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History of Bhangra


Bhangra is a lively form of music and dance that originated in the Punjab region in Southeast Asia. As many Bhangra lyrics reflect the long and often tumultuous history of the Punjab, knowledge of Punjabi history offers important insights into the meaning of the music. While Bhangra began as a part of harvest festival celebrations, it eventually became a part of such diverse occasions as weddings and New Year celebrations. Moreover, during the last thirty years, Bhangra has enjoyed a surge in popularity worldwide, both in traditional form and as a fusion with genres such as hip-hop, house, and reggae. As Bhangra continues to move into mainstream culture, an understanding of its history and tradition helps to appreciate it.

The birthplace of Bhangra, the Punjab is a region extending over part of Northern India and Northeastern Pakistan. Translated, the name "Punjab" means the "Land of Five Rivers." The people of the Punjab are called Punjabis and they speak a language called Punjabi. The three main religions in the area are Sikhism, Hinduism, and Islam. The region has been invaded and ruled by many different empires and races, including the Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Muslims, and Mongols. Around the time of the 15th Century, Guru Nanak Dev founded the Sikh religion, which quickly came to prominence in the region. The 19th Century saw the beginning of British rule, which led to the emergence of several heroic freedom fighters, the subject of many Bhangra songs. Finally, the Punjab was split between Pakistan and India at the end of British rule in 1947. This partitioning resulted in a large migration of Punjabis into the United Kingdom, which eventually led to the emergence of Bhangra in Western clubs and dancehalls


Punjab in the 21st Century
The years after partition tested the traditional Punjabi tenacity and toughness. Rapid achievements in agriculture and industry and in the field of education, services, social welfare, and rural uplift helped the Punjab become one of the most prosperous regions in Southeast Asia.

Punjab has attained an equally 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 the Punjab.

The Bhangra
Although Bhangra has possibly existed since as long ago as 300 BC, over the past forty years it has experienced new highs in popularity and innovation. The term "Bhangra" has gradually evolved and now refers to many different sub-classes of dance and music for many occasions.

The Origin of Bhangra
While Bhangra historians speculate the dance may have originated in the time of the wars with Alexander, no one is sure it existed until about five hundred years ago. 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 (April 13) 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.

The Many Sub-Dances of Bhangra
Bhangra has developed as a combination of dances from different parts of the Punjab region. The term "Bhangra" now refers to several kinds of dances and arts, including Jhumar, Luddi, Giddha, Julli, Daankara, Dhamal, Saami, Kikli, and Gatka.

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.

A person performing the Luddi dance places one hand behind his head and the other in front of his face, while swaying his head and arms. He typically wears a plain loose shirt and sways in a snake-like manner. Like a Jhumar dancer, the Luddi dancer moves around a dhol player.

Women have a different but equally exuberant dance called Giddha. The dancers enact verses called bolis, representing a wide variety of subjects - everything from arguments with a sister-in-law to political affairs. The rhythm of the dance depends not only the drums, but also on the handclaps of the dancers.

Julli is a dance associated with Muslim holy men called pirs and is generally performed in their hermitages. Typically the dancers dress all in black, and perform Julli in a sitting posture, but it is sometimes also done around the grave of a preceptor. Julli is unique in that one person, alone, can perform the dance if he so desires.

Daankara is a dance of celebration, typically performed at weddings. Two men, each holding colorful staves, dance around each other in a circle while tapping their sticks together in rhythm with the drums.

Dancers also form a circle while performing Dhamal. They also hold their arms high, shake their shoulders and heads, and yell and scream. Dhamal is a true folk-dance, representing the heart of Bhangra.

Women of the Sandalbar region traditionally are known for the Saami. The dancers dress in brightly colored kurtas and full flowing skirts called lehengas.

Like Daankara, Kikli features pairs of dancers, this time women. The dancers cross their arms, hold each other`s hands, and whirl around singing folk songs. Occasionally four girls join hands to perform this dance.

Gatka is a Sikh martial art in which people use swords, sticks, or daggers. Historians believe that the sixth Sikh guru started the art of gatka after the martyrdom of fifth guru Guru Arjan Dev. Wherever there is a large Khalsa Sikh population, there will be Gatka participants, often including small children and adults. These participants usually perform Gatka on special Punjabi holidays.

In addition to these different dances, a Bhangra performance typically contains many energetic stunts. The most popular stunt is called the moor, or peacock, in which a dancer sits on someone`s shoulders, while another person hangs from his torso by his legs. Two-person towers, pyramids, and various spinning stunts are also popular.

