.


Dhanoa was in the early stages of opening a new restaurant — his second, despite running a busy medical practice in Mississauga — and was impressed by Ali's talents and range of subject matter.


"I was a bit of an anomaly in Pakistan because I was fascinated by Indian mythology and wanted to paint Egyptian and Greek mythology as well as wildlife," says Ali, who has built a reputation on presenting diversity in art. "Dr. Dhanoa told me he wanted art reflective of Eastern culture, incorporating urban and rural life plus mythology."


Dhanoa offered his new friend the opportunity to create a unique concept in design for the planned restaurant.


"I wanted something that would be reflective of our joint Eastern heritage, " says Dhanoa, "and I found Ali's work reflected my vision of inclusivity."


The result was Bombay Bhel Fine Dining, on Commerce Valley Dr. in Thornhill.


Besides its art, the restaurant reflects the multicultural ethos of Toronto: The clientele is mostly South African and Chinese, the cook is from Nepal and the wait staff is from China and Britain.


"I don't think it gets more inclusive or diverse than this!" Dhanoa says with a smile.


Ali's handiwork is evident in eight wall murals and, most unusually, 50 tabletops.


The idea of making tabletops out of original art covered in glass was Ali's, after Dhanoa told him he doesn't like tablecloths. "I find them dull and expensive to clean," Dhanoa explains.


Instead of staring at white linen, diners can view subjects ranging from Indian mythology to village scenes in Pakistan, including a woman standing by a village well; a depiction of Basant, a kite-flying festival; a harvest festival showing fields of rice and wheat ablaze in shades of yellow, orange and gold; and lovers from famous folk tales of the Punjab.


The murals reflect the grandeur of the Mughal era and larger-than-life village scenes.


"I play with colours and rarely use a brush," Ali says, "but make use of my fingers and other objects within my reach."


For technical help, they went to Tony Modugno, owner of Jamco Wood Products Ltd., a Malton company that manufactures restaurant furniture. Modugno was intrigued by the concept, Dhanoa says,


"He's been in the business for 30 years but he'd never come across such an idea and decided to take on the project."


One problem was that wooden tabletops would be too heavy once Ali's creations were added. So Jamco created 50 tabletops in three shapes — square, rectangular and round — using a lighter material.


When Ali was done, the challenge was how to protect his creations from crumbs and spills. Jamco's solution was a special rubber lining to vacuum-seal the glass tabletops and hold them in place.


It took Ali about six months to do the tabletops, with Dhanoa adding his own ideas to the artist's imagination.


"He would call me and say he wants a painting with a cow or doves or a rural well and so on," Ali says. "This was easy for me, because the landscape in Pakistan is similar to India, so I was able to conjure up the images."


But some of Dhanoa's ideas were challenging. He asked Ali for "eight galloping horses looking happy and running (not sideways) but towards me!"


"Happy horses?" a bewildered Ali asked.


Dhanoa explains: "One of my Oriental clients told me that in Feng Shui, eight horses galloping towards you brings good luck."


But eight horses, happy or otherwise, were awkward for a tabletop. That's when Ali suggested the wall murals.


His contribution extended beyond the artwork. He came up with the beige, black and gold décor and even offered to go to Pakistan to get fabric for the seat cushions.


Dhanoa concurred — "I wanted to include something from Pakistan," he recalls — and the result was exactly what he wanted. In all, he spent about $400,000 on the restaurant, $85,000 of that on the artwork and décor.


Before their collaboration, Dhanoa and Ali would not have suspected they had anything in common.


Ali grew up in Singapore where his father was a Pakistani diplomat. He earned a degree in international marketing, and found work in Pakistan. In 1999, he migrated to Canada and settled in Mississauga.


Dhanoa studied medicine in India and migrated to Canada in 1990. He is of Indian heritage but was born in Malaysia where his father was posted. He and his sister opened their first restaurant in Markham in 1996.


  • Bombay Bhel Fine Dining, 230 Commerce Valley Dr. E., Unit 3, near Leslie St. and Highway 7 in Thornhill, opened last December. It operates weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m., weekends 1 to 9:30 p.m. The phone number is 905-771-6957.