Bhangra (from Punjabi ਭੰਗੜਾ, بھنگڑا, bhaṅgṛā) is a fast dance, taking its roots from the culture of the Punjab region, now divided between India and Pakistan. Bhangra has evolved from the folk music and folk traditions, and is very popular among young people around the world.
Bhangra is considered to be one of the most famous traditional dances of Punjab. Punjabis believe that Bhangra existed in slightly different form in the 14 – 15 centuries. In those days, when the villagers gathered rich harvests of wheat, they held festivals to celebrate their successes and hard work.
After the end of sowing season, the Panjabi youth gathered in the open field at the full moon. And it is precisely at these celebrations Punjabis performed Bhangra songs and dances. During the performance, they depicted the rituals of agriculture, followed by performing wedding images. In the season of prosperity, known as Baisakhi (Vaisakhi), farmers and their families got together to celebrate the generous harvest and the New Year and to greet the coming spring. The dance symbolizes the importance of wheat for this region, which is the breadbasket of India (Miller 23-37).
Bhangra is performed by men. Traditionally, men dance to the sounds of a drum called Dhol. Dancers surround Dholi (Dholak) – a drummer, and move in a circle around him. From time to time, Dholi lifts up the sticks, beating a rhythm, and thus, gives dancers a sign that the speed of a dance should be increased.
The rhythm of the dance is simple and makes two or three quarters; the melody is unpretentious too. The dancers move in a circle, hopping on one leg and on the other, clapping, and shouting “balle-balle”, “oei-oei”, and “uh-uh”, completely surrendering the dance. When the Dholi starts beating the rhythm of Torah, the dancers change their pace. One of the dancers comes to the Dholi, and closing left ear with one hand starts singing “Dholla”. Others start dancing with even more energy.
Sometimes the dance is accompanied by the singing of short verses of “Boliyan” – folk song, written in the Punjabi language Bolis on the themes of harvest, love, patriotic feelings, etc., which conveys the meaning of dance movements. Usually, one of the participants of the performance sings improvised verses, and others pick up the style. With every new verse, the dancers change their direction of motion; this is continuing throughout the whole dance (Miller 35-41).
The most characteristic “pure dance” movement is twitching shoulders, which is the simultaneous lowering of the shoulders down, like shaking one’s shoulders. Often the dancers include clapping and clicking with their fingers. All the movements are generally twitch and clipped. Usually everything starts with a very slow pace, sudden movements of shoulders and jumps. After this, several couples of dancer move out from various sectors of the circle, dancing for some time in the center and then returning back to their places in the circle. A dancing pair can perform a variety of movements, starting from the very gracious to very sharp and courageous (Bhangra Performance).
The purpose of Bhangra is to compete in the ability to make special “scrolls”, to show male endurance and physical strength. Therefore, Bhangra contains many acrobatic stunts, hopping, pirouettes, jumps. For example, a dancer may dance on his knees, while his partner is dancing on his shoulders. Dancers may form complex group figures, getting on each other’s shoulders, keeping on dancing. Thus, in addition to the large circle, dancers sometimes get in small circles of three, and a second group of dancers is standing on their shoulders or on linked hands. Such a structure is still able to move in quick rhythm (Din 307-320).
Unlike, philosophical and noble temple bharatanatyam, Bhangra has no canons. This is a spontaneous folk dance, alien to restraint and smooth movements. Bhangra dance is not subject to some strict rules, but impresses with its spontaneous courage and cheerfulness. The dance is a typically Punjabi tradition; it is difficult to attribute it to some other peoples of India. However, the effect of Bhangra dance is so strong that it has finally influenced the dancing culture of neighboring regions (Miller 51-53).
The music of Bhangra combines rhythmic drum sounds of so-called dhol and other percussion instruments, one-stringed instruments like sitar and tumbi (the latter is made from a hollow gourd with a stick fitting through it and one string stretched), as well as a tool resembling large forceps (called chimta). Bhangra music is the music with a recognizable syncopated rhythm (Din 307-320). First, it can be a medium-tempo rhythm, but then it gradually accelerates, but this is an optional variant, as Bhangra violates rules.
Using special Indian rhythms, Bhangra dance is also used as one of the practices of yoga, as well as of Indian Sikh martial art Gatka and aerobics programs based on Bhangra. Bhangra involves with both hemispheres of the brain, coordinating and synchronizing their work, because each step is performed simultaneously with the two sides. It is believed that this dance is a dance of shining body, it strengthens the aura, helps both physical and spiritual aspects.
