It was love of the Yukon and Yukon magic that made this happen.
Gurdeep Pandher was one of the first people I met when I moved to the Yukon. I walked into a Scottish country barn dance at the Old Fire Hall, in Whitehorse, and here was a guy in the remote North in his pagri, at an event, sitting and absorbing the dances and people. I have to admit I was surprised; I wasn’t sure how culturally diverse it would be in the North, having little information about the reality of it. Little did I know who he was, but I remember how friendly he was when he welcomed me here. After a very short time, I learnt about this famous and humble person and saw his videos and dances with his positive, unified messages. But I wanted to find out who and how he came to be successful in the Yukon, Canada and the world.
Gurdeep was born in the small village of Siahar in northern India in a state called Punjab. “Punjab, which is now a state in north of India. It used to be a country, before a British colony. [Punjab has] a rich cultural background,” said Gurdeep. “It [Bhangra] has become a cultural folk dance. If someone is from Punjab, they will know it. It used to be a farmers’ dance.”
Gurdeep was raised on this dance, and in grade 11 he took classes to become a professional dancer. “Like children learn here about ice skating, Bhangra was like my childhood,” said Gurdeep. “That helped me become a good dancer and have an aptitude. Then I started performing more.”
Gurdeep moved to Canada in 2006 and it wasn’t an easy transition in a land very far, physically and culturally, from India. “It was a big cultural shift from the Punjabi and Sikh culture. It was a big difference to the North American culture,” said Gurdeep. “It took me some time to adjust to it. It wasn’t easy, I had to work to live. I was living in B.C., I was treated differently because I looked different, because I had an accent [he advises it was much stronger then], I didn’t have Canadian degree. I didn’t have that much skills to express myself. [I had] great difficulty and challenges fitting in and felt isolated. But sometimes if you feel such things, it can be an inspiration to build a platform and build a voice. Become knowledgeable and learn and what you need to do. I wasn’t able to tell who I am … who I was. Should I fit into that frame or pull people out of that frame. I was able to make a new frame.”
Gurdeep’s spirit is not to be defeated by challenges and, instead, he uses them in his life. “I was turned away from work opportunities. It made me think that we need to learn about each other better; there is no difference between you and I,” said Gurdeep. “That quite inspired me to work towards it. Ending judgements, ending discrimination. Promote inclusion. We are all people; we are all humans. Living in my first years in Canada, I had a stronger impulse in me to spread that message [about] what kind of society we want.”
Similarly, as an immigrant to this new country, your accent, the way you dress, what you look like, your culture, it doesn’t always fit in easily. How much do you change yourself to fit in, or how much should the place you move to fit you in, as you are?
“It doesn’t matter which culture we are born or raised, it stays with you forever,” said Gurdeep. “It doesn’t mean if you shift, or your outlook changes, your connection with your land, your community, your faith … it’s still forever. When I was new in Canada, when I was trying to fit into the Canadian multicultural, I wasn’t that successful at the time. I was like a newly born baby. I felt a bit lost at the time. You want your work to be accepted and included. When that doesn’t happen, you feel rejected. You feel or look different to the group.”
However, Gurdeep visited the Yukon in 2011 as a tourist, and his positive experience visiting encouraged him to move permanently. “I lived in B.C., then moved to Saskatchewan. When I was there, I heard about the Yukon and heard great stuff about the Yukon … like northern lights, midnight sun,” said Gurdeep. “Same for Canadian [who] goes to Punjab; they should be treated the same. It became kind of powerful in me. Living in big cities, I couldn’t find my voice. So I could tell how I feel. Coming to the Yukon, when I moved here, which is smaller, I could easily make friends with the people I resonate with. I was able to make my voice more powerful and could use dance as expression—as equality, inclusion, universal friendship.”
In the Yukon, Gurdeep gained success for his dancing and collaboration, which started from humble beginnings after the Yukon Literacy Coalition asked him to teach dance to children. Now he has videos all over the world.
“I think the Yukon played a huge role, an important role. It was first Yukoners who responded [to me], then the world responded,” Gurdeep said. “I am so thankful to Yukoners to help spread my message to the world … huge part of my development and growth and the magic that has happened. Strange things are done under the midnight sun,” he said, laughing.
Gurdeep’s perseverance, adaptability and positive message resonate with people in the Yukon and around the world. His success didn’t happen overnight, and as he overcame his struggles, he used them to build his brand “Gurdeep.”
“Even in the Yukon, everything wasn’t so easy. I had to work hard here, too,” said Gurdeep. “I’m from a small village. In a village, everyone knew everyone and we worked in a collaborative way. I take the whole Yukon as my village. I don’t want to just work solo, I want to create fusion.
“It helps both worlds when you build something together. You tell you story, but you learn their story, too. There are forces in the world to tear people apart, and it’s so important to bring people together. It allows me to break these barriers … we can work together even if we are different.“
His new Bhangra show will be held on December 18 at the Yukon Arts Centre. It will host an eclectic and universal mix of artists and performers from the Yukon and Canada. Visit https://www.gurdeep.ca/bhangra-show-2018.