Updated: Sep 3, 2021
This illustrated talk was presented on August 16, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.
The Bir Khalsa is but one narrative among many in India waking to a smaller world and may help us understand how hidden aspects of history are revealed through performance or storytelling.
ccccOur stories and performances reveal our selves in ways that words may not be able to. India is going though what is probably the largest demographic shift in the history of humanity. Millions are moving from villages to cities, carrying within their selves their mythologies, histories and ways of looking. An increase in income and wealth has created a new confidence in peoples once poor, repressed or unsure. Particularities long suppressed due to poverty, foreign rule or suffering have begun to flow again. Identities, religious and cultural, once overwhelmed and displaced, are being freed, and what cannot be written or spoken about is expressed through various forms of storytelling. As the saying goes, ‘History flows in our blood and is not written in our books.’ For many in the once- ‘remote’ areas of India, regional talent shows and the Internet have become stages for the sharing of performances and stories. These are photographs of a semi-rural troupe of performers—the Bir Khalsa group—at a ‘talent show’ in a small Indian city. I captioned the works with quotes from Sikh mythology and the words of the performers themselves.
ccccThroughout India, people are retreating from the global to the local. They are retreating back into the culture and traditions of their communities because they do not feel protected in a globalized world. The hyper-dangerous feats and machismo of the Bir Khalsa performance seemed to reveal more than was intended. It was in an in-your-face display of warrior ability, strength and resilience.
ccccThis district, the group comes suffered terribly in times of ‘terrorism’, the police as well as terrorists killing up to 20,000 of the men (according to Gurdeep, the group’s leader).
‘The men in Tarn Taran have learnt not to trust anyone in the days of terrorism but to trust their swords,’ says Gurdeep Singh.
ccccThe performances of the Bir Khalsa group attract huge crowds and, though riveting, were hard to watch for me, mostly because any errors in judgement could mean serious injuries or worse for the performers as well as the audience. They chew tubelights, play with superheated iron chains, break concrete blocks and suspend themselves from their necks and so on.
ccccDuring the shoot, I was cut by bits of flying glass, almost had my head walloped by a flaming metal ball attached to a chain and being rotated at high speed by a performer (The ball goes past my lens in Pic No. 2, attached) and was squashed against the stage by an over enthusiastic crowd who pushed forward to get at pieces of coconut from those being smashed with a baseball bat on a teenager’s head.
ccccThe pieces of coconut were covered with bits of tube light. Yet they were wiped clean and eaten as if they were ‘prasad’ or a ‘sacred offering’ by an adoring crowd.
ccccAccording to Gurdeep, the group became famous after being screened on regional talent shows on local networks. Their biggest fillip came when they were shown on a Telugu channel, where the judges were so horrified that one could not watch the show and another seemed deeply disturbed by the end.
ccccBut the crowd loved them. The YouTube video of the show went viral, and they acquired numerous fans across the subcontinent and the world. Since then, they have been invited all over the world to perform: Italy, Slovakia, Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Japan and Germany.
In Gurdeep’s own words
When the holy Sikh gurus were alive, they taught us how to fight against Muslim invaders at that time. These invaders caused a lot of suffering in the Punjab as well as in different parts of northern India. so the gurus made it compulsory for young men to learn martial arts, so that they could defend their people and protect their culture.
ccccOur mission in Bir Khalsa is to uphold what the tenth guru said: That it is compulsory to learn martial arts both for the strengthening of the body as well as the mind, so that we can face anything mentally and physically.
ccccWe at Bir Khalsa want to promote discipline and mental courage in the face of all modern day problems. We want to teach people to manage themselves at a young age, no matter what challenges or danger comes their way. Though we are carrying out what our tenth guru has said, this is not only about religion but also about discipline and the right way to live. In today’s modern world, people are getting soft. They are exposed to bad influences like drugs and violence and terrorism. Crime is increasing day by day. People don’t challenge their bodies and minds any longer. We want to bring out the special powers within us and to keep god happy also. We wish to fight for the right reasons and for justice.
ccccWe want to make sure that all of us keep ourselves pure in mind and that we remain physically fit to face any threat. We are teaching Sikh martial arts and techniques for strengthening both mind and body in many areas near Amritsar now. We conduct classes and training programmes in many villages.We need this now more than ever.
cccc‘The world is a drama staged in a dream’—a caption which draws upon the words of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus.
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Ryan Lobo is a filmmaker, writer and photographer who has produced and shot more than 80 documentaries on subjects from the Afghan drug trade to Papua New Guinean tribal rites to King Cobras, and various photography and film projects for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and C&A Foundation. His films have aired on National Geographic, Animal Planet, OWN and PBS, among other networks. A TED speaker, Lobo has co-produced the 2011 Sundance Film Festival award-winning film, The Redemption of General Butt Naked. Lobo owns Mad Monitor Productions, a film-and photo-production company based in Bangalore and is author of Mr Iyer Goes to War.