5 Questions with Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa
Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa is a Perth-based performer who has travelled internationally for her art. Her work often engages with themes of identity, family, and belonging. At present, she is working on a theatre performance, Fully Sikh.
We talk with Sukhjit Kaul about learning how to perform and her current projects. Exploring ideas of craft, movement, and audience we wanted to know how she manages to balance all her interests and where her desire to be heard comes from.
How did you become interested in performance?
On the stormy May morning when I was born in ‘94, I came out of my mum’s womb performing. As the youngest child I’ve always been the clown in the family, easing the tension with my “recitals” which 2019 would call immersive theatre breaking the fourth wall.
Apparently the first script I wrote, or rather bossily dictated to my older sister, was when I was four years old. It was a dreamscape where my grandma was coming to visit us from India and the audience turned into the passengers on the plane as she complained about everything. Mamaji enters the suburban Leeming house with presents for the grandchildren and her son, but nothing for her daughter-in-law. Then my older siblings and I switch things up and begin to impersonate each family member. No one gets left out. Four year old me didn’t discriminate when it came to embarrassing and exposing what she heard and saw. Not much has changed since then.
I’ve just gotten bigger(ish) boobs and discovered spoken word poetry. I guess in between then and now, I was the shy girl in primary school that only did these performances in my comfort zone at home. I only showed that part of me around my loved ones and my bestie Georgia Smyth. In the outside world, I kept a low profile, barely spoke and was mortified if any attention was on me. #onlybrownkidinschool #smellycurryforlunch #fittingin #bullying #lowselfesteem.
I had an awesome teacher, Mr Wheatley, whom I owe for pushing me out of my comfort zone and performing. I got addicted to showing this part of myself and so the journey as an extrovert began.
That journey has taken you lots of places. Can you explain some highlights from your past shows?
For the last four years I’ve been on a whirlwind of adventures, performing in every state in Australia, touring America, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, and the UK. Most of these spoken word gigs have been with a mix of workshops for youth (and sometimes Sikh parents). This is where the real magic happens. My fave workshop was with a group of a hundred teenage Sikh boys. The energy, the transformation, vulnerability and mind fucking on both ends were pretty epic! I love a challenge like that.
My favourite performances have been:
my first poetry performance was at The Bird in Perth where I accidentally entered the Australian Poetry Slam which led me to perform with some epic peeps at the Opera House (I have still kept the dress I wore, for sentimental reasons)
yelling poetry over the religious fuelled voices of men at Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, London (probably the hardest gig I’ve ever done)
being the opening act for Missy Higgins at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre, Melbourne (she’s so warm and chill)
There have been lots of highlights.
Apparently the first script I wrote, or rather bossily dictated to my older sister, was when I was four years old.
It sounds like you have been busy. What do you have in the works now?
After living in Melbourne for over three years, I’ve come back to my hometown Perth and am really sinking my teeth into some projects. I’m currently finishing up my spoken word narrative script for Fully Sikh (link to Fully Sikh). It is my first theatre debut, and is based on my adolescence. It’s a co-production with Black Swan Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company. I’m super nervous to share this vulnerable work with Perth in October and then hopefully it’ll be touring around the nation and the world (wink wink) for the next couple of years. Lately, I’ve been describing it as a brown person’s Puberty Blues.
I’m also dipping my toes into screenwriting. I’m writing a web series with a mate about Queerness in the South Asian community. There are so many more queer movies coming out of India, which is incredible! Last year homosexuality was decriminalised in India so it’s a good time to shed light on what it’s like to be brown, queer, and to still follow a faith.
I’m no Rupi Kaur, but like many other spoken word artists, I’m keen to publish my poetry. I’ve never really thought of my words as readable but rather to be heard and experienced. I use a lot of character work and tableaux so I always find it hard to write for the page. How will the reader see my facial expressions and bogan accent?
And, from what I have already said, people might know that my heart truly lies in community arts. I think that part of me comes from my generous and community driven family. I’m working on a storytelling workshop series with Centre for Stories to help get non-performers and those that don’t identify as artists out of the ‘burbs and onto stage. This is so that we can work together to add some Vitamin D (D is for diversity) into the industry.
I hear you there, and, diversity and inclusion seem to be having some sort of moment, which comes from a set of our own identities. How does your writing connect to being Sikh?
The spiritual guides that Sikhs call Gurus (there were 10 of them) sung poetry 500 years ago that they transcribed into our holy scriptures The Guru Granth Sahib. Each poem has a raag (link to definition) that goes with it, recommended for what time of the day it should be sung, what season, and to evoke a particular emotion in the listener/reader. So if my ancestors were poets, musicians, touring artists, shit stirrers, social justice warriors, lovers of spirituality and seekers of truth, it makes sense that I, too, would naturally follow this path. Being a Sikh is a part of life, not a thing I can switch off and switch on for a Sunday. It’s how I earn my keep, eat, connect to others, empathise, feel the fire in my belly, speak up, stand up, create, share, express, keep grounded, focus on what’s important, not get too attached, live a balanced life and love. I think the other thing that happened when I burst out of my mum’s V was the “Sikh ambassador stamp” where we were taught to be educators (to white Australia), role models (to other Sikhs) and the best representations of Sikhs. Talk about a pressure cooker about to burst it’s Rajmah (kidney bean curry).
I’m aware that the stage I’m at in my career and artistry is safer than I’d like it to be. The content is pretty vanilla in my opinion, but that’s not what people in Yungabarra or Rockingham would say. It’s confronting for some and comforting for others. My content, like many brown writers, is a response to where I am: Australia. I’m “wow that’s an unusual name” and “ooooo Kama-kama-sutra baby” so the ten step plan is currently in step two or three. Carefully responding to and surviving in the political climate, sticking to topics like race and sometimes palatable white feminism, and sticking to my brown girl with a smile artist box.
I’m not sure where my outlet is for the stuff I really want to talk about and I don’t even think I’ve allowed myself to dream about such things. Maybe there is a fear of being under physical threat. Just casually. Yet I have a duty. A purpose. That’s bigger than me. It’s to bring stories of my community, my people to the forefront.
If you are in step two or three right now, what do you hope you will achieve with your future steps?
I hope I continue to grow and evolve into the artist I’m meant to be by being challenged every day. I hope I stay humble, speak my mind, become more and more free to express what feels natural to me. I hope my audiences stay connected. Whether it’s four-year-old “performance art”, spoken word, screen writing, or publishing my thoughts, I hope I stay true to Sukhjit.
How will the reader see my facial expressions and bogan accent?