Sukhjit Khalsa on Pursuing Your Passion as a Young Sikh Australian Woman

 

“Sometimes I feel insulated in our community, but when I step out, I realise how privileged we actually are as Sikhs. So what are we doing with that privilege? We’ve got so much access to media and various platforms. Why not follow our dreams?”

Sukhjit Khalsa: Sikh Australian and proud

It was 2016 when Sukhjit Khalsa was thrust into the public eye. Stepping onto an empty and terrifyingly gigantic stage, a then 21-year-old Sukhjit stood before hundreds of audience members and a panel of Australia’s Got Talent judges to deliver a powerful, raw, and stirring spoken word performance detailing her life as a young Australian Sikh.

Sharing stories of her youth, including the time a rotten peach was hurled at her uncle from an Australian man, to the long-standing history of Australian Sikhs, Sukhjit was at times jovial, while at others, searingly raw and questioning. At the heart of her performance however, was an unapologetic and unwavering confidence in her sense of identity.

“When people tell me to go home to where I came from I reply: ‘I’m not the one who’s a freak, I’m fully Sikh!’”

With her quick wit and bright, bubbly personality, Sukhjit has carved out a unique career path for herself in the years following her AGT performance; regularly using her voice and creativity to draw attention to social injustices and issues faced by women, as well as her Sikh and Punjabi community.

Speaking alongside fellow Sikh performer L-FRESH The Lion at the Youth Sikh Professionals Network/ QLD Sikh Society event: Dare To Be Different (see Part 1 with L-FRESH The Lion here), Sukhjit shared that as a teenager she too felt the pressures of following a traditional career path. However, despite her insecurities, Sukhjit made a conscious decision to invest all her energy into her art; making it her mission to conquer as many different forms as possible.

“Once you’ve fallen in love with your passion, it’s hard to think of anything else…”

Sukhjit Khalsa: I'm not the Freak I'm fully Sikh
Source: Facebook/ Credit: Richard Jefferson Photography

“I knew I didn’t want a backup plan,” she shared, speaking personally with audience members on the night. “I want to make sure I’m invested in my artform, whatever that is. I don’t want to spend my life mastering one part of my art, when there’s so many [options to choose from].”

Despite having performed everywhere from the Australian Opera House, to TedxUWA, and stages across Canada, South East Asia, the UK, and USA (as well as being the Youth Commissioner for the Victorian Multicultural Commission), the young artist has had to claw her way through many hurdles. One of the many life lessons she has learned along the way, and now wants to impart on others, centres around the importance of learning to value your work as an artist and small business owner, and standing strong against those who try to take advantage of your talents (ie. the ‘we can’t pay you but it’s great exposure’ types).

“When I first started charging for gigs, I didn’t know how much to charge. Then one day someone said to me, you’re not just charging for the gig, but for all the work that goes into it behind the scenes,” she shared.

L-FRESH The LION and Sukhjit Khalsa
Sukhjit Khalsa and L-FRESH The LION speaking at Dare to Be Different in July 2018. Photo: Jas Rawlinson

YOUNG, AUSTRALIAN AND SIKH – THE CHALLENGES

During the event, Sukhjit also opening up about the many times she has questioned her place in the world as a young Sikh woman  (“I had all these questions…like, ‘As a Sikh, do I have to get married, or is that a Punjabi thing? As a Sikh, do I have to do this [or something else]?”), particularly given the unique differences that come with finding your identity as an Australian Sikh. 

For example, unlike Muslim men and women who ‘could have grown up in Australia, Ethiopia, or France, and had very different cultural identities, but still have Islam as a common ground,’ Sukhjit says things are very different for Sikhs — often leading to complex self-questioning about identity.

“When it comes to faith and culture, I often wonder: what do we have to choose from? I feel like we’ve got Punjab, we’ve got New Mexico, and then we’ve got, perhaps, some people who’ve converted.”

As Sukhjit pointed out on the night, whilst Sikh Australians may feel like a minority, Sikihsm is in fact the fifth largest growing religion in our country. Interestingly, statistics have shown a strong increase in Sikhism from 2006 to 2016, with the religion rising 500% in that decade alone (ABS, 2016). However, even with Sikh men and women representing so much of our population, and the strong connection between faith and creativity, Sukhjit often wonders why Sikh and Punjabi people aren’t more highly represented within the creative arts industry.

This, she says, has made her more aware of the need to ‘get it right’ in terms of being a role model for others, and also fueled her passion to educate, skill, and empower other Sikhs within her community.

“There’s a lot of pressures to be the ‘poster child’ when there’s a lack of representation — not only in Australian media, but also in representing Australian citizens. It’s like you have to get it right.

“Yes, I was born into Sikh faith, and with Sikh identity and all that stuff, so maybe I’m biased in wanting there to be more young Sikhs in Australia stepping into [the creative space] and feeling like they can,” she explained.

“Sometimes I wonder how our faces are such a minority in Australia, but instead of complaining [about a lack of diversity] I’ve decided to just get out there and follow my dreams; and isn’t that a form of leadership? If people want to follow that, they can; if they don’t, who cares,” she says with a shrug.

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Sukhjit’s message is one of ultimate empowerment. She is unapologetic and unabashed in her truth-telling, holding an unwavering commitment to using the opportunities provided to her as an Australian Sikh to not only pursue her passions to the fullest, but to also conquer her fears so that she can inspire and empower others.

