Harpal Singh Benniwal had stopped his gatka classes about 10 years ago. But now, with his daughter by his side, he can be seen jumping blocks and spinning kicks in the akhara — the practice ground.
Gatka is a traditional form of martial art practiced in the Sikh community that dates back to the 17th century. First developed to defend the local community against invaders, it combines self-defence techniques and acrobatics.
Done right, gatka instructors describe it as fierce and yet lyrical.
While few practice it in Canada, one gurdwara in Caledon, Ont., offers free classes every week in an effort to keep it alive. Manroop Singh, a gatka instructor at the non-profit Khalsa Gurmat academy, told CBC Toronto that he started practicing the martial art 20 years ago when a teacher from India visited his childhood gurdwara — a place of worship for Sikhs.
“We were just little kids when he taught us,” Singh said. “We want to build on that legacy and preserve our history.”
The academy is where you’ll now find Benniwal and his 11-year old daughter, Anureet, practicing, sparring and spending time together.
Benniwal says it’s been a great addition to his life.
“It felt like life was missing something and gatka helped me get closer to our history and culture. I get to come to God’s house with my kid — it feels fulfilling,” said Benniwal
The father-daughter duo started gatka classes over two months ago and the martial art quickly captured Anureet’s attention. Now her competitive fire has led to her becoming a regular at the gurdwara. When her dad missed a class because of a work-related injury, she kept training.
“He got stitches and I came here alone for two weeks and I learned more than him. I like coming here with him — so that I can tell him I’m better than him now,” she said.
Beyond the father-daughter bonding, Benniwal is hoping gatka will help Anureet protect herself if needed.
“She’s my child. I fear for her, and if she ever feels she’s in danger she should be able to protect herself,” he said.
The academy comes alive after the evening prayers as students between the age of four and 45 pick up their sticks, swords and shields. Over a hundred traditional weapons are used to perform gatka, but a wooden stick is most common during practice.
The first step to learning gatka is to master the footwork. The goal: move quickly with intent and learn to dodge. The foundation of these movements are taught via chaar-paer, which translates to four-steps.
“The first lesson is to learn the chaar-paer and master your movements. We practice until our movements are as instinctive as our breathing — it’s the first step to defence,” said Singh.
Singh and Jasdeep Singh, the instructors at the academy, have been teaching students in the GTA for over 13 years. They say the academy’s main goal is to get youth closer to their culture, and even moved from Malton to Caledon just to ensure they could connect with more kids.
“What most parents want is to have their kids connect with the religion, learn about our [Sikh] heritage and carry on that lineage of where they come from, even in the Western world,” said Jasdeep Singh.