Performing artist and choreographer Krystal Kiran embraces being part of the "third culture" straddling India and Canada
After breaking barriers on-stage, she's now ready to share the lessons that she's learned with the next generation of South Asian artists
Actor, dancer, singer, choreographer, and producer Krystal Kiran knows what it’s like to feel fragmented. As a self-described “third culture” kid—the daughter of Punjabi immigrants—she didn’t feel entirely at home growing up in the largely white world of Penticton with her brother in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now a resident of West Vancouver, Kiran defines the third culture as a space where people feel they do not belong to any dominant cultural group because their parents came from another place with different traditions.
“We were born and raised in Canada, but our parents are Indian, for example,” Kiran said in a phone interview with the Straight. “So when we also go back to India, we’re not seen as Indians. We’re seen as foreigners.”
Like many of South Asian ancestry, she was scarred by discrimination in the 1980s. In her case, a dance teacher told her that another student’s mother didn’t want her in the same class because of her Punjabi Sikh heritage. That caused Kiran to quit for an entire year. She told her mother that she had suffered a shoulder injury.
But Kiran missed dance so much that she returned the following year, more determined than ever. As she looks back today, she feels that this experience was a factor in her drive and dedication, which has propelled her to astonishing career successes.
”I also cannot deny that the sense of striving and accomplishment is also linked to racism and, therefore, trauma,” Kiran added. “As I reflect on my career over the years, I am able to look in retrospect and hindsight where and how this has played out, both positively and negatively.”
From the PNE to Broadway
Three years after performing at the PNE in Vancouver, Kiran made her professional debut at the age of 19 in the dance ensemble of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway production of Bombay Dreams. Bollywood’s legendary Farah Khan choreographed the show.
Kiran heard about Bombay Dreams when it was being performed in London, and she jumped at the chance to audition when it came to New York. In addition to dancing, she was cast as the understudy to the lead character. The production also featured music by Indian composer A. R. Rahman, whose songs Kiran had adored since childhood.
“That was the first time I got to meet him and I got to tell him that I was such a huge fan,” Kiran recalled.
Later, she was invited to perform in the Toronto stage production of Lord of the Rings, in which Rahman teamed up with a Finnish folk band, Värttinä, to create the music. Rahman was at the piano as Kiran and other cast members sang songs during workshops.
Since then, Kiran has acted in western movies and TV shows and performed in major South Asian productions on and off Broadway. These include Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges’s Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, and the Shaw Festival production of The Orchard (After Chekhov), which was written by Serena Parmar. The latter was an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Orchard, featuring a South Asian family in the Okanagan in the 1970s.
She was also a lead singer and soloist on Rahman’s Jai Ho world tour, which was named after his 2009 Oscar-winning song composed for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. With a laugh, Kiran said she felt that she had truly arrived when she was in a Skype conversation with Rahman and saw the letters “A. R.” flash across her screen.
“That really was such a monumental professional experience for me: getting to work with him a few times, but particularly getting to tour with him,” Kiran said.
Embracing the diaspora
On tour, she sang in different languages, including Hindi and English, which brought up that familiar feeling of fragmentation. At times, Kiran worried about whether her Hindi was too heavily accented and if she wasn’t sufficiently Indian to be singing Rahman’s works.
But after performing in places like Texas, which has a large community of expatriate Indians, she had a revelation: there would have been no world tour without the diaspora. And this diaspora should be cherished, whether it was in Singapore, Europe, or Vancouver.
“To feel ‘otherized’ or to feel ashamed that we’re not enough…I was, like, ‘You know what? No! I’m going to call bullshit on that and say the fact that we can straddle two kinds of cultures is our superpower.’ ”
Kiran plans on bringing that message to a free song-and-dance lesson over Zoom as part of this year’s Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts. She will rely on a piece by U.K.-based composer Nitin Sawhney.
“He beautifully explores these classical Indian sounds with other forms of music you wouldn’t necessarily think to put together,” Kiran said. “We’ll be doing an intro of the voice work of it and learning the actual lyrics of the song, which are in Hindi. Then we’ll be melding movement to that as well.”
Kiran loves Bollywood music and films, but she also feels that many westerners don’t always appreciate its many layers. For example, some Bollywood movies, such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, feature classical Indian dance, like the Kathak moves that she performs. It’s not all flashy, modern line dances performed in zany settings. And Bollywood films were instrumental in helping her connect to her Indian culture in her youth.
Parents provided support
Kiran acknowledged that she never would have been able to pursue a career in arts and culture were it not for the strong support from her parents. Her father, Malkit, grew up in Kolkata, a centre of arts and culture and progressive thinking.
Her mother, Jas, was nine years old when she moved from a village in Punjab to Canada. According to Kiran, her mom wanted to attend dance classes but never had the opportunity.
“She put me in ballet in Penticton when I was three, which was completely out of the norm of the community,” Kiran revealed. “So I feel really fortunate that my parents, in both their ways, appreciated the arts even though they didn’t really necessarily practise them themselves.”
Her company, House of Kiran, is partnering with the South Asian Arts Society, which produces the Monsoon fest, on an ambitious educational project next year to help kids of South Asian ancestry in the Lower Mainland reconnect with their roots. According to Kiran, this will embrace a third-culture approach to dance movement and wellness.
The goal is to create programs that help people of different backgrounds forge mind-body-emotional connections through movement and “unapologetic cultural expression”. And that, Kiran hopes, will help them process unresolved trauma in a safe space regardless of their race, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.
This isn’t Kiran’s first foray into education. She produced, choreographed, and performed in an evocative short dance film, “Thy Beauty’s Doom”, in honour of Maple Batalia, an artistically talented 19-year-old Surrey student who was murdered by a former boyfriend.
The film was inspired by Batalia’s paintings and two Shakespeare sonnets, and if people pay close enough attention, they’ll spot an image of Guru Nanak, the equality-minded founder of the Sikh faith.
Proceeds went to the Maple Batalia Memorial Fund, which offers scholarships to students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
Kiran said that her career experiences have put her in a good position to share her insights with the next generation to help them appreciate their heritage. She’s even planning to offer a weekly seva (service with no expectation of reward) class for seniors where they’ll sing and dance old Bollywood hits.
For her, it's important to remember that all of this is taking place on unceded Indigenous lands.
“When moving away from colonized approaches, I believe we actually have the opportunity and ability to heal,” Kiran emphasized. “While I have some ideas on how to approach this, I also know and embrace that the learning process will be continuous and evolving.”