“I used to freak out about doing radio…I was so used to seeing people’s faces [in the audience],” she admitted. “Then I decided, you know what, I’m going to conquer that fear! So I went out and did a radio course to ensure I was skilled up, so I can skill other people.

“There are definitely struggles [within this industry], but it is absolutely possible to build a full-time career in the arts! If there’s someone out there who loves painting, [we should be saying] ‘Hey, let’s work on figuring out how you can make it happen!’ Let’s ask ourselves: what’s stopping us?,” she says passionately.

“Sometimes I feel insulated in our community, but when I step out, I realise how privileged we actually are as Sikhs. So what are we doing with that privilege? We’ve got so much access to media and various platforms. Why not follow our dreams?”

MANAGING MENTAL HEALTH AS A SENSITIVE ARTIST

Sukhjit Khalsa Australia's Got Talent

‘If you’re passionate about something, a lot of things hurt, and I’m a very sensitive person.”

When it comes to mental health and creativity, Sukhjit was more than happy to speak openly about the parts of herself she struggles with most, as well as her approach to keeping check of her emotions. Opening up about her vulnerabilities, the 23-year-old shared that like many in the creative industry, she often resorted to ‘self-deprecating’ humour in order to mask the inner-hatred she had for herself.

“I was the class clown in school, because that’s how I dealt — by getting laughs,” she shared. “When I first fell in love with theatre it was because I hated myself…I was calling myself ‘Suki’ instead of Sukhjit. My parents used to laugh, like, ‘What does that even mean?’ Like, in Japanese it has a meaning, but what did it mean to me [as a Sikh]?

“These days we’ve got all the Masterchef stuff, and that’s great [to see how accepted our culture is]; but back in the day, curries were seen as rat poo!” she laughs.

Sukhjit Khalsa: Facebook
“I hid behind the nickname, Suki, for majority of my adolescence because I thought it would make it easier on everyone else; accommodating them to fit a mould. Suki who was embarrassed of her turmeric aroma filling up the playground at lunchtime. Suki who shaved her legs so she wouldn’t get bullied anymore. Suki who was called SUCK-A-SHIT for long enough to make it stick. When I moved to Melbourne I decided it was time to let Suki go as I wanted to be Sukhjit. ” – Sukhjit Khalsa speaking about her struggles surrounding identity via her Facebook.

Today, however, Sukhjit has discovered that a major part of owning her identity both as a woman in the arts, and as a young Sikh, has been to change her mindset around what her ‘flaws’ are; accepting them instead as a strength.

‘If you’re passionate about something, a lot of things hurt, and I’m a very sensitive person. Sometimes I hate on that and wish I was tougher; but now I’ve realised that vulnerability is actually my strength. I can’t hide that stuff anymore…I cry every day!” she says openly.

All my life I thought I was an extrovert until I realised I was putting it on…that I was performing. But I don’t know how to put on a face anymore — I’ve lost that…because I’ve realised how damaging it is and that I need to own my story. As a spoken word poet I can’t do my job unless I’m being authentic.”

This self-understanding of the importance of authenticity and staying true to yourself doesn’t come easy; it means opening yourself up to judgement from not only your peers, but also the public. As a performer, Sukhjit knows that this is a difficult side of her industry, however, she has found that speaking out about important social and cultural issues is more important than the fear of ‘offending’ others.

“I feel like there’s so much judgement in saying one little thing wrong, but expression is now becoming such a natural part of me, that I’ll get physical symptoms if I suppress my feelings. Sometimes I hold onto things that I really want to say because I feel like it will offend someone, but it’s important to get it out,” she says.

“We have so much silence in our society when it comes to things like domestic violence and sexual assault. Once you become aware you can’t unsee it…”

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In a similar vein to L-FRESH The LION’S discussion on the night about mental health and creativity, Sukhjit also credits exercise as a positive and vital tool in managing her mental health, explaining that the work she does can be ‘mentally as well as physically, draining — particularly on stage.’

“We all know mental and physical health are linked. I get lots of gut issues, weird back pain…that’s where I store my stress,” she explained. “I want to feel stronger physically — and as a woman I also want to be stronger in terms of feeling safe [when in public]…,” she continued. “I want to be equipped to punch someone — self-defence of course!,” she says, hands up in mock fashion as the audience laugh along heartily.

On her list of future goals, Sukhjit is aiming to open her own theatre company — “It could be dance, spoken word,” she says — with a focus on incorporating multi-art formats and contemporary Sikh storytelling. 2019 will also be a huge year, with the young performer set to perform her story: Fully Sikh in collaboration with Black Swan and Barking Gecko Theatre Co-Production. It will be Australia’s first Sikh Australian Play. 

Only time will tell what this inspiring young woman has in store, however, one thing is certain: if you haven’t yet committed her name to memory, you better do it now; because Sukhjit Khalsa is an incredible female talent who will only continue to rise!  

Thank you to the Young Sikh Professionals Network Australia and Queensland Sikh Society for putting on such a great event, allowing me a media pass, and for being so welcoming!

 

Love inspiring stories of triumph over adversity? Grab your copy of ‘Reasons To Live One More Day, Every Day’ below! 

L-FRESH The LION reasons to live one more day, every day

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