Bhangra – The Dance of Punjab

(ਚੱਕ ਦੇ ਢੋਲੀਆ)

People dancing bhangra during Vaisakhi (Khalsa Day) festival in Punjab
People dancing bhangra during Vaisakhi (Khalsa Day) festival in Punjab

Written by Gurdeep Pandher

Dance

Dance has been an important part of ceremony, rituals, celebrations and entertainment since the dawn of the earliest human civilizations. Many contemporary dance forms can be traced back to traditional, ceremonial, and ethnic dances of the ancient period.

Dance was a tool of social interaction that promoted cooperation essential for survival in ancient times. They were performed to celebrate festivals, on important or seasonal occasions such as the harvest, or births and weddings. Such dances are found all over the world.

Dances may be part of religious rituals, for example the rain dance performed in times of drought. Shamans dancing for rain is mentioned in ancient Chinese texts. Dance is an important aspect of some religious rites in ancient Egypt. Similarly, dance is integral to many ceremonies and rites among African peoples. Ritual dances are also performed in temples and during religious festivals.

The 20th century was a period of separation from the traditional symbolic meaning of dance. It was a time of enormous creative growth, for dancers and choreographers. It was also a time of shock, surprise and broadening of minds for the public, in terms of their definitions of what dance was, indeed a radical revolution.

Bhangra – Folk dance of Punjab

May people have jokingly referred to the hand motions in Bhangra as turning light bulbs. It is much, much more than that.

Bhangra was originated in Punjab and is called the folk-dance of Punjab. Before the British colonized India, Punjab was an independent Sikh country with its capital in Lahore under the king Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1849, Punjab became a part of India and it was the last territory to fall under British rule. The dance is a reflection of centuries of Sikh and Punjabi culture. Due to this culture’s strong connections with agricultural life, so this dance has roots in farms and villages.

Bhangra was originally the dance of Punjabi farmers. After harvesting their wheat crop during the Vaisakhi season, or the Khalsa day, people used to attend cultural festivals while dancing bhangra. Vaisakhi festivals were the main occasions to dance bhangra. But bhangra was also performed by farmers while they were doing agricultural chores. Many bhangra moves actually have their origin in certain farming activities. For example, when they needed to pick something from one spot and place it on another place, they developed a bhangra move to do it in a fun way. That bhangra move is known as pick and place or pick and let it go. This used to make a tough job tolerable and even fun.

After harvesting their crops, after all their hard work, after they were done with everything, farmers in Punjab used to dance to show their sense of accomplishment. So for hundreds of years, due to the laborious farming life, this dance developed to showcase strength and joy. Nowadays many people dance bhangra for high-energy workouts and rigorous physical exercise.

Originally it was exclusively a men’s dance, however over time women also started embracing it and nowadays both men and women dance it. It is heavily present in the Sikh and Punjabi culture, weddings, parties, and all kinds of celebrations. Bhangra has evolved from farming life and villages and has reached big cities and modern metropolitan life. Today bhangra music and dance is also seen in Bollywood movies and other kinds of big musical fusions. Many people go to bhangra sessions just to stay healthy, fit and as the best alternative to gym. Despite its evolution, bhangra has succeeded in maintaining its core elements. It remains the dance of joy, the dance of happiness, the dance of good health, and the dance of productivity.

Following the partition of India, different regions of the country began to interact, sharing their different forms of Bhangra. The end result was a hybrid which incorporated many different styles. Bhangra became popularized chiefly due to the Sikh community which helped to integrate the music and dance into the Bollywood film industry.

In its purest form Bhangra is a mix of a singing accompanied by music and the beat of a single drum known as a dhol. The lyrics are always sung in the Punjabi language and usually relate to social or cultural issues. These can be anything from marriage and love to money and dancing, or even getting drunk. Current Bhangra artists take their inspiration from all kinds of sources, often dealing with hot topics of the day. Bhangra seeks to offer a message along with its music.

Bhangra dances differ from region to region and still retain their own unique identities. The term Bhangra has come to incorporate a host of these dance forms including Jhumar, Luddi, Giddha, Julli, Daankara, Dhamal, Saami, Kikli, and Gatka. The dancers sing the chorus of the song while dancing around the drum, or dhol, which sets the unique beat of the dance.

Different regions of Punjab have their own influence on bhangra. For example, Sialkoti style of bhangra developed in the region of Sialkot and is performed with one leg in the air. Jhummar, from Jhang-Sial region of Punjab, can arguably be traced back to the Aryan period and consists of a 16-beat dhol cycle. Sammi is a dance specifically dedicated to singing about a fabled girl. In the 1940s, communication between villages and regions in Punjab sharply increased due to independence movements across the region. Thanks to several celebrated dance pioneers, these dances were shared, both in times of celebration and in times of hardship. Each region quickly adapted the shared dance forms into their own folk traditions. Eventually, a standard Bhangra routine across Punjab came to consist of certain components, such as a Jhummar segment, or a Dhamaal segment. Due to the exponential rise in communication in Punjab and across India, Bhangra spread throughout the country.

