I came to Canada from Great Britain in 1968. I was eight years old. I was not welcomed with open arms but rather with closed fists usually aimed at my direction. It was Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, population 100,000. I was one of the only kids of colour in this school and a target for this one particular gang in my 3rd grade class. In London things were different. Almost half the population in my school were of South Asian origin. Sure there was some racism but whoever took me on also took on my white friends. There were some incidents, mostly directed at recent immigrants, and since I was not an immigrant I did not feel threatened. In the world outside this London schoolyard things were considerably more dangerous. You could read in the paper about shops being burned down and immigrants being beaten up and murdered. But I was a kid and all I read were comic books. When I arrived in Canada I really could not understand what was going on, why all of a sudden I became a human punching bag; I honestly did not understand why I was so different.
There was this girl in front of me in class who always turned around and sang, "You come from brown town, you come from brown town." Between getting swung at during recess and sung at during class, school for me became a very discouraging experience. One day this girl turned around for the same old song. The head of this gang who always beat up on me sat in the row next to me . "Hit her, c'mon hit her, go ahead you can do it," he whispered. You see, they hated girls as much as they hated Pakis. So I hit her. The blood flowed and so did the tears, mine and hers. With all my violent encounters with these guys at recess or after school the only thing I was capable of doing was raising my fists. Hitting, I never was capable of doing. Blocking, I wasn't bad at and falling down, I was actually pretty good at. But this girl's nose was the first time that my bony knuckles actually made contact with soft flesh. After school the guys confronted me. I thought I was going to get taunted and teased even roughed up a bit. Why not? Everything else bad seemed to be happening to me that day. But I was cheered like a hero and instead of me running home, with them on my heels or fearfully walking home a half a mile behind them, hoping they would not see me, we all walked home together. For the three years I stayed in Saskatoon these guys became my best friends. I've never had better since then. I never heard another Paki joke and we fought only about stupid things like who could climb the highest tree or whether the puck crossed the goal line or not. But I consider the day that I struck that girl as the day I lost my innocence. Sure I made friends; I loved those guys even though I never saw them again after I moved to Ottawa. But because of the way I gained their friendship, I learned about the power of violence and aggression. I eventually started up karate as a teenager; I got my black belt, began boxing and kickboxing. Anyone who called me Paki paid dearly for it and even though I hated the stupid jokes that my "so called" friends told, I always had the impression that I was allowing them to tell these jokes. I tried to convince myself of a lot of things in those teenage years. One of them was that people respected and feared me. "See that guy, he's got a black belt in karate." Yet it wasn't until my early '20s that I admitted to being a South Asian. It was also at this age I stopped doing the martial arts and began to study the performing arts. Ballet tights replaced Karate pants, grande jetés replaced flying kicks and the first dance piece that I created was a solo entitled, Retourning to Innocense".
The Colour of Dance
I was in Toronto watching a performance of the London Contemporary dancers. The curtain raised and a number of figures swarmed elegantly onto the stage: women, men, some black, some white and...what's this...brown!?! It was the first time I had seen someone of Indian origin dancing in a western dance troupe. It was Darshan Bhuller and he was magnificent. I was mesmerized by him; all I could do was watch him. He seemed to turn better and jump higher than any of the other dancers; I do not know whether this was true or not but it seemed so to me. When I saw this dancer something stirred inside of me—recognition and a sense of pride; here is a man, brown like myself, dancing for one of the world's finest dance companies.
At this time I was studying dance at the Toronto Dance Theatre and what interested me was being a contemporary artist. I did not want to create from the past but build from the present in order to create something new, something that no one has ever seen before. India and my relationship with this country seemed anchored to the past.
When I saw the films, My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid I felt again this sense of pride of being Indian because here was someone who is brown, like myself, who is creative, and who is doing good work and getting recognized for it. Darshan Bhuller inspired the dancer in me, Hanif Kureishi inspired the creator in me.
But it was Kureishi's essay, The Rainbow Sign, that had the strongest impact upon me. The essay made me feel, that I was not alone; I had an impression that I was reading about my own youth. I recognized a great deal of what Mr. Kureishi wrote when he talked about the shame of being a non-white. When I decided to create a dance solo about my Indian experiences, I was greatly influenced by the line in The Rainbow Sign about the black boy who threw himself into a bath of boiling water. This single paragraph, in fact, was the origin for much of the creative elements in my piece. Instead of using a bath tub of boiling water, I used electric kettles in order to get my images across; the steam and whistling sound creates an interesting visual and sonoric effect. As far as the music was concerned, I found a fine collaborator in Himmat Shinhat from Montreal. It was important for me to search out someone who knew where I was coming from. I first saw Himmat in a performance given by the (Montreal) Serai theatre group. He appeared on stage playing a mean electric guitar. The section involving the text from The Rainbow Sign where Kureishi describes his childhood friend who needed exactly that type of 'sound.' Thus began our collaboration. What worked well in Himmat's composition for the piece is that just as I integrated Bharatanatyam with modern western dance, he too integrated western music with South Asian music.
Burning Skin came from my need to create and my need to affirm myself as a South Asian. It was a very liberating experience. I had a great deal of healing to do, and I could not do it without trying to understand who I was and where I came from. Without this exploration, I would never be a complete artist nor a complete human. To begin discovering my Indian self through Bharatanatyam seemed more real to me. Dancers are people of passion and I wanted to approach my Indian culture by getting in contact with people who share my love for dance.
I am not the one to push Indian dance into the mainstream. This is because I am not a practitioner of any single Indian dance form. I have studied it over the last two years but specifically for this piece. There are those who have been practising Indian dance all of their lives and it is for them to renew this art form. I am a modern dancer. Bharatanatyam is merely one of the elements that I use in my work, just as I use ballet, theatre, the martial arts and of course modern dance. What is more important to me is my own personal vocabulary of movement. This is movement that no one has taught me; it is movement that comes from inside. To me this is more Indian than any dance form that I could learn because the part of me that generates these particular types of movements goes so deep inside me that it touches the source, the very essence of who I am. Despite the fact that I was born in England and have never as yet been to India, part of who I am is Indian. This is reflected in the way I move. I guess it's in the genes.