Beyond Studio J with Josh

“What I’ve learnt the most about life is the magic of going with the flow. At the core of it is – what do I want? If you filter it down, I want to earn money doing something enjoyable, I want to feel connected to people, I want to be healthy. Because what is life without any of these things?”

From Nigeria to Melbourne to Pakistan & back, Joshinder has never chosen the conventional path in life. The inspiring journey of our lovable, brave and free-spirited artist and studio manager, Joshinder Chaggar.

Did you want to be dancer since childhood?
I’m always struck to hear people say that they were “born to dance”. Because for me, drawing, painting and writing were my main childhood talents. Dance came much later. I would’ve been equally as happy doing any of those things. It didn’t have to be dance necessarily.

Then how did you get introduced to dance? Did you have dance lessons?
At the age of 5, I started Bharatanatyam classes and did this for around 3 years in Nigeria. I also chose dance as an elective subject for one year in high school. But I never took dance very seriously at the time. It was only in university, when I started going to Indian dance events, that the dancer in me really came out. People used to say, ‘you should be a professional dancer’. But it never occurred to me that there could be such a thing. Was that even a career?

My early 20’s was when the dancer in me became fully alive and ready to express itself. I became obsessed with dancing. I performed at all the cultural, community and student events. I returned to Bharatanatyam classes. But I still couldn’t imagine making money or a career from it.

So what was the turning point?
I finished my diploma in marketing and started working in customer service. I only saw the job as something that just paid the bills. I was so conflicted, because I was obsessed with being an artist and yet saw no future in it. At the same time, I didn’t pursue any opportunities to progress in my office job either. It was a very confused way of living.

Then I read ‘The Alchemist’. For the first time, I was introduced to the idea of finding your own personal legend. It made me ask the question “what do I really want to do?”.

Since I was obsessed with dance, I thought about returning to university to study it. I applied for the Bachelor of Modern Contemporary Dance at Deakin and went to the audition at age 24. And I remember feeling like the oldest person there. Most of students were late teenagers, some wearing tutus, doing the splits, looking like they had danced their whole life. I felt so out of place. It took all my strength not to run out the door. Only the top 2% get into the course. And somehow, I got in!

How did you get into a course where only the top 2% are accepted – without any dance training?
I don’t know but somehow, on that day I was amazing. There was a test where the aim was to use a series of leaps and jumps to reach the other side of the room. And I still remember, that out of all the people there, I was only one of 4 dancers who travelled the full length. I mean, I just went for it.

Did you complete the course?
I completed one year out of the three-year course. But then I left Melbourne and relocated to Sydney.

But why, when you had this amazing course, you were 3 years into your Bharatanatyam training, and things were finally starting to fall into place?
It was a mixture of things. I think when I was younger, I didn’t have the love of learning. I wanted to do things, but I had so much conflict inside me. For example, even when I did get into Contemporary Dance, I couldn’t look past the fact that I was older. Plus, I met my partner at that time who was also an artist. Neither of our families would accept us being together. We pretty much packed up and ran away to Sydney.

Did you have to start from scratch again?
Yes, it was survival mode. I got a customer service job again. Eventually I started script writing. I did a few dance gigs. After 4 years, I left my office job to pursue being a full-time solo artist. In my first month I doubled my income, in my second month I tripled it. I made my first ‘Get Fit with Bollywood Dance’ DVD and started acting in advertising.

But when things started working out, you moved to Pakistan. Why?
I had a short trip to Karachi in late 2006. There was a media and entertainment boom happening in Pakistan around that time. As a dancer, I didn’t think I would be able to find work in such a conservative country. But it’s funny how things work out. A few months after the trip, I had a bit of an existential crisis. I felt like life wasn’t going anywhere. I was about to turn 30 and thought that I was running out of time. I fell into a hole. I came out of it 2 weeks later, realising that I had nothing left to lose. In that moment, I knew I had to go.

You moved to Karachi in April 2007. And you got a job the day you landed!
Yes, my ex-husband was working at MTV and told his boss that I was landing that night and that I was a choreographer. And his boss said ‘Oh we’ve got the Pakistan Style Awards happening. She can choreograph the show.’ Monday night I landed. Wednesday I was hired to choreograph the awards show. Then on Thursday night, by some bizarre coincidence, I was on TV, hosting another live talk show. Things just fell into my lap. I got tons of opportunities and worked with some of Pakistan’s leading artists. I was sent to perform overseas in Germany, Malaysia and Dubai. I got to try different things, see what I was naturally good at. And then, I came across Pakistan’s National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA).

And at NAPA, you discovered the world of theatre?
Yes. I went for a job interview and was hired as NAPA’s movement teacher. I got to teach, take classes, learn new skills. I fell in love with theatre and my whole life changed. I felt like I’d finally discovered myself as an artist. It gave me direction and purpose. I then discovered the genre of dance-theatre, and it was like coming home. Dance-theatre combines all my loves. I get to act, write and dance, all in one.

What was it like, living in Pakistan? Was it hard to adjust?
For sure, initially there was frustration about things. You can’t wear want you want, walk on the street by yourself. Yet, because I had a one year return ticket, I thought it would be a temporary situation. I tried to make the most of my time there, put the limitations aside and enjoy the experience. Every year, I would extend my visa, thinking I would be leaving soon. Before I knew it, I had lived there for 10 years. I think that because my whole time there felt temporary, my experiences in Pakistan were so heightened. I deeply appreciated people and life.

So why did you leave? When you were at such a peak of your artistic career?
Ten years sounds like a long time, but actually when you look back, 10 years also just fly past. In my ninth year, it did shake me up, thinking that it was going to be 10 years. And 10 years just felt like a good time to end a cycle. It was time for change.

What have you learnt the most through all these experiences?
What I’ve learnt the most about life is the magic of going with the flow. At the core of it is – what do I want? If you filter it down, I want to earn money doing something enjoyable, I want to feel connected to people, I want to be healthy. Because what is life without any of these things?

I wouldn’t say teaching Bhangra or Bollywood is my dream job. I did it initially for survival, after returning to Melbourne. But through it, I am living my dream life. I’m constantly learning, I’m connecting with people, I earn enough. My journey so far has revealed that it doesn’t matter what you do actually. If you don’t know how to be happy, you’ll never be happy. You can appreciate what you have while also moving towards what you want. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

You’ve tried so many different dance forms since your initial Bollywood days. Is Bollywood something you’re still obsessed with?
Once I discovered experimental dance and dance theatre, I felt like I really left Bollywood behind. Coming back and doing so much Bollywood dance at Studio J, it has been a real identity shift. In the beginning, I didn’t want to own up to it. I felt like I was better, more ‘sophisticated’ than that. But I’ve fallen in love with Bollywood in a new way, because gratitude is a big part of my life now. I’ve realised that there’s so much more to Bollywood than just a flimsy, silly, glamorous thing. It really is a portal of joy. Through Bollywood dance, we give ourselves permission to be silly, to be child-like, to have a laugh, and not take ourselves so seriously. I feel like I’ve come back to Bollywood dance in a deeper, more appreciative way.

What’s in the future for Joshinder Chaggar?
Oh my god, I’ve got such an exciting future ahead! I have two films in the pipeline. One is a documentary and the other is a feature length. Also, the Studio J Wellness programs are really blossoming. So yes, I have a very bright future ahead of me (laughs uproariously).

Interviewed by Jaya Karan
17 September 2020

Watch Joshinder’s interview which previously streamed live in ‘Beyond Studio J’ on 25 July 2020: