You've likely seen the videos. Lively bhangra dances at Peggy's Cove, or on Citadel Hill in Halifax, or even out shovelling snow. The videos are charming and joyful, and, for this part of Canada anyway, incredibly novel. Just under a million people live in Nova Scotia, with 95 percent of them identifying as white. So naturally, the brightly coloured turbans and pulsing music of the bhangra videos are a big hit with viewers. But it's the guy behind the camera who is the most interesting figure in the whole group.
At just 26-years-old, Hasmeet Singh Chandok is one of the busiest people I've ever met. Chandok studies Computer Science at Dalhousie University, and is in his final year. He keeps a GPA of 4.0 while working two jobs and organizes the Maritime Bhangra Group. He's committed to not only dancing across the Maritimes, but travelling to schools and youth groups, giving people a taste of Sikh culture.
Although it's often overlooked, the purpose of Chandok's videos is actually to raise money for organizations like the ALS Society of Canada and MS Society of Canada. After they published the snow shovel bhangra video, the ALS Society of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia received $5000 in less than a week, with donations coming in from across the world.
I met up with Chandok at the Dalhousie Library to talk about dancing, YouTube, and saving the planet.
VICE: Did you expect this reaction, when you started putting videos on Facebook?
Hasmeet Singh Chandok: No, and we still say we don't do anything that special. There are dance groups who do much, much, 100 times better job than what we do in Canada. So we are not very good dancers, but it comes out that people are liking it.
You've gotten a lot of feedback. People want to meet you, people want to dance with you. How hard is that to deal with?
I mean, especially for international student, who has to work, who has to go (to) a job… And everything is on a volunteer basis, we don't earn anything from this dance group. Anything which comes out goes to charity. So we are not even registered to accept the money.
So you donate everything?
We don't even become a middle man. If I'm doing something for your organization, I tell you to do a direct donation and show me a receipt. That's it.
That's pretty impressive.
My dad was a social worker, and he always used to say, if everybody starts living for themselves and their family, there'd be no one living for people. So there has to be someone who steps forward and lives for people, and he lived his life for people. I lost him 2012, so I took that on me, and I said, you know, I'm going to live for people.
For the dance group, what's next?
Most of the friends who are in the dance group are working full time. So, if we don't have time to practice, while they have a break on work, we all get together there and practice on the street while playing (the song) on my phone. We practice in Point Pleasant Park, sometimes we practice in a gym. So Maritime Bhangra Group is an example of having no resources and the impact you have.
We go (to dance at) different high schools, especially to the ones who don't have enough money and they're in rural areas. So, we go to schools and we talk about bullying, we talk about racism. We don't actually run this as just a dance group, we do activism with our videos, if there is a cause we need to take care of. We'll put it out at the end of the video and start a discussion about it.
If you go and tour around to schools, you meet people, you talk to people, you might be the first person they've ever met who is wearing a turban, who is from India. That might be their very first interaction.
I've gone through that.
What is that like?
I've always felt that people are more welcoming in the Maritimes. And in terms of that first experiences, which we get, I think it's always more of 'ok, what do you guys do and why do you guys do this?' I have answered this question at least 1000 times by now, but I never feel bored when they ask me that. Every place you go to, the way they ask, and the kind of feeling they are looking for in your answer, it's different. It's different for every different human being you meet.
People are very curious.
I think that's a positive sign for us, as well as being a visible minority community, you go to these people and you meet them. It's creating a positive impression. I'm pretty sure that Sikhs who have come before me have done most of the work. But the Maritimes was one unexplored area.
Now we have a community of 40,000 people on our social media, and they have just named the country, there are 160 something countries where people watch our videos. And some videos surpass the population of Canada in views. So we've danced with ministers, we danced with the premier recently. So when we dance, and people share that video, they are not sharing the dance. They are sharing that social responsibility of helping each other in the community. It's the feeling of one-ness that they get.
I think people are also very drawn to things like that because the video starts, there's lively music, everyone's smiling, you guys hare having a good time, and then you draw their attention to a worthy cause, and then people are much more receptive to that when it happens in that way. What's been your most popular (video)?
We did one for ALS, it was called the snowshovel bhanga. It got more than 50 million views in four days, and after that we stopped counting.
That must be really fun.
Yeah, one side of it is fun, and the other side of it is the pressure you get, because now you have done a fundraiser. Like, who would expect a 60-second video to get $5000 to the ALS Society of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick? And the donations are coming from Japan, Saudi Arabia…parts of the world where we have never heard. We are getting emails from the countries I don't know the names of, like 'Facebook doesn't work here, please put it up on YouTube.'
That's a lot of pressure.
When I'm writing the concept and the guys are dancing, or I'm dancing, the thing which goes into your mind 'is can we produce another something which goes more than 50 million in a few days?'
And as I always say to people, it's not just this one dance. The way people see, is something that's changing. Changing the social engagements. Changing the conversations, we are having. Changing the way we used to think about the world, and now the circumstances…When I see this, it just makes me feel that things could be better. I mean, it will change. And I think people see this as a hope.
You could do all of it without ever knowing how much it impacts people. But because of the nature of social media, when you put up a video, people want to respond. They want to share these things with you.
The more and more groups you get it, you feel that responsibility for working for each of them, for their betterment. When we are planning, there are at least 100 causes we can give our videos to, but then it's very hard to make a decision on which disease or which organization you choose. And people say, 'ok, you dance and you dedicate the video.' No, it doesn't work like that.
You have to go through the numbers of the public reports which are there. You look at the work they are doing. You look at if there is any controversy about that organization. You look at if there is any political motivation. And all of these things have to be looked at before you decide, ok this thing gets our video. And it's the same with the patients. If you get 100 requests, you have to go visit one or two because of the time limitations. All of the decisions, it includes a lot of intellectual stuff, it's not just dance and go. When it comes to activism, there's a lot of limitation we have as international students. We don't want to mess up with anyone. We do want to do the real work. So every decision at every step needs lots of thinking and lots of work, lots of reading.
I'm tired just talking to you.
*This interview has been condensed for clarity.