City of Bhangra Festival busts gender barriers, builds crosscultural bridges
Female bhangra dancers may seem to be the norm nowadays. But what you might not realize is that that's actually a result of a recent breakthrough in traditional gender barriers.
When Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration Society chair Mo Dhaliwal introduced the South Asian Arts Girls Bhangra Team at the launch of the HSBC City of Bhangra Festival at Vancouver FanClub on Tuesday (March 19), he explained how radically things have changed.
"Just over a decade ago, it was really frowned on for girls to be dancing bhangra, let alone to be in very organized teams," he said. "A couple of groups in Vancouver really went a long way as far as making it okay and acceptable for there to be girls' bhangra groups, a dance that was typically associated with men. And now, if you take a look around, you would say that the vast majority of young, organized, committed danced troupes are actually of young women."
VIBC director Sukhi Ghuman said she herself grew up amid this gender shift in the Punjabi folk dance.
"I started dancing when I was in grade 10 in high school and it wasn't very common at all," she told the Georgia Straight. "And I remember I even had family members say, 'Oh, girls don't do bhangra. That's for the guys.' So it has definitely come a long way. I think just because of our parents, the way they've raised us, they've raised us as equal to our brothers, that now we'll see women and girls doing bhangra just as much as the boys, if not even more."
She pointed out that not only are female bhangra teams competing all across North America and winning top prizes, but there are also coed teams as well. Ghuman sees this increased equality as greatly beneficial for both women and gender relations.
"I think it has a huge thing to do with empowerment—for women to be able to go up on stage and to dance and to grace that stage in a very respectful manner, and to be also treated with respect during their performances," she said. "And I think that's—back in the day—one of the reasons why fathers didn't want their daughters dancing on stage because they thought that they might not be respected by other people watching them."
But it's not just gender barriers that the VIBC Society is helping to break down—it's also building bridges between cultures.
"That was one of the main missions of the VIBC Society: to create a festival that's open to people of all cultures and all walks of life," Ghuman said. "We wanted to educate people about what bhangra is. It is an art form, but it's something that everyone can enjoy. That universal beat of the dhol, the drum—that's something that anyone can bob their head to and dance to. And there is no right or wrong way to do bhangra. It's all about the way your body feels like moving when you hear that music. So that's one of the reasons why we wanted to open up the festival, have multiple events that are open, outdoor, free to the public to attend so they too can embrace that love and joy and celebration of bhangra that we at the VIBC Society also feel."
Dhaliwal echoed this sentiment. "Our hope and intention is to place bhangra on a platform and use it as a sort of needle and thread to sew the community together."
That intent, to become more inclusive and accessible, was evident in several changes made for last year's pivotal festival. Among them, Dhaliwal said, was a shift from ticketed indoor venues to open-air locations such as the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza, and also an expansion into Surrey.
Now in its ninth year, the HSBC City of Bhangra Festival, running from May 30 to June 8 this year, will build upon previously introduced elements.
The international percussion mashup known as rePercussion, programmed by Sal Ferreras, will return this year to incorporate South Asian, Brazilian, and First Nations traditions.
More crosscultural fusion will be offered by the Finnish bhangra band Shava, which combines Finnish lyrics and bhangra music.
"It is about the wildest, craziest music you've ever heard," Dhaliwal said of the band. "And for myself, it was the first time hearing bhangra as an outsider. You know, it sounds like a catchy tune but you don't know what they're saying."
Bhangra on Main, developed two years ago with Music on Main's David Pay, will also return.
"We thought wouldn't it be great to take Music on Main's great venues and great audiences and give them something that they might not have seen before, or might not have had such an intimate experience of before," Dhaliwal said. "And for us, it was also an opportunity to look at bhangra music in a different light. So often, we look at bhangra music as a big, bold, bright, colorful, high amp sort of activity. And we wanted to bring it back to its full roots a little bit and have an intimate experience."
But there's going to be more than just music and dancing. The festival delves into the world of visual art, with an exhibition at the Surrey Art Centre called Spectacular Sangeet. (Sangeet means music and dance.) Works by Canadian and British artists will explore numerous issues of South Asian music and dance, including the body and music, individual and group identities, and gender and spirituality, through media as varied as photo-painting, kinetic photo-sculpture, and even Bollywood poster collages.
International performers and North American bhangra teams will perform in a final two-day blowout in the open-air Downtown Bhangra, which will close the festival.
Performers who will be appearing at the festival include percussionist Sunil Kalyan (featured on Missy Elliot's "Get Your Freak On"), folk singer Saini Surinder, U.K. musician Gupsy Aujla, DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid, Mohammad Assani, DJ A-Slam, Sammy Chien, Tad Hozumi, and more.
Full details and more information can be found at the VIBC website.