20 Jun 2016

Sweet Rewards: Indians celebrate 125 years in New Zealand

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 20 June 2016

Seven-year-old chatterbox Ananya can’t wait to dance.

“We’re gonna dance on stage!” she says. “Our teacher said we’re going to get trophies and certificates and snackpacks. I can’t wait till the trophies!”

Waikato born Ananya is rehearsing bhangra style dancing with a dozen other children at the Claudelands Arena in Hamilton for Vaisakhi Mela - the harvest festival for the Punjab region of India celebrated in April

Ananya’s mum Sonum says it’s important for her daughter to connect with her Punjab heritage.  “These kids are born here so they need to know where we come from and that’s what we’re trying to teach them.”

Vaisakhi Mela is considered the Sikh New Year - one of the most important dates in the Sikh calendar. It also commemorates the year 1699, in which Sikhism was born as a collective faith which has around 25 million followers who believe in one creator and social justice for all.

New Zealand’s Sikh Indian population is around 20,000 people who live mostly in Auckland.

One of the first to settle in New Zealand was Phomen Singh, a Punjab born Sikh who arrived around 1890. He starting making and hawking sweets in Auckland before meeting Margaret Ford, an English nurse working in Wellington. They married in 1898 and eventually settled in Palmerston North, where Phomen opened two sweet shops.

Waikato Sikhs living in the region are commemorating his time in the Waikato, marking 125 years of local Punjab settlement in true Bollywood and Bhangra style alongside Vaisaki Mela.

Waikato Punjabi Cultural Club President, Jay Randhawa says over 100 performers are on stage, some from as far as Bay of Plenty, Auckland, and Hawkes Bay.  

“It’s very significant for the Waikato people,” says Jay. “We’re proud to be holding it here. So we’re releasing a postage stamp [commemorating him] and we’re honouring our elderly community members with lifetime achievement awards.”

Backstage, boys as young as four are being turbaned with up to 15 meters of cloth by Jay’s brother Mehar Singh Randhawa for the bhangra dance while nearby in the dressing rooms, Jay’s wife Geeta and daughter Sanya are starching meters of yellow, gold, silver, and royal peacock blue fabric for the boys’ and men’s turbans.

“There’s a lot of prep involved, especially for the turban. They’re all in contrast, so you can mix and match them,” Geeta says. “Giddha is the ladies dance, boys and girls can both dance bhangra which originated in the Punjab.”

Women's giddha dance

Women's giddha dance Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

It turns out some of the New Zealand police are also bhangra dancers and a team from Auckland has travelled down to take part.

Sergeant Gurpreet Arora says it’s about police participating and engaging with their communities and their bhangra group has been performing at Indian festivals across the country, especially around diwali.  

“We are not just about attending when incidents happen, we are part of you,” he says.

Lethal nets, Auckland's Gatka Martial Arts Team

Lethal nets, Auckland's Gatka Martial Arts Team Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Also at the festival are a gatka team performing the martial art that embodies the philosophy and the egalitarianism of Sikhism.  Its members include children and women but the group prefer to introduce themselves as a team, not as individuals.

Preserving philosophy, language and culture is important to Maduk Rathka and his wife Neelam Madhu who together founded New Zealand’s first Hindi newspaper.

“We migrated from India and together started this magazine so that our children wouldn’t lose the language, to provide the Hindi language in reading form and a connection to our roots,” Maduk says.

Maintaining that connection is a strong theme of the festival and includes the presentation of lifetime achievement awards.

90 year old Tej Kaur receives Life Time Achievment Award

90 year old Tej Kaur receives Life Time Achievment Award Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

One recipient, 90 year old Tej Kaur, is flanked by her granddaughter, Baljinder Virk.  

“My grand-mother was only about 18 when she came with my grandfather, around the 1930’s. They ran a dairy farm in Taumarunui. She’s still doing really well, she’s made us really proud.”  

Baljinder’s seven year old daughter stands by her side in full traditional dress for the children’s Bhangra dance, the fourth generation of this family to call New Zealand home.