Bhangra is an energetic, folk dance and music form that originated from Punjab, India. Today, it’s the newest dance, music, and fitness phenomenon spreading all over the world. Bhangra has made its way to America’s Got Talent, the London Olympics, and even the White House.
THE BEGINNING OF BHANGRA
The first mentions of Bhangra as a dance entity start to show up in historical records around the late-1800s. The current style and form of Bhangra formed together in the 1940s and has evolved since. It originated as a folk dance celebrated during the time of the harvest. Bhangra is traditionally danced to the dhol instrument, a large drum, and boliyan, short sets of lyrics that describe scenes or stories from Punjab. These lyrics most commonly reference themes of love, patriotism, strength, and celebration.
THE REGIONAL CONNECTION
Bhangra is an amalgamation of various folk dances from all across the region of Punjab, many of which can trace their roots far back before the existence of the term Bhangra in the late 1800s. These dances include Sammi, Jhummar, Luddi, Giddha, Dhamaal, Sialkot, and many more.
For example, Sialkoti developed in the region of Sialkot, and is performed with one leg in the air. Jhummar, from Jhang-Sial, 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 area. As a result, due to several celebrated dance pioneers, these dances were shared, both in times of celebration and to ease 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. The Bollywood industry began to depict Bhangra in its movies while celebrated Bhangra pioneers emerged to actively spread and share the dance form. As a result, Bhangra music is now quite mainstream throughout India, and throughout the world!
You may have taken note of the dancers' extremely colorful Bhangra uniforms/outfits, or vardiyaan, during the performance. The vardiyaan not only emphasize the visual effect of Bhangra moves, but they also are designed to enable the dancer's maximum range of motion. In other words, the vardiyaan are the perfect combination of aesthetics and mobility. Today, men and women typically have a tendency to wear different vardiyaan while performing Bhangra.
ELEMENTS OF THE VARDIYAAN
Men tend to wear a chadr, a kurta, a vest, and a pagh, while women wear a salwar, a kurta, a vest, and a chunni. The chadr is the bottom half of the outfit, and consists of a long, rectangular piece of unstitched cloth tied around the dancer's waist. It covers the majority of the dancer's legs and is strategically tied so as to prevent the cloth from restricting the dancer's movement. The female complement to the chadr is the salwar. The salwar consists of loose fitting trouser pants with numerous pleats stitched into the fabric. In contrast to the chadr, the salwar covers the dancer's leg completely. The trousers are stitched so that when the dancer performs high-knee and leg-lifting steps, the pleats artfully hang to mimic the effect and coverage of the chadr. However, there are some women that do wear a chadr, kurta, and/or pagh while performing Bhangra.
The kurta is common to both types of vardiyaan. The kurta is a long-sleeved tunic that comes down to approximately the dancer's knees, or just above them. The sleeveless vest is worn over the kurta. Both the kurta and chadr are colorful, and display heavily embroidered intricate designs.
The pagh and chunni are head coverings that reflect the Sikh religion that is predominant in the state of Punjab. Culturally, head coverings are common as well. They are a symbol of pride, humility, fortitude, and respect. The Bhangra pagh is a long piece of cloth that is intricately wrapped around the dancer's head, culminating in a heavily, starched, pleated fan (turla) that crowns the whole turban. The chunni is a colorful scarf that is artfully draped around a woman's head and pinned to her kurta and vest. There are many other aspects to the vardiyaan as well. Not limited to just jewelry, these consist of various accent pieces that serve to enhance specific elements of a Bhangra routine. For example, earrings and necklaces (i.e. jhumke, kainthe, taveet) draw attention to a dancer's facial expressions. Rumaalan, or handkerchiefs, were traditionally tied around a dancer's wrist to highlight their complex hand movements. All parts of the vardiyaan complement the dance in that each element has origins steeped in meaning, symbolism, and purpose.
Perhaps the most famous Bhangra instrument is the dhol. It is a double-sided barrel drum that creates the beat to which Bhangra is danced to. The person who plays the instrument, the dholi, plays various beats to create the different Bhangra segments, such as Dhamaal, Jhummar, One side of the dhol has thicker skin, which creates a deeper sound, and the other side has a thinner skin, resulting in a higher-pitched sound. Two sticks are used to play the dhol instrument. The thicker stick, called the dagga, is used to play the bass side. The thinner tilli is used to play the treble side. Both sticks are usually made of wood or bamboo.
Algozey resemble two wooden flutes that are played simultaneously, with the artist using three fingers on each side. The music created by the algozey can be classified as more rhythmic than melodic in nature. The tumbi is a small stringed instrument. It consists of a small wooden stick attached to a hollow, gourd-like shell to create its acoustics. It only has one string that is continuously plucked to create a rhythm that accompanies the dhol and boliyan.
