History of Bhangra

Bhangra History

Bhangra – The Dance of Punjab

(ਚੱਕ ਦੇ ਢੋਲੀਆ)

Written by Gurdeep Pandher

Dance

Dance has been an important part of ceremonies, rituals, celebrations and entertainment since the beginning of the earliest human civilizations. Contemporary forms can be traced back to traditional, ceremonial, and ethnic dances of ancient periods.

Dance was a tool of social interaction that promoted a form of cooperation that was essential for survival. They were performed to celebrate important festivals or seasonal occasions such as the harvest, births or weddings. This type of dance can be found all over the world.

Dances may be part of religious rituals, such as the rain dance that was performed in times of drought. Shamans dancing for rain is mentioned in ancient Chinese texts. Along with this, dance is an important aspect of some religious rites in ancient Egypt. Similarly, dance is integral to many ceremonies and rites among African peoples. Many times, these ritual dances are performed in temples, during religious festivals.

The 20th century was a period of separation from the traditional symbolic meaning of dance.  For dancers and choreographers, it was a time of enormous creative growth. As the definition of dance was beginning to broaden, it came as a shock and surprise. However, over time the public grew more open-minded to what dance could mean.

Bhangra – Folk dance of Punjab

Many people have humorously referred to the hand motions in Bhangra as turning light bulbs. Yet, 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. Its capital was in Lahore under the rule of 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,  the root of this dance comes from 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. Although, this dance was also performed by farmers while they were doing agricultural chores. Many of the main bhangra moves have origins in specific farming activities. For example, when farmers needed to pick something from one spot and place somewhere else, 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.

Punjab in 1839 - The region of Bhangra roots. (Source: Wikipedia)
Punjab in 1839 – The region of Bhangra roots. (Source: Wikipedia)

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

Originally, bhangra was exclusively a men’s dance. However, as time passed, women began to participate as well, and it is now an art danced by all genders. 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, to now reaching big cities and modern life. Today bhangra music and dance is also seen in Bollywood movies and other genres of large-scale musical fusions. Many people go to bhangra sessions to stay healthy and fit, as the best alternative to the 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 in South-Asia in 1947, different regions of the country began to interact and share their different forms of Bhangra. This resulted in a hybrid which incorporated many different styles. A large part of the popularization of Bhangra was due to the Sikh community, which helped to integrate this style of music, as they immigrated to different parts of the world, taking their culture with them wherever they went.

In its purest form Bhangra is a mix of 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 issues can range 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 current events or controversial issues. 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 incorporates a variety of these distinct 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 and distinguishing 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. Jhoomar, from Jhang-Sial region of Punjab, can 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 ongoing independence movements. Thanks to several celebrated dance pioneers, these dances were shared, both in times of celebration, along with 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 Jhoomar segment, or a Dhamaal segment. Due to the exponential rise of communication throughout the regions of Punjab and across South-Asia, Bhangra rapidly spread throughout the region.

Boys from Punjab dancing bhangra
Boys from Punjab dancing bhangra

Dhol:-
The Dhol is the king of the bhangra instruments. Although there are many other musical instruments involved, the dhol drum has always been the main 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 and dancing bhangra. Although, modern-day has led to people dancing bhangra to a mix of Punjabi-western music, the truest form of bhangra is dancing to Dhol beats.

Pure Bhangra is dancing Bhangra moves to Dhol drum.

The Beginning of Modern Punjabi Bhangra music:-

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 of the 1970’s included ‘The Black Mist’, ‘The Shots’, ‘The Jambo Boys’, and ‘The Saathies’. However, the first recording group in the UK was the Bhujhangy Group. The band was founded in Smethwick, near Birmingham, by brothers Balbir Singh Khanpur and Dalbir Singh Khanpur in 1967.

Bhujhangy Group is the world’s longest-running bhangra band. The brothers came to the United Kingdom to in the mid-1950s and were joined by their families in 1964. They initially worked in the West Midlands’ factories. The band was named Bhujhangy – meaning “kids” – as they were still teenagers, and their first recording was “Teri Chithi Noon Parthan”. This recording was done in 1967 and sold 100 copies.

Bhujhangy appeared on television in 1969 as a part of the celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 500th birthday. The same year, the band was approached by Oriental Star Agencies and continued making recordings under this label. The group had always been interested in Western music, as well as traditional Punjabi music. They learned 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 Punjabi culture. Their early 1970’s single “Bhabiye Akh Larr Gayee” was the first recording to combine traditional Asian sounds with modern Western musical instruments and influences. This single was 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. In 2011, they went on to receive a Life Time Achievement award in London from Britasia TV. 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.

Bhangra Moves:-

There are approximately 300 types of bhangra dance movements. Some are meant to be performed by men; others by 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 unique dance moves. Bhangra is often danced in circles and uses a lot of arm and shoulder movements. Some dances even use sticks and swords. Whereas others incorporate stunts, such as a dancer sitting on someone’s shoulders, while another person hangs from his torso by his legs.

Bhangra has also been helpful in promoting intercultural harmony and friendships. This dance form continues to inspire 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. As the boredom of cardio exercising in indoor gym facilities disappears, participants are surprised at how enjoyable working out can be. Bhangra sessions are not only fun, but they keep you healthy and fit.

Promoting Unity-in-Diversity and Joy:-

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. As they dance together and watch performances together, a connection evolves. Through bhangra, people learn about Punjabi-Sikh diaspora, while Sikhs learn about Western culture. Nowadays when many forces are dividing us, bhangra works to unite us. This dance allows people to feel comfortable in their own skin and teaches the importance of respecting others. Bhangra is not just a form of dance… it’s fun, it’s a workout, it’s entertainment, it’s educational; it is something which can lift your heart and soul. Bhangra is a community builder and for many, it is pure joy.

Bhangra is not just 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