Everything Bhangra

Dance can be a means of expressing spirituality and embodying emotion. It involves the collaboration of motion, rhythm, and movement of the body when it is set in harmony to music. One style of dance in particular is that of folk dance, where both communication and expression occur through gestures and symbolism in the dance movements. Costumes also play a large role in this form of dance for both the male and female performers. You will find this style of folk dance in what is known as Bhangra, or the “Harvest Dance,” a dance that gives identity and heritage to the Punjabi people of Northern India and Northeastern Pakistan.

Bhangra History

To understand and appreciate the significance of the Bhangra folk dance, we must look at its history and origins. This style of festive dance was adopted by the Punjabi farmers during the 15th century, in celebration of producing a successful wheat crop. Each season, upon seeing that their hard work had paid off, these farmers celebrated the harvest through dance, music, and songs.

The custom spread quickly from the poor farmers to others as they celebrated monumental occasions, such as weddings and other parties, like that of the New Year celebrations. The Bhangra folk dance spread from the farmers to the upper and middle class citizens of Punjab. Bhangra became very popular among the Punjabi people; it was recognized by all citizens regardless of their backgrounds or religions. It became part of their culture and tradition, among both the rich and the poor.

The difference between the Bhangra of today and the Bhangra of the past is the fact that originally it was performed solely during festival celebrations; but today, the dance and music are performed in competitions, clubs, dance halls, arenas, and concerts as well. You will even find that music producers have begun to jump on the Bhangra bandwagon, as they take traditional folk dance and musical elements, and set them to modern dance music. They sometimes add professional singers to a folk music soundtrack to give it a new twist on originality.

When it comes to witnessing and experiencing firsthand a live performance of Bhangra, you do not have to travel overseas; there are performances and competitions here in the United States that put this tradition on stage. Many colleges and universities have dance groups that specialize in the art of Bhangra, and host events where one can witness the spectacle that is Bhangra. 

Elements of Bhangra Dance

One of the first things that spectators notice about Bhangra, is the bright, bold and colorful costumes that are worn by the dancers. With this form of Indian folk dance, being able to move freely is quite necessary. Loose-fitting garments are essential to Bhangra performers, as it is important not to constrict body movement. Spectators will generally see female dancers wearing a garment called a salwar kameez; while male dancers clad themselves in turbans, dhotis, kurta, or vests that compliment the performance. Dancers are adorned in jewels and scarves, accenting and completing the look of the garment. The wearing of turbans by the male dancers is significant because it represents pride and honor of the Punjabi people. In most of the dance performances, the male dancers move with ease on bare feet. The garments worn by the female dancers give a style of elegance and grace. They wear such things as baggy pants; long flowing skirts, and fine jewelries adorn their foreheads. They also accentuate the costume by wearing ankle bracelets. Jewelry also consists of bangles, nose rings, necklaces and tassels, which are braided into the hair.

When it comes to the choreography of the Bhangra dance, the main aspect of the performance must reflect the daily chores of the working farmer, which demonstrates that of skill and agility. It may appear that the traditional form of Bhangra is male-orientated; however, though the men dominate this musical Indian dance, the Punjabi women have their own art form of dance. Female dances are called the Giddha, Saami, and the Kikli. In the female dance moves, their steps are more graceful, alluring, and very feminine, as opposed to their male counterparts, who perform with speed and flexibility, showing power and strength. The traditional form of dancing the Bhangra requires teamwork, coordination, and technique from all dancers when performed in a group dance. The difference between the traditional and modern-day Bhangra is the fact that the modern music, lyrics and dance of Bhangra have a faster beat or tempo as set for professional competitions.

There are different categories of Bhangra dances. Three of these categories are stated above when we mentioned the dances of the Panjabi women. Others include the Daankaa, Dhamal, Gatka, Jhumar, Julli and the Luddi, which are performed by men. Each dance has its own unique characteristic. For instance, the Daankara is a dance that uses sticks as props. Dhamal is a circle dance that includes a lot of shouting from the dancers. Gatka is a male dance that uses swords and daggers during the performance. You will find the Jhumar is a dance performed at marriage ceremonies. The Julli dance began with Muslim Holy men. This dance can be done in a group, or a single person can perform it alone. This is one dance that can be done while sitting.

Bhangra Music and Its Elements

The musical sounds and lyrics of Bhangra come from the language of the Punjabi people. Songs have a theme that relate to life situations such as relationships, marriage, drinking, and dancing celebrations. Also evident in songs is the pride and culture of the Indian people who sing about their Punjabi heroes. For the Punjabi people, singers perform with high-pitched voices when expressing themselves in song.

Today, the music associated with Bhangra has taken on elements of hip-hop and even Reggae. This collaboration has brought about the creation of freestyle Bhangra that has taken Britain by storm as they put a new twist on the old folk music and dance. Their musical rhymes are reflective of modern-day rap, in that they are lively and upbeat. The expression 'pump up the Bhangra,' has become popular in today’s modern music circles.

While Bhangra today reflects many aspects of modern music, it also has managed to maintain elements that make it unique. The instruments used in Bhangra music are particularly one such element that sets this music style apart from others. One of the most important instruments used is that of the Dhol, or a barrel-shaped drum that gives off a bass sound. Stringed instruments such as the Tumbi, the Sarangi, and the Chemta are also used. Each instrument is different and adds its own voice to the music. For example, the Tumbi has one string, while the Sarangi has 4 or 5. Each instrument gives off a different high-pitched sound. Other instruments used include percussions, like that of the Naghara, which is a large bowl-like instrument that gives unique sounds when beaten with sticks. You must have two Nagharas when playing; one to give the low bass pitch, and one to give the higher pitched sounds. The low pitch percussion sounds are referred to as being 'male' and the high pitched percussions are labeled 'females'.

Another very important element in Bhangra folk music is the artists playing the instruments and singing the songs. In today’s modern society, you have names like Kuldip Manak and A.S. Kang keeping Punjabi folk music alive. However, you also have names such as Jazzy Baines and Daler Mehndi who have both taken the traditional and remixed it to create what is known as 'Bhangra Pop' for something new and more modern in sound.

Wherever there is a celebration, event, or happy occasion among the Indian people, Bhangra music is the choice of entertainment, because it is the music and dance that celebrates the joys of life. The music expresses vigor, vitality and exuberance. Whether more traditional or modern in style, Bhangra continues to convey the joy, excitement, and celebration of a people united in song and dance.

For more information on Bhangra, please see the websites below. Also included are videos to give you a glimpse into this style and culture.

History of Bhangra

About Bhangra

Punjabi Culture

Language of the Punjabi People

Punjabi Song List

Return to Bhangra

History of Folk Dance: Bhangra

Indian Dance Styles Defined

New York Attraction: Bhangra dance shows (videos)

Bhangra Dance Tradition

About the Bhangra Dancers

Women in Bhangra

UC Berkley Bhangra Performance Video

Gabroo Punjabis Video

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