You could describe Rajinder Dudrah as a bhangra historian. To the Punjabi from Jalandhar who teaches at the University of Manchester, bhangra is more than just an eight-beat dhol sound punctuated by predictable lyrics and war cries such as harreeppa and brrraaah. The senior lecturer of screen studies says it is the whole soundtrack of the history of Punjabi migration to Britain.
Gursharan “Boy” Channa, knighted bhangra “champ” from West Midlands, is a journalist and photographer. The DJ has been archiving bhangra artefacts and photos in his attic for two decades now.
In India, bhangra might only be the zingy nach le sound brought in to liven proceedings everywhere—clubs, weddings, movies. But for the British Punjabi who lives with a multiple heritage, it is an art worth curating, researching and documenting. Channa and Dudrah are among the many avid bhangra lovers who will participate in the Soho Road to the Punjab exhibition that will be held at The Brunei Gallery in London starting Tuesday as a part of the city’s “India Now” festival.
“It was the politics that convinced me, as an Englishman, that this was a cultural theme I need to explore. In the UK, at the moment, Bollywood saturates the media. Many British Asians I talk to think that this is because they’ve ‘made it’. To my mind, however, Bollywood is the only facet of contemporary South Asian culture that the mainstream will accept. Bhangra provides a real life alternative,” says curator Simon Redgrave who, along with entrepreneur Ammo Talwar of Punch Records, has been organizing the show for the last two years.
There will be two aspects to the show funded by the British government’s Heritage Lottery Fund—an exhibition of artefacts and photos, and workshops by bhangra musicians such as Tarlochan Singh Bilga, Ram Lubhiya Badnami and Amarjit Sidhu. Dudrah will lead a conference on bhangra.
When Redgrave and Talwar set up the travelling show in 2005, they decided that instead of holding forth to audiences on the music style, they would choose a group of bhangra “champs” from various zones. The personal musical journeys and collections of these champs would then be showcased at the exhibitions.
British bhangra is more racy and urbane than the home-grown variety. It happily draws from pop, R&B, hip hop, rap, reggae and other contemporary sounds. In fact, the bhangra that is in vogue in Bollywood owes more to the British hybrid than the original.
“Bhangra for the Punjabi youth here is an identity marker. It has taken the centre stage now. It is, in many ways, a part of mainstream British popular culture. Earlier, many saw it as kitsch and wondered ‘Who are these people in loud and lurid sequinned tops?’ Recently, rapper Jay Z rapped on the track Mundian Tu Bachke Rahi by Panjabi MC,” says Dudrah.
For performers in their 30s, who now rule the bhangra scene in Britain, the exhibition is an important event. Channa says it is a good time to take stock of how bhangra has grown out of the cultural ghetto. “I look back at the 1980s and 1990s and realize this has not been documented or recognized. We would go to the disco and dance to bhangra. It was for us a medium to say we belong to Britain, but we are also our own community. We then heard the music our parents did. Now, of course, it’s an entirely new school of bhangra listeners and the kids have a lot more disposable income to buy what they want,” he says.
Channa compares the evolution of bhangra to reggae’s rise in Britain. Both were, for long, seen as niche sounds till they acquired immense mainstream popularity. The DJ traces this to live shows and concerts organized by bhangra bands such as Heera, Alaap and Malkit Singh.
The only time bhangra’s popularity waned was in the early 1990s, when it became heavily diluted by rap and reggae. But the style today has found its identity. Mundian managed to stay on the top of pop charts for about a month. In fact, the song has gone on to generate a new genre called “Desi Beats”.
“Even the local British recognize the Panjabi MC track and dance to it. It’s everywhere: on compilation albums and jukeboxes,” says Channa. Dhol master Gurcharan Mall says the sound of the folk drum is a hit with the non-Asians too.
Not surprising, then, that the show turned out to be a huge success the first time it was mounted. Classical Indian culture has always been a fixture on the London arts circuit, but here was a show on popular Asian culture wrapped in a professional package. Another theme of the exhibition is travel and migration, especially the 1960s optimism surrounding air travel. Musical instruments and records are displayed in period suitcases, and labels are specially designed luggage tags.
The show travels later to other cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff.
Soho Road to the Punjab, 17 July–22 September, London, The Brunei Gallery, The School of Oriental and African Studies.
Sanj-J-Sanj: The DJ, bhangra promoter and remixer is the bhangra champ for London
The bhangra scene in London started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, it was limited to social get-togethers and important festivals such as Diwali and Baisakhi. However, it really got into turbo gear in the 1980s. This was led in a big way by the first commercial band, Alaap. Promoters like myself also started holding our own events. Since Asian girls were not allowed by their parents to visit pubs and discos, we started organizing daytime events in the pubs. I remember distinctly that December 1984 was the first time I organized a daytimer. The patrons were mostly college students whose parents were not aware that their kids were there.
The daytime scene doesn’t exist any more since girls can go out freely nowadays. In the late 1980s, the media started taking an interest and there were three big bands in London: Heera, Premi and Alaap. In the mid-1980s, the capital of British bhangra shifted from London to Birmingham. There were more bands and more Punjabi people up there. In the early 1990s, bhangra became a lot more DJ-oriented and people such as Maximum NRG, Badd Company and AOS were prominent on the scene. It also became a part of the larger Asian Underground movement.
Though bhangra is still big up in the Midlands, it seems to have died here in London. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The Bollywood scene is much bigger here and the record companies are not pumping enough money into bhangra. Also, some of the videos are rubbish and they have let down the whole community. Now, with the band Heera back together, the bhangra scene is expected to become bigger.
Kash Sahota: Writer, radio broadcaster and roadshow DJ, Sahota is the bhangra champion for East Midlands and Scotland
The growth of bhangra needs to be documented to preserve the quintessential UK contribution by scores of bands and solo artists over the last five decades. UK bhangra has essentially been live music, shared by the communities in which it was born—across Birmingham, London, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester and Glasgow. There is a whole lot of bhangra paraphernalia that needs to be preserved: vinyl records, flyer leaflets, posters, costumes, radio broadcasts and newspaper articles. They all gave the beat a distinct identity and a sound that was unmistakably ‘pardesi’.
It is true that bhangra grew from its communities, the parties, weddings, community shows, festivals and melas. It still belongs there, but it has taken on a prominence that gets mainstream media recognition. Through fusion with other genres and through artists such as Cornershop, Asian Dub Foundation, Raaghav, Taz, Bally Sagoo, Apache Indian, Jay Sean, Juggy D, Jazzy B, Malkit Singh, Dhol Foundation and RDB, bhangra has gone from a rustic ethnic cultural form to a modern popular medium.
I see three kinds of bhangra today. There is the UK bhangra, which is typified by the artistes I mentioned and pioneers such as Alaap, Heera, DCS and Malkit Singh and more recently, Sukshinder Shinda. Then there is Punjabi bhangra coming out of Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and New Delhi, pushed by artistes such as Gurdas Maan, Hans Raj Hans and Ashok Masti. And last, there is Mumbai bhangra composed by the music directors of Indian films. The one thing that connects all these different forms is the energy and passion they share.
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