Shyamla Eswaran still remembers the day she first took a stand against racism. It had been three years of being “bullied and ostracised” by her classmates in a primary school in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, and the daughter of a Tamil man and Fiji-Indian woman had had enough of being discriminated for her skin colour.
“I just woke up one morning and said [to my parents], ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore’,” the now 35-year-old told HuffPost Australia. “They said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘I don’t like being called cockroach anymore’.”
As “the only brown kid” in her school in the 1980s, Eswaran said she “tried to fit in with the white Aussies around me but was teased for being hairier, for the spicy smell of my lunch and for being too dark-skinned to fit the cool ‘tanned’ category of the surfer chicks around me”.
“I just spent a lot of time by myself and was used to that,” she said.
Over two decades later, Eswaran is now working as a professional dancer who teaches pre-school children about culture and racism, but it wasn’t a simple road to getting here and reconciling with her cultural identity.
“As an adult I tried to compensate by working in human rights to promote anti-discrimination,” she said.
After finishing high school in 2001, Esawaran studied a communications degree specialising in social enquiry at Sydney’s UTS and worked as a content producer for a few years before doing a masters in International Human Rights Law.
“As an adult I tried to compensate by working in human rights to promote anti-discrimination.”
She then landed her dream job at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2009, first as a media advisor and then a public affairs officer. However, after almost two years in the role, she realised she wasn’t creating the impact she was hoping to.
“The thing that I never felt satisfied about was policy is a long game,” she said. “Law and all of that is a long game and you’re up in this building literally in the middle of the city making policy, and I always felt that disconnection between what we were doing and who we were doing it for.
“I always noticed the lack of seeing those people who we were writing policies on behalf of in the room around me. And that never sat well with me, especially when it came to Aboriginal affairs and things like that.”
After leaving the AHRC in 2011 and helping out at Aboriginal magazine Tracker and then at Barnardos Australia, Eswaran was again at a loss in terms of purpose and identity.
“I was just really burnt out by this point because I was trying to figure out where I fit. Where could I make a genuine difference in a role that is authentic to me?” she said. “I was at the point where I’d been working in offices for so long. I said to a friend, I’d be happy working in a coffee shop right now.”
While she had been dancing recreationally since the age of four, Eswaran had never considered turning her hobby into a career until that friend suggested it.
“I have a really diverse background as a dancer – hip hop, Brazilian, samba and I know everyone loves Bollywood dancing,” she said.
With the help of an agent, Eswaran managed to get a show off the ground that was sold as “Hip hopping from Bollywood to Brazil”. The cultural program began as school holiday workshops across Australia in 2013, where dance aided her in educating the younger generation about race.
“It was more from a movement and diversity point of view,” she said. “I got to meet all these kids and that was when I felt like I was really coming into my own.
“The more I did it, the more I found my voice with what I was trying to do, which was to promote diversity and inclusion.”
In the past three years Eswaran has taken her cultural education program to pre-schools, where she uses puppets with varied skin tones, her own spices, and of course dance, to deliver a 45-minute “BollyKids” show up to six times a week.
“My agent said, ‘You’re influencing the next generation. Basically, you’re getting them young’. Then I realised I had an opportunity to go in before the age I used to get bullied at school and talk to those kids before they even get to school.
“So I created BollyKids which is all about teaching kids about Indian culture through dance and music and movement. But in recent years I’ve developed it even further to be about empathy, diversity and inclusion… I’m teaching them about how to be kind and how their words affect people.”
Her journey of self-discovery didn’t stop there. Last year Eswaran decided to put together a South Asian dance group called Bindi Bosses alongside Ragavi Ragavan, who is a Sri Lankan Tamil woman, and Jes Subba, who is of Nepalese and Punjabi heritage.
The trio will be performing a range of Indian Fusion dance styles at Settlement Services International’s (SSI) New Beginnings Festival this weekend alongside local artists L-Fresh The Lion and Jamarz on Marz.
“Bindi Bosses is two things. It’s a bit of a social movement, but it’s also movement through performance and storytelling. I’m using it as a way to nurture and connect brown girls especially in the arts, to help them believe it’s a viable career.
“It is so much more than a performance group for me now. It’s like a network of these people with shared upbringings and conflicts that I couldn’t express. There’s a shared trauma we’ve all experienced growing up as people of colour in a country that’s not really ours but we’ve learnt to call home or we’ve been born into.”
Ultimately, Eswaran said she believes her dance journey pays homage to the struggles of her childhood and has helped her overcome the trauma of facing racism.
“I wouldn’t take back anything that happened because I think that has really instilled empathy in me,” she said. “I know when you spend that long being ostracised or feeling isolated, you become very sensitive to when someone else is feeling that way and you can’t let it go on.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I certainly wouldn’t… that battle of feeling excluded and wanting to belong.
“With Bindi Bosses, there’s that feeling of a genuine family. There’s a genuine kinship. I’m creating something that I wish I had at that age, that I could’ve joined and been a part of instead of feeling like the odd one out.”
The SSI New Beginnings Festival is on Saturday November 16 at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour.