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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Portrait of a Nation: the woman behind Camp Ka Champ

Rupa Vinod came up with the idea that has transformed lives

Rupa Vinod, organiser of the labour camp singing contest Camp Ka Champ. Antonie Robertson / The National
Rupa Vinod, organiser of the labour camp singing contest Camp Ka Champ. Antonie Robertson / The National

Dubai’s annual Camp Ka Champ singing competition has become an iconic institution that can make the dreams of labour camp workers come true.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of performers have applied to take part in the lavish event offering prize money capable of transforming lives.

Past winners have become the stars of their communities thousands of miles back home in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

And each champion’s rapid rise to celebrity can all be put down to Rupa Vinod - the advertising director who first came up with the idea back in 2007.

An audition from the first ever Camp Ka Champ competition in 2007.
An audition from the first ever Camp Ka Champ competition in 2007.

“The international money transfer firm Western Union came to us for ideas for helping raise morale of workers in the labour camps,” said the 60-year-old.

“The one thing that the workers in the camp loved to do was sing, whether it was in the showers or among their friends and colleagues.

“That is why the ideas of having a competition like Camp Ka Champ appealed to everyone.”

Action from the final of the 2008 Camp Ka Champ competition.
Action from the final of the 2008 Camp Ka Champ competition.

The first year of the event in 2007 saw just 500 workers auditioning to take part in the show.

Since then, some 20,000 people have taken to the stage to sing their hearts out to an audience of tens of thousands of cheering fans.

Winners over the years have used their prize money to pay for weddings, give money to relatives and to even buy driving lessons.

“One of our former winners was able to pay to learn how to drive so he could get himself a job working in sales,” Ms Vinod said.

“Another former winner had planned to save up for two years to be able to pay for his sister’s wedding but was able to pay for it immediately when he won.”

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While the annual event - which has been called Dubai Idol - has undoubtedly transformed lives, its success goes well beyond that, according to Ms Vinod.

“It helps to create an atmosphere of camaraderie among the labour camp workers,” she said.

“We have never experienced any jealousy or bad feeling towards the winners from other contestants.

“The spirit of the event is as important as winning and often comes down to luck on the night. People should never give up.”

Another facet of Camp Ka Champ is the fame and fortune that winners enjoy.

In September this year Ijaz Khwaja, a Pakistani debt collection agent, took first prize and a massive Dh35,000 cheque.

“The winners become famous in their own towns and villages back home,” Ms Vinod said.

“It’s very prestigious for a family member to be known as a winner of Camp Ka Champ – they’re like celebrities.”

Ejaz Khawaja the winner of Season 12. Satish Kumar for the National 
Ijaz Khawaja the winner of Season 12. Satish Kumar for the National

Ms Vinod also revealed the initial reluctance of labour camp workers to apply for the competition.

But that soon changed after the success of the first year. More than 4,000 auditioned for the event in 2018.

“We had to go and speak to the workers in their own languages like Bangladeshi and Hindi to persuade them to take part and audition,” she said.

“The second year was much easier to get people to take part in.

“They all have different stories to tell but the one thing that has been constant is that it has helped changed their lives for the better, both personally and professionally.

“The first year had prizes worth a total of Dh10,000. The last year we had prizes worth Dh100,000.”