Dances of India - 2016

Balle Balle Punjab!

By Dr. Maha Gingrich

Punjab has attained an eminent place in the world of both performing and visual arts and in literature. The revival of folk art, song, dance, and drama, the rehabilitation of the ancient classics of poetry, and the rediscovery of the Sikh schools of painting have created a sense of pride and climate of involvement in the heritage of Punjab. However, when it comes to dances of Punjab, Bhangra encapsulates every exuberant idiom in its step bringing joy, rhythm, and energy to its forefront.

The Origin of Bhangra

Although Bhangra has possibly existed since as long ago as 300 BC, over the past four decades it has experienced new highs in popularity and innovation. The term “Bhangra" has gradually evolved bringing all other Punjabi dances under this umbrella.

Around the 14th or 15th Century, Punjabi wheat farmers danced and sang songs about village life to help pass the time while working in the fields. With time, these became part of harvest celebrations at Bhaisakhi festivals, as the sight of their crops growing invigorated the farmers. From here the dance quickly moved through all divisions of class and education, eventually becoming a part of weddings, New Year parties, and other important occasions.

There are many other dances from different parts of the Punjab region, including Jhumar, Luddi, Giddha, Julli, Daankara, Dhamal, Saami, Kikli, and Gatka. Not all Bhangra dances are loud and high energy. For example, Jhumar, originally from Sandalbar, Punjab, comprises an important part of Punjab folk heritage. It is a graceful dance, based on a specific Jhumar rhythm. Dancers circle around a drum player while singing a soft chorus using gentle moves and some clapping.

There is an exclusive dance style for women called Giddha. The dancers enact verses called bolis, representing a wide variety of subjects - everything from arguments with sisters-in-law, attitudes of mothers-in-law, making fun of husbands to politics. The rhythm of the dance is comprised of drum beats and clapping of the hands by dancers.

Then there is Daankara, performed exclusively by men in the Punjabi community that constitutes people following both Sikh and Hindu religions and particularly popular among the Punjabi Diaspora from the adjoining nations of India and Pakistan. The dance is performed traditionally during the marriages in the communities and is one of the main entertaining events of the occasion.

The Gatka dance is probably one of the most important performing arts of the Sikh community. The word “Gatka" may be roughly translated to the “Sword Dance". The Gatka dance was formally established after the heroic sacrifice of the Fifth Guru of the Sikhs (Guru Arjan Dev), who emphasized the martial values and armed combat training.

Since then, the Sikh people have been sought after for their martial skills in armed and unarmed combat. The Gatka dances are performed on the day of the “Hola Mohalla" festival and during various social gatherings and main festivals of the Sikh community.

The Gatka dance is performed using various weapons, principally swords, sticks, or daggers or swords like the iconic Khirpan, a short sword and a symbol of faith for the Sikh. These dances often involve athletic and acrobatic feats. Typically the tempo of the music is fast and there is no singing involved. The performers are only men and each of them displays his mastery over his weapon of choice. Many breathtaking stunts are performed that are extremely dangerous and require great skill and practice.

Bhangra Costumes

Traditionally, men wear a lungi, which is a colorful piece of cloth wrapped around the waist. Men also wear a kurta, which is a long Punjabi-style shirt. In addition, men wear Bhugaris - also known as turbans to cover their heads. Women wear the traditional Punjabi dress, composed of a long colorful shirt and baggy, vibrant pants. Women also wear duppattas, colorful pieces of cloth wrapped around the head and the neck. Many Bhangra and Bollywood songs make references to the duppatta.

Bhangra Instruments

Many different Punjabi instruments contribute to the sound of Bhangra. The primary and most important instrument that defines Bhangra is the dhol. The dhol is a large, high-bass drum, played by beating it with two sticks, while the drummer holds his instrument with a strap around his neck. The string instruments include the tumbi, sarangi, sapera, supp, and chimta. The dhad, dafli, dholki, and damru are the other drums.

Bhangra Lyrics

Bhangra lyrics, always sung in the Punjabi language, generally cover social issues such as love, relationships, alcohol, dancing, and marriage. Bhangra singers do not sing in the same tone of voice as other Indian singers. They employ a high, energetic tone of voice. Singing fiercely, and with great pride, they typically yell phrases such as “Hey hey hey," “Balle balle," or “Hey aripa" to the music.

Bhangra Today

Beginning as a form of lively folk music performed at harvests in the Punjab, Bhangra has come a long way in the 21st Century and has recently taken the entertainment industry by storm. Modern Bhangra artists, in addition to recording and performing traditional Bhangra, have also fused Bhangra with other music genres, such as hip-hop, reggae, house, and drum-and-bass. Thanks to this diversification, Bhangra now reaches a larger audience than ever, all over the world. Bhangra competitions at universities in England, Canada, and the US, as well as Southeast Asia, help to further the dance`s popularity with the next generation. This dance form attracts many young men and women from all cultures, races and nationalities bringing down barriers that may exist in other dance forms.