When my collaborators and I created “Half and Halves,” our performance about the Punjabi-Mexican communities of California, as dancers we transformed ourselves into: devastated Punjabi women whose husbands were leaving us to come to America; Mexican and Punjabi farmers laboring in the scorching sun; subdued yet joyous guests at a wedding party; and feisty schoolgirls battling in the playground. The theater transformed from the Brava in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2010 to the Imperial Valley fields in 1906. Some audience members were so moved by the performance that they cried. Many approached me afterwards and told me they were so proud to learn of this history, or that they wanted their Punjabi parents and Mexican friends to see this important show. They were transformed.
On a personal level, I metamorphosized completely, from being insecure about my ability to pull off the show and unclear about my voice as a director and choreographer, to becoming confident with not only my own capability but also my responsibility to do important work. I delved more deeply into compromise (which doesn’t always come easy for me) and collaboration. This experience made me more empathetic, more experimental, and more clear about direction in my career and in my life.
The project I am working on for Performing Diaspora is based on the life of my great-grandfather, Bhagwan Singh Gyanee. Gyanee grew up in India and became a freedom fighter against the British. He was forced to leave India and eventually ended up in San Francisco. While in San Francisco, he joined the Ghadar party, a group of expatriate activists fighting for India’s freedom. He was president of the party from 1914-1920. He toured the United States giving lectures and even spent two years in a federal penitentiary for seditious activities.
It’s only by coincidence that I also live in San Francisco; Gyanee eventually went back to India after it gained independence. Through this performance, I will transform into someone living in the early 20th century, fighting for India’s independence. And I will draw connections between what I’m fighting for as a Punjabi-American living in San Francisco today. I hope the audience will learn something new about the place where they live, and that we’ll be reminded to fight for this city’s ability to transform all of us who live and visit here.
I am excited to dive into this project and explore new ways of creating work. Transformation also means a foray into the unknown. So, I will close my eyes and jump, leaving the anxiety and expectations behind.