The 12-year-old girl standing in the middle of the green field was oblivious to the beauty around her. Her stance upright, her face focussed on the task at hand, her shoulders too slender to bear the weight of the dhol she was playing.
But bear it, she did.
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You could see it in the tilt of her chin that she would master this instrument someday. She kept beating the drum till its sound filled the field and beyond; her ustad was still not happy.
“Not loud enough! The sound should be deafening. How can you make someone want to dance when you don’t show the same energy while playing the dhol?” he admonished her.
The girl took her teacher’s words to heart for two years later, at the age of 14 she garnered recognition within India and across borders as the ‘youngest female dholi’ or ‘the Dhol girl of India’.
This is Jahan Geet Singh.
Born to Harcharan Singh, a judicial officer and Parminder Kaur in Chandigarh, Jahan has always chosen unconventional paths. No wonder that her parents changed her surname to Singh from Kaur!
“Within the Sikh community, it is common for young men to adopt ‘Singh’ which stands for lion, and women to adopt Kaur which means a princess. When I was growing up, my parents told me I was no less than a son, so instead of calling me Jahan Geet Kaur, they called me Jahan Geet Singh.”
Thanks to her parents and their progressive upbringing, Jahan was always encouraged to test her strengths, chase her dreams, and not shy away from anything traditionally considered a part of the male bastion.
This was perhaps one of the reasons when a 12-year-old Jahan walked up to her parents asking them if she could learn to play the dhol, they were neither surprised nor opposed to the idea. Instead, they told her, ‘Why not? Do it.’
The eight kg dhol that Jahan picked up at the tender age of 12 has become a part of her identity. Now at 21, the young woman, pursuing Law from the Panjab University, has given hundreds of live performances across India and abroad. She even debuted on TV channels and has won an impressive line-up of awards, including ones at the state-level.
Her videos have garnered millions of views and she has over two lakh followers on social media too!
Today, wherever her parents go, they are known as the Dhol Girl’s parents.
When asked how the inclination to play dhol began, she says, “I grew up rooted deep into Punjabi culture, where no festive celebrations were complete without a dhol. Even at a time when most of my friends preferred western instruments such as a guitar or a Casio over a sitar or a harmonium, I was inclined to the dhol. I still remember how at a family function, I was awed by one of my cousins playing the instrument. And all I could think about was—I want to learn this.”
Until then, Jahan had never thought she was breaking stereotypes. Yes, she had always seen men play the dhol. But she thought, perhaps some women played too, just that she never had the opportunity to come across them. It was only a matter of time until she realised that her request made people’s heads turn and speak in hushed whispers.
I struggled a lot to find a teacher. Every time I approached people for guidance, their initial question to me would be, ‘Kisne sikhni hai?’ (Who wants to learn it?) they would roll their eyes when I said I would be the student. They would say things like, ‘Why would a girl want to play dhol? Girls don’t play dhol? Don’t you have any shame? Do something else.”
Hope came in the form of Sardar Kartar Singh. A father of four daughters himself, when Jahan first asked him to teach her, he paused. He thought to himself, ‘If my daughters asked something of me, I would never refuse.’ So he declared me his eldest daughter and became my mentor.”
Almost two to three hours a day, after school, 12-year-old Jahan would walk on the boundaries of open fields, playing the dhol out loud.
Right from day one, Jahan, unlike other students, began with the big-sized traditional dhol.
“I continue to play the same one, and intend to use it forever,” says the determined girl.
The challenges were many. The instrument was heavy and difficult to carry for the young girl because it required immense upper body strength.
“My teacher would tell me, ‘When you play the dhol for an hour, you do double the upper body exercise that you would in the gym. Because when you have to make someone dance to your beat, you have to put in double the energy.’ So often my hands would get tired, my shoulders would ache. My hands would bleed and have bruises all over them. I started slow, where I would put the dhol on the ground and learn, then put it on a chair, eventually I decided to pick it up and play it as I moved.”
And regardless to say, the efforts have paid off.
Recollecting her first performance at a youth festival, she adds, “When I first walked on to the stage, no one in the audience expected me to actually play the dhol. They thought I would just act or dance for a bit and keep the dhol down. They were amazed and the response was phenomenal.”
Despite the media attention that the youngster has garnered, she continues to stay grounded, keeps promoting the traditional instrument and its heritage and inspire other young girls and women to break glass ceilings.
In her final message, she says, “No activity, hobby or profession is exclusively for men or women. The first step to teach our kids that is to start treating our boys and girls equally. We need to teach our boys to be just as gentle and kind as girls are, and our girls to be just as bold and outgoing as boys. If I stopped believing in myself, the dhol girl wouldn’t exist. And so, as women and young girls, we have to start considering ourselves ‘equals’ and start believing in ourselves. Then, we will be unstoppable.”
Did this story inspire you? Then get in touch with her on her Facebook page.
Watch her in action below:
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)