Tackling racism with Indian spices

Having been ridiculed for the smell of curries from her school lunch box in the 1980s, Shyamla now uses a spice box and conducts art workshops for preschool kids to nip racism in the bud.

The oppression of minorities happening all over the world is not just a problem with adults. For many, it starts at a young age. It happens with the name-calling, the snarky remarks, the disgusted faces made by peers. Unfortunately for some, this discrimination leads to distancing themselves from their own identity and culture. While growing up in Sutherland Shire, Sydney, Shyamla Eswaran, was experiencing this discrimination first-hand from her classmates and was too ashamed to embrace her culture.

Shyamla, daughter of a Tamil father and Fiji-Indian mother, remembers the reaction her lunchbox got at school from quite a young age. “The moment I opened my lunchbox, the aroma of the curries would spread throughout the class and all my classmates would make disgusted faces and comments.” This experience impacted her.

Shyamla recalls the first time she attended an Indian classical dance performance; she was mesmerised by it. She fell in love with the delicate wrist movements, the beautiful facial expressions, and the elegant postures. Still, she knew she could never associate herself with her own culture or even attempt to learn this dance form in fear of not being accepted.
Having grown up in a typical suburb during the 1980s, Shyamla was “the only brown kid” in her school and was often subjected to such incidents. As she grew older, she felt she had to distance herself from her roots and her culture as much as she could to be accepted by her peers and by the society.

So, for a long time, Shyamla learnt only Western dance forms and only took sandwiches for her lunch at school. “This was probably the time I started to feel ashamed of my culture and my food.”, Shyamla recalls.

As she grew up, as she learnt more about the ways of the world and about her own culture, Shyamla knew what had happened to her was very wrong. She started embracing her identity and her roots.

Since she was a kid, Shyamla was attracted to the glamourous Bollywood and the Indian dances which she started to learn then. She started to infuse those Indian dances with the other western forms she had learnt over the years. But that wasn’t enough for her.

She wanted to make an impact at a grassroots level. After she finished her studies, she started working first as a media advisor and then as a public affairs officer at the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2009. “While I was a part of a team that made a difference, I felt like something was missing. The process was too slow and I often found myself questioning if this was my true calling.”, explained Shyamla. While she enjoyed her work, she felt a disconnect. So Shyamla went back to the drawing board.

With some guidance from her friend, Adam Hill, who is a First Nations artist, she connected with an artist agent. Shyamla started performing Bollywood acts in schools. She aimed at increasing awareness about Indian cultures and Indian art forms through these acts. “And then, one day, my agent asked me if I would be willing to perform at a preschool. I was really hesitant at first, but then my agent explained that if I aim at bringing about a change, preschool would be the perfect age to start with,” Shyamla said.

That’s how she started ‘BollyKids’ – A beautiful act introducing Indian culture and Indian spices to preschool kids. Shyamla used this opportunity to introduce the various spices used in Indian food to preschool kids in schools and childcare centres across Sydney.
After performing her dance routine, Shaymla sits with these kids and brings out the show-stopper of her act. The spice box! The ‘masale ka dibba’ or spice box that is found in every desi household helped Shyamla introduce the various smells and flavours associated with Indian food. “Some kids might say ‘ew’, or ‘that smells weird’. But I explain why that is not right to say. Instead, I encourage them to say ‘that is an interesting smell’. Being introduced to the culture and these acts at such a young age will help these kids understand Indian food, Indian art form during the formative years of their life. Hence, there is hope that a brown kid in that class will not be bullied or made fun of for his/her appearance or food. They might be accepted for who they are.”

This hope, this desire to change young minds and her relentless efforts led to fulfilling another lifelong passion of forming a South Asian dance group. By this time, Shyamla had learnt many different Indian folk dances. She then started Bindi Bosses. An amazing dance group with South Asian women who address topics like female empowerment and cultural inclusion with their acts. ‘Bindi Bosses’ don’t just perform dances; they celebrate South Asian culture and folklore with their acts.

“Bindi Bosses gave me an opportunity to connect with such amazing fellow artists. We got together to represent and promote our classical and folk dances. And these artists were not just from India, they were from different regions in the South Asian belt,” Shyamla said. From being praised for her choreography by Lilly Singh to performing at the Women’s World Cup 2020, this group of powerful dancers are next level. Shyamla makes sure that the platform that she is getting for her group is respected and is used as a stepping stone to tackle the important issues that they have always wanted to highlight with their work.

Finally, this year Shyamla’s life came full circle. From being ridiculed for her culture, to embracing and promoting her culture, to now being awarded for the impact that she has made! Shyamla won the Australian National Maritime Museum Arts and Culture Medal last month.

“The fact that such a category even exists is wonderful for all artists in Australia.” Elated with the win, Shyamla adds, “This proves that art and dance bring people together, promotes social inclusion. I hope all Indians, all South Asians, every person of colour is motivated by this to embrace their culture and proudly present it to the world.”

Shyamla’s journey from being this confused kid to a badass boss is truly inspirational. Shyamla had one parting message for Australian-Indian kids who might be facing the same hardships as she did, “You don’t have to choose. You can embrace both cultures – Australian as well as the culture of your homeland. Be mindful of how you are representing it. So just be yourself and don’t ever feel like you don’t belong to any one community or culture.”

By P. Harsora