When this 21-year-old Sikhni from Perth came on the Australia’s Got Talent show 2016, she took the nation by storm. Her videos went viral and overnight Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa became a sensation. Through spoken word poetry, her forte, Sukhjit took the audience on a journey her family has endured as immigrants with humour and satire. Her forefathers, she said, came to this country hundreds of years ago and called it their home. So she won’t take it lying down that some random guy would call her turbaned father ‘a terrorist’. Her performance touched the chords of every migrant and every Australian that has embraced diversity and multiculturalism.
With her long curly locks, nose ring and caramel skin and ‘values’ taught by her parents, Sukhjit wears her Sikh identity on her sleeve. And it was that identity that she was very proud to show Australia on stage, on a big platform. Loud and confident, she stood to tell a story. On the night of her performance, somewhere in the city, a Greek owner of a pizza shop was glued to television like everyone else. But he was crying.
“My poem was about discrimination period. My dad being called a terrorist is my experience of discrimination but everyone has their own. Every migrant has experienced that and it is hard to let go off those experiences and that is why it resonates with every migrant,” she later tells The Indian Weekly over a candid interview.
COMING OUT OF HER SHELL
By her own admission, Sukhjit was a timid child scared of public speaking and the limelight. For a long time at school she had only one best friend. Her teachers would rank her high on all fronts but when it came to confidence there was always a question mark. It was also something that confused her parents, for at home she was the ‘crazy monkey’ dancing around and bossing over her elder brother and sister. But in social gatherings she hid behind her mother’s chunni (scarf) only to be labelled a pooch (tail).
What changed then? When Sukhjit was at Year Six, a teacher she quite feared but who would become her best friend pushed her into drama, public speaking and the arts. It would change her life greatly. “Through drama I learnt that I could be who I wanted, I could act like anyone and I could show my true personality.” By the time she was in Year Seven, everyone was shocked at her transition as they had not seen her crazy, confident side. “After that I just got louder and I haven’t shut up. My mom wishes she could shut me up now,” she laughs, adding, “Sometimes you need coaches, mentors and people who can provide you with what you need.”
Soon Sukhjit worked her way up to play the leads in school dramas. She also became the head girl and went to leadership camps in different schools. But it was at university where she graduated with a Masters in Political Science and International Studies degree, that she discovered the power of her voice and words. Taking part as a member of the Youth Parliament, she made one of the most impactful speeches on bullying.
At the same time, she realised that she had to drop all the dreams she had harboured of becoming a politician because she did not fit in with the ‘harsh environment’. “I always thought to make change in the world you had to be a Prime Minister or a leader. But you realise these leaders are just the face of a party. Even though politics is one way to work on policy and enabling society to become a better place, I think that it’s a long process and it can make people ugly. I am a very sensitive person, so for me artistic expression is my avenue of using social justice and human rights and merging the two. And I think through spoken word poetry I found a balance between the two in communicating ideas.”
How Sukhjit got introduced to spoken word poetry was when she was in Prague for an exchange program as a university student. Her friends there were talking about it and she had no idea but upon googling discovered the legendary spoken word artist Sarah Kane on YouTube. “It blew my mind on how powerful and beautiful a tool it is to express an idea.”
Back in Perth, Sukhjit opted for creative writing as an elective unit in her study. And the next thing: she rocked up at a spoken word poetry competition “because I wanted to watch what it was like. My friends forced me to put my name. Turns out they call my name first, I had no choice but to perform.” She rapped a poem which was a satire on the Indian community and its particular attitudes to short dresses. Before she realised she had secured a place in the finals of the National Australian Poetry Slam in 2014 which was held in the Sydney Opera House. Although she did not win, she was among the 14 selected from all over the country and had her first big exposure.
“I was shocked that I made it that far. I had no idea that I was competing against people who had authored books and were quite quality. I had never even done something like that before but I guess it does help to have a performing background. Spoken word poetry is like doing a monologue.” That weekend Sukhjit penned down her version of Advance Australia Fair which bowled the judges and audience at the Australia’s Got Talent show.
