Inquilab Zindabad

I don’t remember the first time I heard the story of my great-grandfather. I was too young to really imbibe the great meaning behind it. But the story had enough of an effect on me, that I remembered it as I got older. When I became a choreographer and started choosing subjects for my work, I knew one day I would create a piece honoring my great-grandfather Bhagwan Singh Gyanee, who was the president of the Gadar party from 1914-1920. He lived one hell of a life: He had to escape India wanted dead or alive by the British government, used his position as a Granthi at a gurdwara in Hong Kong to preach revolution and spent the next almost forty years of his life traveling the world spreading the word of Indian independence.

“Red, Saffron, and Green” premiered at CounterPULSE in San Francisco August 15-18th. I was chosen to participate in the CounterPULSE Performing Diaspora program, which supports artists based in “traditional forms” who create innovative works through their experimentation with these forms. CounterPULSE, as an organization that supports creativity and radical thought, was a perfect house for this particular work.  “Traditonal” artists are usually boxed in by their levels of “ethnic” and exotic appeal; the Performing Diaspora program provided a venue for the story of my great-grandfather to be told.

I draw from Bhangra and also West African dance from Guinea, the forms I am trained in. It is an unlikely combination for a desi-American woman, born and raised in the U.S. American south. “Red, Saffron, and Green” wove together spoken word, theater, dance, music and film to bring the story of the Gadar Party to life. Here is the text I wrote and performed for the opening piece: 

Revolt. Rebellion. Mutiny.
A patriotic, anti-despotic
This land is not your land, this land is my land anthem.
The struggle of brown versus white
Justice versus might
Inferior, sub-alterior, third eye with cloudy sight…

The story bleeds from generations inside of me,
Pumping through sinews of my family tree—
I flash back.
I relinquish contemporary freedoms,
Mexican or Thai,
red, white or blue,
beretta or glock.
I relinquish the kingdom of me.

“The time will come soon when rifles and blood
will take the place of pens and ink,”
Choosing violence over Gandhi’s silence,
This war is not fought in my belly


photo credit: Robert Hsiang


The line in quotes, “The time will come soon when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink,” comes from a piece of Ghadar literature I found while doing research. And since Bhagwan Singh Gyanee was a prolific writer, I had a lot of written material to draw inspiration from. My collaborator, singer Ishmeet Narula, set one of my great-grandfather’s revolutionary poems to music. With two other dancers, and dholi Bongo Sidibe, we brought to life anti-British poetry, with all its not-so-subtle suggestions of what the British could do with themselves and what kind of cowards they truly were.

For me, an important part of the story is the connection to San Francisco—the city I’ve called home for the last 10 years, faced with a huge gentrification and eviction problem, thanks to giant tech companies like Google and Facebook. It strikes me that my great-grandfather was walking around here 100 years ago-with all his revolutionary thoughts in his head, imagining a world where his people would be free to live, not as subjects to insatiable, vampiric power. I ask in the closing text:

All these martyrs who gave their lives
What would they think now?
Materialism takes the place of imperialism,
White is still the new black,
Women fear men,
Pollution fears nothing.
Did we really fight for shopping malls and marriage halls?
Pizza stalls and silken shawls?
Education as sublimation to social protocol?

Are we better off?


photo credit: Robert Hsiang





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