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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Exploring Bhangra on International Dance Day

An expert in the Bhangra dance form explains the history of the artform on International Dance Day.

celebrate dance, revel in the artform and cross all political, cultural, and ethnic barriers, bringing people together with the common language of dance.

A joyous, eclectic, and exuberant art form, Bhangra is an umbrella term for the traditional folk dance that takes its roots from the pre-partition areas of Sialkot and Gujranwala in Punjab, found in Pakistan today.

The art form was originally associated with the harvesting season of Punjab and was traditionally performed during the festival of Vaisakhi by farmers.

Bhangra music and dance were introduced to Britain in the late 1950s and early 60s when the first generation migrated from India and Pakistan after World War Two and the Partition of India.

Hardeep Singh Sahota is a leader in Bhangra history. Image: Tim Smith.

According to an expert in Bhangra history, Hardeep Singh Sahota, Huddersfield is credited with having one of the first Bhangra dance teams in Yorkshire, established in around 1968, on par with the well-documented teams in Oldham and Birmingham.

On a mission to increase the visibility of Bhangra dance and highlight the revolutionary contributions the genre has had on British arts and culture, Mr Sahota has spent the last two decades delivering workshops, lectures, and seminars on the artform.

In 2013, Mr Sahota accomplished a master’s degree at the University of Huddersfield exploring the history of Bhangra and authored the much-acclaimed book, Bhangra: Mystics, Music, and Migration. He is now a research fellow at the university on the art form.

The Huddersfield man spoke to Asian Standard about the history of Bhangra as a dance form on International Dance Day. He said: “Bhangra is an umbrella term for folk dances that came from pre-partitioned Punjab.

“There are many different types of Bhangra dances, including Sammi, Jhummar, Luddi, Giddha, Dhamaal, Sialkot, and many more. Traditionally, Bhangra is a dance performed by men, but women are increasingly participating in the art form.”

The female equivalent of the dance is Giddha, a highly colourful dance form that highlights feminine grace, elegance, and flexibility.

Traditionally a male dance, Bhangra is now performed by men and women. Image: Supreet Malhi.

Bhangra dancers often wear colourful vardiyaan (outfits) during their performances, not only to emphasise the visual effect of Bhangra moves but are designed to enable the dancer’s maximum range of motions.

Men tend to wear a colourful chadr – (which forms the bottom half of the outfit and consists of a long, rectangular piece of unstitched clothes tied around the dancer’s waist), a colourful kurta (a long sleeve tunic that comes down to the dancer’s knees or just before them), a vest, and a pagh (head coverings that reflect the Sikh religion).

Women who participate in the dance wear a salwar (loose-fitting trousers with numerous pleats that cover the dancer’s knees completely), a kurta, a vest and a chunni (a colourful scarf that is draped around a woman’s head and pinned to her kurta and vest).

The outfits are also often accompanied by jewellery, specifically earrings and necklaces. Rumaalan (handkerchiefs) are also traditionally tied around a dancer’s wrist to highlight their complex hand movements.

The main characteristics of Bhangra dances are the outfits, performances, and the dance styles but at the main heart of the art form is the dhol drum. “If you had to sum up Bhangra dance then the doldrum is at its essence, a really loud and powerful drum beat. The actual dance and movements are very energetic,” the teacher and dancer said.

In a typical performance, several dancers execute vigorous kicks, leaps, and bends of the body, often with upraised thrusting arm or shoulder movements to the beat of the drum and boliyan – short sets of lyrics that describe scenes or stories from Punjab, commonly referencing themes of love, patriotism, strength, and celebration.

Mr Sahota’s interest in the dance comes from being around his grandfather, Phuman Singh Sahota, as a child. His grandfather was a Bhangra singer in the group Deewana Mastana, which performed at weddings and celebrations and even appeared on BBC’S Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan, the first major programme on TV for Hindi and Urdu-speaking viewers that ran from 1968 until 1982.

Mr Sahota got his interest in Bhangra from his grandfather who was a Bhangra singer. Image: Tim Smith.

He added: “I’ve always been interested in dancing. Over the years I had so many questions about the genre of dance which is why I decided to do my masters-by-research on it.

“Growing up in the UK, when we talk about Bhangra, we often think about Bhangra music. In Punjab, it is primarily about the dance. So, I looked at the definition, finding out a little bit about the history and where it originated from.

“After partition, as people migrated either to newly-partitioned India or new-formed Pakistan, the dance travelled around as well and became a national identity for India as they were building up an identity.

“Wherever Punjabis have gone, they have taken their art form with them which is the beauty of some of the explorations I have done in Huddersfield.”

During his research, Mr Sahota found out that a Bhangra team existed in Huddersfield in 1968. He said: “When exploring the history of the dance in Kirklees, I spoke with a bus conductor from Bradford who knew of a Bhangra team from Huddersfield in the late 1960s.

“I hadn’t heard about it before but after doing some digging, I found it to be true. People often associate the earliest bhangra teams with Oldham and Birmingham, but we had one of the first groups here in Yorkshire, as well.”

“In the late 1980s, there were a lot of Bhangra groups and today, there are a lot of teams at universities up and down the country, with the Bhangra showdown in Birmingham every year.”

The 1980s saw an explosion in Bhangra music and dance due to its influence in Bollywood, and in part, because of the Daytimers subculture that saw young South Asian people raving during the day, which boomed in the UK at the time. You can read our interview with the first female Daytimer DJ, Rani Kaur, here.

Today, the interest and popularity in Bhangra has waned in Britain but is still popular among university students who participate in the Bhangra Showdown Competition in Birmingham every year.

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