Bhangra: A journey from India’s wheat fields to the US White House

bhangra_a_journey_from_indias_wheat_fields_to_the_us_white_house.png / The Indian dance form is now taught in several studios in the West and it’s become all the rage in colleges and universities, too. Lithe and graceful Manpreet Toor, who lives in the Bay Area in the US, is a famous figure in the South Asian dance scene. She fuses  Bhangra, Bollywood, hip hop and giddha- which is the female counterpart of the Bhangra- a folk dance for women in Punjab, India.

Toor is a dance choreographer and YouTuber with over 1.5 million followers across YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. She started dancing, choreographing and teaching over 15 years ago when she was a teenager.  Her song Laung Lachi from the Punjabi movie of the same name went viral with the video receiving over 1 million views.

Bhangra has come a long way from its humble, rural beginnings. Bhangra has been a  traditional male dance performed in Punjab, the breadbasket of India,  with men dressed in traditional kurta and lungis, and fan-shaped turbans in candy colours, with zesty, fast-paced movements and arms and legs thrown up in the air in gay abandon, with kicks and leaps and a lot of energy. Rumaalan, or handkerchiefs, were traditionally tied around a dancer's wrist to highlight their complex hand movements.

Manpreet Toor has found success on social media, as she promotes Bhangra in the US. (Instagram) Bhangra has its roots in the state’s agricultural life and its farms and villages and combines folk dance moves from different regions of the state like Sammi and Sialkot.

It originated as a folk dance performed by farmers of Punjab, as something they did to relieve the monotony, as they were working in the fields. It was also a part of the cultural identity of the state of Punjab. The farmers often danced to welcome a harvest season or the advent of the rains, and most of the moves actually mirror movements like dropping seeds in the soil or raising a sickle. In some movements the dancers sway like stalks of wheat; in others, they walk like a peacock spreading its wings.

Typically Bhangra used to be performed by coordinated dancers standing in lines but now Youtube and Tik Tok videos have taken Bhangra performances to the next level. Bhangra in its purest form is accompanied by a single drum called the dhol and the lyrics are in Punjabi. 

The dance genre was traditionally a male domain and was an expression of male virility, vigour and bravery. Down the ages, women began to participate as well, and it is now a gender-neutral art form. Many of the lyrics relate to marriage, love, money,  happiness and other social issues.  Many performers have also used the dance form to express dissent or portray controversial social issues.

Today Bhangra has found its way around the world, from ‘America’s Got Talent' to the London Olympics.

A CRUNCH instructor leads the Masala Bhangra class at SELF magazine’s 21st annual Workout in the Park, Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Chicago’s Grant Park. (AP) The empire

There are more than 300 moves in Bhangra,  and it's usually danced with dancers standing in a circle- sometimes they use props like sticks and swords. They usually have a range of stunts too, like sitting astride a dancer’s shoulders, or hanging upside down from another’s torso.

Contemporary Bhangra evolved with the Indian diaspora moving abroad to countries like the USA and the UK, and the music becoming more fusion, with influences of pop, reggae and other genres,  combining with earthy Punjabi lyrics and South Asian musical instruments, which helped the Indians abroad to express their stories and experiences, with a  unique voice.

In the mid-80s, in Britain, there were remixes that emerged- of Punjabi folk music and Bollywood music- these hybrid versions of Bhangra music with singers like Daler Mehndi and Gurdas Mann led to a reinvention of Bhangra, and it became very popular in dance clubs and community programs,  as well as weddings and parties from  India to Singapore, and Europe. British Indian producers of Bhangra like  Bally Sagoo and Apache Indian led to British Bhangra being firmly entrenched with the diaspora.

In the USA,  Bhangra came in with the Punjabi immigrants, and today in universities across the country, there are annual  Bhangra competitions and college teams. Many of the teams invented hybrid moves and gimmicks, to win competitions.

Bhangra  Empire is a huge dance business built by two immigrants  Puneet and Omer Mirza in the Bay area, in California,  with more than 5000 students. They have performed at the White House during a state dinner in  President Barack Obama’s term, and performed on the popular show ‘America’s got talent'.

“We started Bhangra Empire in January of 2006, primarily as a competitive team. We competed all over the US and Canada. During our competition days, we were able to set ourselves apart and won a lot of the competitions we went to. Later on, we transitioned to only performing at our own shows and other mainstream events such as halftime for the Golden State Warriors. We also now focus on our classes and our Academy teams,” Puneet Gill told TRT World.

“We teach pure Bhangra with our own twist. We take traditional Bhangra moves, and make them our own, with very high energy and unique combinations, but the core is traditional Bhangra. For me personally, it keeps me connected to my roots. Over the years, it has become our goal to offer our classes to help the younger generation to stay connected to their roots as well! We also love to share Bhangra with non-Punjabi audiences, and to spread joy in that way,” adds Gill. 

People in traditional attire perform the ‘Bhangra’, a Punjabi folk dance, as part of Baisakhi celebrations in a wheat field in Kokadwala village on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, Saturday, April 11, 2009. (AP) The cultural identity

Bhangra artist and instructor Gurudeep Pandher with his trademark orange turban and blue T-shirt, based in a small cabin in the wilderness of  Yukon, Canada, is known for his dance videos created outdoors with scenes from nature from waterfalls to towering mountains playing a large part in his dance videos. He recently won hearts on the Internet when he performed with his four students in the frozen icescapes of Yukon. Pandher learned the Bhangra by watching his parents and relatives dancing at weddings and other family functions. He also took lessons when he was a teenager.

Hardeep Sahota, 37, General Manager of Royal Academy of Bhangra who lives in Surrey, Canada, told TRT World : “I been learning and teaching Punjabi folk dances such as bhangra – jhoomer – sammi – dhamal – luddi- Malawi giddha for decades and Punjabi Folk dances have played a big role in keeping your cultural identity more visible across the world.”

Hardeep Sahota is the founder of World Bhangra Day. He has also developed a visual dictionary of movement, using dance and photography to explore the rich history of Bhangra. (Courtesy of: Hardeep Sahota) He has created a syllabus so that young children in the age group of 5-16 are taught this folk dance form. “I’m not a  huge fan of merging different styles in dance- it’s like destroying the art form,” he said.

Bhangra has now become more accessible through social media platforms like YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram, which has kindled an interest in it from the younger generation.

“YouTube has made it easier for all to have access to Bhangra, who may otherwise have never experienced it. It has allowed us to reach audiences all around the world, which we otherwise would not have,” Gill said.

Source: TRT World AUTHOR Kalpana Sunder @KalpanaSunder Kalpana Sunder is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Chennai, India. She writes on gender, development, environment, culture, travel and food. She has been published in BBC Future, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and SCMP Hong Kong.


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