Bay Area performer, former UC Berkeley adviser talks self-expression through hardship


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Sanjeev Chahal has lived what some would see as two different lives — what he calls “a duality.” Chahal spent time alternating between his dance persona SNJV (pronounced sun-jeev) and being a UC Berkeley adviser in the College of Chemistry.

“I always used to joke with my students. … that I have my nine-to-five and my five-to-nine,” Chahal said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “You know, I would literally get on BART at Downtown Berkeley and go into the city, but while on BART, I’d be putting my primer on and doing as much makeup as I could. And … early the next morning, I’d come in and have leftover eyeliner glitter (on me).”

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Chahal said his voice mattered in the professional world, but he had to “find nourishment from somewhere else.” And that was through his art.

Chahal grew up dancing at his home in the East Bay and later created performance groups at UC Merced, which he said, “turned a really shy, anxious, depressed teenager into a leader (and) a butterfly who has flown” and “honored … (those) struggles and challenges in a really creative way.”

Recently, this creative work has lead Chahal to became the first South Asian holder of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance’s Mr. GAPA title, an award for the winner of the foundation’s annual drag show.

“I’m kind of a Punjabi Asian Pacific Islander mix. … a big mix,” Chahal said. “Growing up (in) API, Asian Pacific Islander, spaces, I never saw myself represented. So … winning (Mr. GAPA) meant everything. It was a moment for movement within our culture. I get to take the crown and the sash off. But what happens is now API means something broader.”

Chahal laughed, “And of course, the crown sat on my head really nicely.”

The performance that won Chahal his crown was set to a Bollywood-style song, where he wore a red scarf from his sister and bangles from his mother. In his words, “It was just a moment of affirmation of my own humanity and my own struggle and my identity.”

This sense of fulfillment is part of what eventually drew Chahal away from his professional career, despite his passion for promoting diversity on university campuses and his coworkers telling him he was “at the top of (his) game” and earning “the most money (he’d) ever had.”

From a financial perspective, he is self-aware of his own bravery here, mentioning, “If you know any other drag performers, you know that we don’t make any money; we spend more money on our makeup and our clothing.” But Chahal said he had another reason for leaving UC Berkeley behind.

“I think I had some really tough administrative experiences at Cal that really set a deep, professional trauma in me that I’m learning to heal to this day. … Working with faculty was always challenging, especially around the issues of diversity and inclusion,” Chahal alleged.

Chahal said he would carry those feelings to his performances after he left campus.

“I was just so beat down, and the dread of going to work the next day was just so daunting,” Chahal said. “But something would happen two minutes before I would go onstage. … It would all blackout. And it was those few minutes onstage where nothing mattered that saved my life in so many ways.”

Chahal also alleged that the academic culture at UC Berkeley was detrimental to many of his students who often didn’t have the resources to adequately support themselves or to pursue their extracurricular passions because of coursework and class schedules.

“If you’re hustling to just get that degree, just to be the first in your family, if you’re hungry, (if you’re at) the food bank, keep going, baby, keep going, keep going, keep going,” Chahal, who himself is a first-generation student, said.

Ultimately, Chahal believes it’s essential to find what excites you. He has done precisely this with his upcoming Bhangra workshop hosted at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Alongside teaching participants about the narrative style of dance, Chahal will work to dispel its typical gendered roles, reminding people that you “don’t need to have a certain body part or certain (gender) expression to … connect with lyrics.”

Chahal added that you’re guaranteed to get really sweaty.

“I’m so excited to spend my Thursday nights doing that and coming home all sweaty and just (feeling) like I earned it,” Chahal said. “It’s a great way to earn rest at the end of the day.”

This is, at the end of the day, what Chahal advocates for: kindness, fulfillment and self-affirmation.

“I just want people to know that I am a worker; I am an employee as well as an artist, and I’m making it. I’m doing it. I define what success is for myself,” Chahal said. “Anybody who’s out there, who’s struggling with not knowing what their path is — the truth is I truly don’t know what my path is like looking forward, but where my feet are planted right now feels right. … It’s rooted in kindness and love.”

Then Chahal paused and said, “It’s love, it’s all love.”

Tickets are now available for the workshop “SNJV presents: Bhangra,” which will be hosted at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center every Thursday 7:30 p.m. through Dec. 19.

Olivia Jerram covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].