Boys from Punjab dancing bhangra
Boys from Punjab dancing bhangra

Dhol:-
The Dhol is the king of bhangra instruments. Although there are many other musical instruments involved, the dhol drum has been master percussion behind bhangra dance. It’s virtually impossible to separate the dhol from bhangra. The dhol is an oval shaped drum played with bamboo sticks from both sides. Dhol beats are so compelling that one’s feet can hardly resist jumping to dance bhangra. Although in modern times, people also dance bhangra to a mix of Punjabi-western musical numbers the purest form of bhangra is dancing to Dhol beats.

Modern bhangra:-

Today, Bhangra music exists in different forms and styles all over the globe. Punjabi immigrants (usually Sikhs) have encouraged the growth of Punjabi folk music in the western hemisphere. Birmingham, England is considered to be the hub of modern Bhangra music. Its roots date back to the late 1970s, when several Punjabi bands started experimenting with Western styles in addition to the traditional sounds from their homeland. In the west, notable Bhangra bands/groups of the 1970’s were ‘The Black Mist’, ‘The Shots’, ‘The Jambo Boys’, and ‘The Saathies’. However, the first recording group in the UK was Bhujhangy Group, founded by brothers Balbir Singh Khanpur and Dalbir Singh Khanpur in Birmingham in 1967.

Bhujhangy Group is the world’s longest-running bhangra band. The group was founded in Smethwick, near Birmingham, England in 1967 by brothers Dalbir Singh Khanpur and Balbir Singh Khanpur, who had come to the United Kingdom to in the mid 1950s and were joined by their families in 1964, initially working as ordinary workers in the West Midlands’ factories. They were named Bhujhangy – meaning “kids” – as they were still teenagers, and their first recording was “Teri Chithi Noon Parthan”, recorded in 1967 that sold 100 copies.

Bhujhangy appeared on television in 1969 as part of the celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 500th birthday – and the same year approached Oriental Star Agencies with a view to making further recordings. The group had always been interested in western music as well as traditional Punjabi music, learning to play the guitar, banjo and accordion as well as the dhol, tumbi and dholak. Their music gradually incorporated wider influences including modern western rhythms and sounds from Bollywood culture. Their early 1970 single “Bhabiye Akh Larr Gayee” was the first recording to combine traditional Asian sounds with modern western musical instruments and influences, a momentous step in the development of bhangra.

Bhujhangy band also received an award from the House of Commons of the United Kingdom for Punjabi cultural and Bhangra music in 2009 and a Life Time Achievement award from Britasia TV in London 2011. Balbir Bhujhangy Appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the pioneer of Bhangra music in the UK They  continue to perform in 2014 and have released over 50 albums to date.

There are around 300 types of bhangra moves. Some are especially for men; others for women. In this age of improving gender-equality, this distinction has blurred significantly and now both men and women can be seen doing all the moves. Bhangra is often danced in circles and uses a lot of arm and shoulder movement. Some dances use sticks and swords. Other dances use stunts such as a dancer sitting on someone’s shoulders, while another person hangs from his torso by his legs.

Bhangra has been also helpful in promoting intercultural harmony and friendship and it inspired many to celebrate their cultures together. Cultures are our roots and friendships are our branches. That’s how we all co-exist.

A Bhangra workout burns approximately 500 calories during each session. The hour goes by surprisingly fast. The monotony of indoor cardio exercising in gym disappears, and participants are surprised at how enjoyable it is. Bhangra sessions are not only fun, they keep you healthy and fit.

Perhaps the best thing about bhangra is that it has built a bridge between Sikh and other communities outside of Punjab. Bhangra has drawn many people from all backgrounds together. They dance it together. They watch performances together. A connection evolves. People learn about Punjabi-Sikh diaspora and Sikhs learn about western culture, all through bhangra. Nowadays when many forces are dividing us, bhangra unites. It just helps you to be what you are and how to respect others. Bhangra is not just dance, it’s fun, it’s workout, it’s entertainment, it’s sport, it is something which can lift your heart and soul, it is pure joy. And it is a community builder.

Bhangra is not all about turning light bulbs.

 

Sources/bibliography:-

  1. Bhangra History
  2. History of Punjabi Bhangra Music & Dance.
  3. Bhujhangy Group
  4. Bhangra | BBC
  5. YouTube: Bhangra.me: Vancouver’s Unique Bhangra History
  6. Kohinoor Folk Arts Club website
  7. History of dance | Wikipedia