Bhangra: A Brief History

It is undisputed that Bhangra originates from the Panjab, a province in northern India. ‘Panjab’ means ‘the land of the five rivers.’ Bhangra itself has been around for over five hundred years. What is more disputed, and difficult to define, is the word ‘Bhangra’ itself. In general terms, Bhangra describes a traditional folk dance, usually performed around Baisakhi, April 13th, the festival of the harvest. It is widely asserted that the dance originates from Sialkot in the Majha area of Panjab, as the dance practised here is regarded to be the standard. Key components of the dance generally remain consistent, and include instruments, the most well known being the dhol, a double-sided barrel, and boliyan, rhyming couplets which form the majority of lyrics. Traditionally, social issues are focused on, like love, marriage and drinking. The combination of the dance and the dhol encourage rhythmic cohesion. The oldest literal mention of the term ‘Bhangra’ dates back to the late 1800s.

The term itself acts as an umbrella term, and encompasses folk dances such as, Sammi, Jhummar and Giddha. All are classed as Bhangra but have slight variations. It is argued that Jhummar, originating from Jhang-Sial, can be traced back to the Aryan period. This took place between 1750-500 BCE, where Indo-Aryans settled in Northern India. Sammi is a dance that centres around the story of a fabled girl. Sikh freedom fighters have also been the topic of lyrics and dances. Giddha is a dance that is performed by women, and the dances enact verses called bolis, representing a wide variety of subjects from familial conflict to political affairs. Along with the beat of the dhol, the handclaps of the dancer’s guide and control the rhythm of the dancing.

For men, Bhangra represented the epitome of strength and masculinity. The energetic dance movements paraded their strength and stamina. The dance’s association with the harvest also speaks to self-sufficiency in agriculture. Wider themes associated with Bhangra have included independence and bravery.

Another interpretation, associates Bhangra with Panjabi martial dances. This is evident in the performing of Gatka, a Sikh martial art in which people use swords, sticks, or daggers. It is believed that sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind, started this following the martyrdom of his predecessor, Guru Arjan Dev. Gatka is usually performed on special Panjabi holidays, a practice which upholds traditional ideas of bravery and masculinity.

Bhangra gradually began to spread and become more mainstream, beginning in the 1940s. Following Partition, displaced Panjabis took Bhangra to new places and countries, such as the UK, where many emigrated to. In the 1950s, Bhangra was patronised by the Maharaja of Patiala, who requested a stage performance of it in 1953. This marks a distinct change, as from then on, Bhangra was not just associated with the harvest, and was seen more widely as entertainment. Throughout the 80s and 90s, artists, such as Gurdaas Mann, helped Bhangra enter into mainstream music and reach a wider audience.

Clothing worn by performers is eye-catching and colourful. To ensure that their movement is not restricted, their clothes, the vardiyaan, are loose fitting. This accentuates their movement and also the rhythm of the dance, making the overall performance of Bhangra impressive and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, with the aid of artists such as Diljit Dosanjh, and the influence of Bollywood, Bhangra is massively popular. Bhangra has even been suggested as an exercise alternative. Sarina Jain was the first woman to create a Bhangra fitness workout. Bhangra societies and clubs have popped up all over the country and inspired national competitions. There is even a section dedicated to the dance as part of BBC Bitesize’s GCSE Music curriculum. It seems that Bhangra is still changing and reaching a wider audience, which is impressive considering the folk dance is over five hundred years old.[1]

[1] Information taken from:

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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