THE BIG JUMP
Sukhjit moved to Melbourne about 11 months ago. And during this time of transitioning, she got a mail from the team of Australia’s Got Talent. One thing led to another and she found herself auditioning and being selected. “I didn’t understand how big it was. I expected everyone to hate my poem and my performance as it was controversial.” But she made it through to the semi-finals.
The show was definitely her biggest jump. “In some ways, all these experiences I had in life had prepared me how to represent myself, articulate , how to deal with all the PR stuff but what I didn’t prepare myself for was how many people this would reach. I assumed it would be just Australia.”
What she didn’t expect was walking down the street and people knowing her name. “That is hard for me to comprehend and getting the amount of messages, emails and the amount of opportunities that have happened in these last two weeks. It’s like I am now reaping the benefits of all my hard work. I didn’t expect the benefits, I just thought it was a seva (service), that this is my thing for all the brothers and sisters that haven’t been able to voice their struggle. And it’s just not a Sikh thing, it is universal.”
There are a lot of reasons why Sukhjit started dabbling in the art of spoken poetry. Growing up in a staunch Sikh family, Sukhjit says like everyone else she went through her own journey when it came to Sikhism. For instance, dealing with hair issues has been a journey in itself. It was in Year 8, the first term of high school when a guy remarked, “Wow those are very hairy legs”. For some reason she got so affected by the comment because “I didn’t grow up with beauty magazines etc., and was not exposed to the concept of hair removal. I was like ‘oh my goodness’. I saw my legs for the first time and actually saw my hair. I thought everyone else was the same or maybe people weren’t born with hair. I wasn’t conscious and suddenly I became so conscious. It’s like when you have these insecurities and look at the mirror and it stays.” She ended up not going to school for two weeks.
At first Sukhjit didn’t talk about it. Instead she started getting obsessed with hair. “I remember having the biggest cry and finally I said I really want to remove them. And then my brother and my mom came in my room. I was 12 years old then and they said ‘we are going to love you no matter what so you do what you need to do but you know your dad is going to be really angry. You have to fend for yourself. So from a very young age I had to learn how to stand up for things that I wanted.”
For four years, Sukhjit admits to shaving her legs, felt she was beautiful and went to school. But the bullying did not stop. It was then that she realised she gave the bullies more power. “I didn’t do it because I felt good but I did it because I wanted them to accept me.”
However, it wasn’t through an overnight realisation that she stopped shaving. “I did it because I just want people to know that there is a choice and people should respect both ways. If someone choses to strip, if someone choses to remove their hair, I respect everyone. You are not hurting anyone so we all deserve that option of being accepted no matter which way. I don’t think it’s up to the world to debate over because it is our body.”
At a monologue she did in Year 12, Sukhjit talked about this journey of her hair. “It was just about my dad plaiting my hair as a kid with coconut oil and it smelling so bad and us washing our hair and competing as to whose was the longest. Then I talked about body hair. Through that piece I learnt and that hair grows and it keeps growing so I came in a full circle.”
But most importantly, she says it is very important for parents to understand that if she was not given that room to grow and realise on her own she wouldn’t be in her own roots. “Otherwise right now I would want to rebel every day. It’s about giving all the tools whether they are Sikh values that they want to pass on, and I think that’s more powerful than forcing children to do things. So I was given room to explore, and I have learnt that hair will keep on growing, I am too lazy and it’s too expensive to indulge in all that.”
Moreover, at university she also got exposed to feminism and her feminist beliefs started taking over. “I started asking why was I doing it? Was I doing it for me, was I doing it for boys, was I doing it for attention? I didn’t feel any less beautiful when I was not shaving. What is beauty? Is it externalised? When I started researching hair removal I found that in the 1920s there was an ad of a girl with her shaved armpits. It was a marketing technique used by a company to target women. Dresses started getting shorter. So as soon as you showed more skin you had to shave. It’s amazing if we understand the history of things, it changes your perception of why we do it today.”