The chimta functions as a large pair of metallic tongs. Each side of the tongs has bells attached that chime loudly when the sides are struck together. The chimta player can either accompany the other instrumentalists or dance with the Bhangra dancers while simultaneously playing the instrument.
The dhad is a much smaller, high-pitched drum. It is also double-sided, but its body is shaped like an hourglass. The dhad is unusual in that you only beat one of its sides with your hand. The other hand squeezes a cord around the middle of the instrument that manipulates the pitch of the sound of the dhad as it is beaten.
Katos are used by Bhangra dancers during a routine - the shape of the instrument's body mimics that of a squirrel. It consists of a long stick with a wooden block resting on top. The wooden block has a flap that is the squirrel's "head," and a tail. Both the head and the tail have strings coming down, that when pulled, causes the flap to snap up and the tail to swing up. These strings are pulled in time to the beat.
SAAPS | SHIKKE
Saaps or shikke are also used by Bhangra dancers. It is a wooden instrument consisting of small X-shaped parts that expand and contract. As you use both hands to play the instrument, it produces a loud clapping sound that is meant to sound like thunder. The khunda is a long, heavy, decorated bamboo stick. It is maneuvered in various ways by Bhangra dancers during a typical routine.
The huge Punjabi diaspora has spread Bhangra across the world. It has now become mainstream enough where Bhangra influences can sometimes be seen in Western pop/hip-hop music. Bhangra music became extremely popular in the United Kingdom. Its enormous Punjabi population first combined traditional Bhangra rhythms with Western music. Bhangra music and Punjabi culture became prevalent in Bollywood cinema as well, especially during scenes of jubilation.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Bhangra teams began cropping up in the United States and Canada. Colleges and universities comprised a significant portion of these Bhangra teams, although a large number of independent teams and academies were also well established. Eventually a competitive circuit developed, and exclusive Bhangra competitions were held across North America. This competitive circuit experienced a high spike in popularity around 2006. With this growth came the development of various trends that pushed the boundaries of Bhangra. Bhangra music routines started incorporating a significant number of Western influences and beats, many hybrid moves were invented, and gimmicks started becoming essential to winning competitions. Another landmark moment came with the creation of all-girls Bhangra teams in a traditionally male-dominated dance form.
EVOLUTION OF BHANGRA
With such an immense amount of evolution in such a short amount of time, controversy has frequently sparked in the Bhangra circuit. There are some who believe the boundaries of the dance have been pushed too far and push for dancers to return the dance to its more traditional roots. Others believe that, as Bhangra has already changed so much throughout the course of its history, it should be allowed to continue to develop naturally and without restriction. There is much gray area in this debate, but the result is a rich diversity in Bhangra throughout the world. Teams take pride in their individual style, whether they consider themselves modern, traditional, in between, or neither, and many competitions cater toward particular styles. However, no matter the style, all Bhangra dancers agree that Bhangra is a dance of strength, power, energy and grace. In the midst of the self-discipline needed to complete a full routine comes a feeling of complete freedom and passion that encourages the circuit to evolve and thrive.
Bhangra competitions are one of the most exciting parts of modern-day Bhangra. Today, competitions occur all over the world and celebrate not only the culture and traditions of Punjab, but also something more universal - joy, strength, and pride. As Bhangra evolved into what it is known as today, it experienced a variety of different audiences. It grew from a dance performed in individual villages to an art celebrated at fairs and festivals, or melas, across Punjab. When it reached a national audience, Bhangra turned into a symbol of the culture and heritage of Punjab.
COMPETITIONS OVER TIME
Competitions, however, only started cropping up around the 1960s. In this decade, colleges across Punjab began forming local teams and sending them to perform at competitions. Some of the early college teams of note include DAV College (Jalandhar) and Khalsa College (Amritsar). Bhangra competitions steadily grew in popularity and are still prominent in Punjab today. As Bhangra music became popular in the Punjabi diaspora, competitions slowly began cropping up internationally, such as in North America, the UK, and Australia. Today, Bhangra competitions are held all over the world for all age groups. Children’s Bhangra competitions are also growing to be increasingly popular. Internationally, Bhangra competitions are not restricted to college teams and many independent academies and teams compete regularly. One of the first collegiate competitions, Bhangra Blowout, was hosted in 1993 by The George Washington University in Washington D.C.
Originally, competitions consisted of teams dancing on live music, always including at least a singer and a dhol player, or dholi. These teams usually consist of 8 dancers. Live dancing is still the predominant style of Bhangra competitions in India. However, the popularity of dancing to recorded music routines has skyrocketed in the rest of the world. Many international competitions today use judging rubrics that specifically cater to teams that perform to recorded music. In contrast, other competitions develop rubrics that reward elements emphasized in live music routines. Others involve combinations of the two. Universally, however, all Bhangra competition exhibit sets of highly energetic, rigorous routines. Internationally, this has created a rich spectrum of Bhangra teams with an enormous diversity of styles.