Historically, the purpose of Bhangra was the celebration of the gathering of the harvest, but later it was to perform at weddings, then at the New Year and other holidays. Nowadays, Bhangra is still a traditional dance for Indian Baisakhi (Vaisakhi) harvest festival, marking the beginning of the New Year and held on April, 12-14, with noisy dancing, singing and bathing in rivers. Early in the morning before the dawn, people visit temples with flowers in their hands; a favorable and important step is also bathing in the river.
During the day, the solemn processions can be seen in all major cities of the state. Punjabis are buying new clothes, cooking national dishes and attending fairs, where a variety of concerts of local folklore bands are held. Men and women living in rural areas of Punjab, go to the field and shouting Jatta aayi Baisakhi, thus wishing each other a happy New Year. Bhangra dance is performed right on the meadows and fields of tall grass. The movements of dances symbolize the daily activities of farmers – planting, plowing, harvesting, and simply express the joy and delight (Miller 46-49).
Traditionally, the dancers’ clothing is a short colorful, often brightly embroidered vest dressed over a long, loose white shirt. Wide lunghi (the type of pans), and a bright turban with a fan from the side made from the tissue of the turban. In addition, in India they also traditionally hold the Bhangra dance championships (Bhangra Performance).
Bhangra is the only kind of dance, which won the international scene due to the Punjabis, who, even while living abroad, try to maintain their traditions and develop the culture of their country. Competitions and contests of Bhangra are held not only in India but also abroad.
Nevertheless, today many educational institutions of major cities of the USA, Canada and England have started to hold annual competitions in Bhangra dance. These competitions are organized for both students from South Asia (Punjabis and others) and people of not South Asian origin. The winners get trophies and money. Thus, Los Angeles Bruin Bhangra has become one of the biggest Bhangra dance competition in the USA. It gathered dancing teams from all over the States and Canada, who were eager to show their talents. Bruin Bhangra also annually involves various well known Punjabi singers (Maira, 357-370).
Another festival called SoCal Bhangra invited such artists as Sukhshinder Shinda, KS Makhan, RDB, Jassi Sidhu, Malkit Singh, and Manak-e. There is also one of the US biggest Bhangra competitions held at The George Washington University – Bhangra Blowout, organized by the South Asian Society and the East-coast Bhangra team. Gathering thousands of viewers and participants, this event has become a major climax contest of the year for the best college and school Bhangra teams. For many Bhangra Blowout is the nation’s main competition because of its large size and because it is the last substantial Bhangra championship of the academic year in the US (Maira, 357-370).
In the US, on the contrast to the Punjab, the accent to traditional music and songs is not so strong, and more commonly the traditional Punjabi tunes are mixed with currently popular rock or hip-hop songs, as it is skillfully done by the famous Bhangra team “Da Real Punjabis”. The music produced through the interaction of the Bhangra dance with songs from other genres along with University Bhangra competitions are becoming increasingly popular nowadays, which promotes the intercultural communication and leads to the popularization of South Asian culture in the Western world (Mehta 78-82).
Bhangra is now popular all over the world, being interlaced into other dance styles. Jaunty rhythm of Bhangra is ideal for creating all possible fusion and is well combined with disco, reggae, techno, house and jungle. However, the most famous examples of the use of modern Bhangra music are hip-hop and rap.
Incidentally, in the late 20
and in the 21st centuries, Western musicians of both Indian and non-Indian origin turned to this music, creating a very popular trend in art. In recent years Bhangra has become an increasingly prominent phenomenon in the British electronic scene, for instance, and then migrated to other countries of Europe and to the USA.
Musicians are increasingly using the samples and whole melodies of traditional India and modern Bollywood. Bhangra has now the greatest influence on hip-hop, garage and electro house, separate works encountered in the modern dnb (Maira, 357-370). The general public got acquainted with Bhangra sounds in the early 2000s through the efforts of a number of DJs and producers, like AMZ’n’b or Panjabi MC (albums of 2002, 2003). In the USA, Bhangra music is now developed by DJ Rekha in her album “Basement Bhangra’’ or Bhangra from the underground, who came to New York from Punjab through London and knows Bhangra music firsthand (Huq 29-48).
All these contemporary styles and types of Bhangra music and dance are successfully developed in the world by Indo-Pakistani diaspora, and then this “new Bhangra” is re-exported back to India and enjoys great popularity there.