Sukhjit admits she has come to her own realisation. “Yes initially it did start as a Sikh belief. Certain Sikhs will say there is spiritual energy in your hair, others will say every hair has a practical purpose, and yet some others will say it is accepting the body in its natural form. And yes maybe I grew with all those things but I also think I have come to my own. So as a kid when people would ask why is your hair so long or why don’t you drink, as a first generation Australian it is very easy to say ‘oh it’s my religion’ and just toss it off but if you put some thought to it that’s not what Sikhism says . It doesn’t say blindly follow everything, it says question everything, question what you do in your daily life. So now I go out every morning and I go ‘hmm I might live up to what I preach, my parents taught me if it’s not practical it is not Sikhi’. So now I have to use that rule in my daily life.”
The reason, Sukhjit says she wrote poetry and did drama was because of its healing effects “not just for others but for me too. When I am going through a tough time I need to write about it and perform it. A lot of artists write down a journal but I need to perform it so I can externalise it and detach myself – and that’s my way of knowing that I have let go and move on. I have training in acting but it is still about creating those emotions even though I have gotten over the incidents. So when someone down the street, say a guy, makes a comment about my hairy legs, yes I am over it. I have dealt with that and I have learnt to deal with my insecurities but other people around in the community have not dealt with it. So it’s important for us, especially as women, to call out racism as migrants but also calling out sexism on the streets because other women will be empowered to speak up. Sometimes we don’t know we actually have these rights. And it’s also love and compassion. My poem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ has a lot of anger and a lot of compassion too.”
Her poetries, she admits, are for a niche market. She pens down her incidents through a stream of consciousness. “Then I make it more creative, that’s when I filter and filter.” She warns, “You don’t have to love everything I say. And of course I am going to take the opportunity to say what I want in those few minutes I have.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Sukhjit says the popularity she has gained out of Australia’s Got Talent is cute for now. “It gets to the point where sometimes you have to say it is a blessing but I am also trying to push everyone away from idolising me. I want people to idolise the message and enacting change in their own lives. It is great to have to listen to people’s words of support but I also want people to speak up for themselves.”
And she does not see herself as a very intellectual or theoretical person. “Even though I went to the university of Western Australia I am surprised they gave me a degree,” she laughs, adding “I was not a very good student and don’t see myself very good in writing essays etc. but one thing I do draw upon is human experiences and personal connection. I gain more from walking down the street than watching the news. It is very important to be well informed but what makes me feel real about my performance is the fact that I base it in real incidents, so it becomes original and people can relate.”
Life in Melbourne, says the talented girl, is like living the dream. “I got more opportunities in one week in Melbourne than in my whole life in Perth. Perth is a beautiful, comfortable place with a great lifestyle but if you want to work in the arts, Melbourne is the place to be.” Which is why she packed her bags and came on a one-way ticket.
Melbourne’s multiculturalism, she says, is amazing. “You know how it is always easy to group yourself, whether it is within the Indian, Sikhs or Australian society. I found that my family taught me to be a floater, so you float around, you get along with everyone, you treat everyone with respect, even the people that might not want to give you respect. So whether it was in the Gurudwara or at school, and even though I was a hairy nerd, I still was respected by different clicks because I chose to get along with everyone.”
Asked if she has finally arrived at a definition of her own identity, Sukhjit says, “I feel the Australian and Sikh identity are parallel. We are a very young nation if we are looking at colonisation. Sikh is also a young religion. Both are young and progressive. When I googled about Australian values, the top four things were exactly like the Sikh values.”
However, Sukhjit says she gets to pick and choose what makes her Sukhjit. “When people ask are you fully Sikh or fully Aussie, I say Sukhjit. I am a different breed. I am happy to be Sukjhit and I feel everyone should be the best YOU you can be. I imagine ultimate freedom — and that’s my identity.”
By Indira Laisram