Bhangra Costumes
Traditionally, men wear a lungi while doing Bhangra. A lungi 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 turbins - to cover their heads.

Women wear the traditional Punjabi dress, salvar kameez. A salvar kameez is composed of a long colorful shirt and baggy, vibrant pants. Women also wear duppattas, colorful pieces of cloth wrapped around the neck. Many Bhangra songs make references to the duppatta.

Bhangra Instruments
Many different Punjabi instruments contribute to the sound of Bhangra. Although the most important instrument is the dhol drum, Bhangra also features a variety of string and other drum instruments.

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. The width of a dhol skin is about fifteen inches in general, and the dhol player 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. The tumbi, famously mastered by Amar Singh Chamkila, a famous Punjabi singer, is a high-tone, single-string instrument. Although it has only one string, mastering the tumbi takes many years. The sarangi is a multi-stringed instrument, somewhat similar to the violin. The sapera produces a beautiful, high-pitched stringy beat, while the supp and chimta add extra, light sound to Bhangra music. Finally, the dhad, dafli, dholki, and damru are instruments that produce more drum beats, but with much less bass than the dhol drum.

Bhangra Lyrics
Bhangra lyrics, always sung in the Punjabi language, generally cover social issues such as love, relationships, alcohol, dancing, and marriage. Additionally, there are countless Bhangra songs devoted to Punjabi pride themes and Punjabi heroes. The lyrics are tributes to the rich cultural traditions of the Punjabis. In particular, many Bhangra tracks have been written about Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh. Less serious topics include beautiful ladies with their colorful duppattas, and dancing and drinking in the fields of the Punjab.

Bhangra singers do not sing in the same tone of voice as their Southeast Asian counterparts. Rather, they employ a high, energetic tone of voice. Singing fiercely, and with great pride, they typically add nonsensical, random noises to their singing. Likewise, often people dancing to Bhangra will yell phrases such as "Hey hey hey," "Balle balle," or "Hey aripa" to the music.

Bhangra Today
Bhangra has come a long way in the 20th Century and has recently taken the entertainment industry by storm. In the 1970s and 1980s, many Punjabi singers from Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom emerged, setting the stage for Bhangra to become a hot new trend in dance music. 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.

Bhangra in the 1970s
In the late 1960s and 1970s, several singers from the Punjab set the stage for Bhangra to become a mass phenomenon. These singers, some of whom are still active today, include Kuldip Manak, Amar Singh Chamkila, and A. S. Kang.

Kuldip Manak, a Bhangra legend, has come to represent the ultimate Punjabi folk music icon. Malkit Singh, a current Bhangra star, says, "Kuldip Manak was one of my singing idols when I was growing up". He symbolizes the essence of Punjabi culture with regards to its history and people. Manak was raised into a musical family; his father was a singing priest in gurudwaras (Sikh temples) in Punjab. Manak`s first release was in 1968 when he was just 14 yrs old. He went on to author hundreds of songs, many of which are covered and remixed by contemporary artists.

Chamkila, whose music has received a recent rebirth in popularity, was born on 21 July 1961 in Ludihana, Punjab, from a poor family and lived in great poverty. He wanted to be an electrician, but his family could not afford his education, so he turned to music at a young age. When he was seven years old, he learned the Dholki drum, and he began writing songs when he was only ten. Many Punjabi singers used his songs, and in the late 70s Chamkila began performing himself. He joined a lady named Amarjyot in the early 80s and together they toured the world, visiting countries such as the USA, Canada, Dubai, and Bahrain. Chamkila was extremely popular, but also very controversial, due to his often vulgar and offensive lyrics. Despite countless death-threats, the artist refused to alter his style. However, in 1988 Chamkila and Amarjyot were killed at a show in Mesumpur as they stepped out of their car. The official blame was put on terrorists, but many believe that rival singers, envious of the couple`s success, arranged the killing. Chamkila, a legend of Punjabi folk, was only twenty-seven years old when he was killed. He had over two hundred unreleased songs finished at the time of his death, many of which have been recorded and released by modern artists.

A.S. Kang has been in the Bhangra industry for a long time, and just released a new album, The Kangsta, in 1999. With over twenty years of industry experience, he is now referred to as the "Big Daddy." Kang`s music has evolved with time, and his recent releases have featured combinations of swing, techno and dance music with his more traditional folk vocals.

Other artists that had a huge influence on the growth of Bhangra are Bhujangy, Asa Singh Mastana, Surinder Kaur and Parkash Kaur, Lalchand Yamla Jat, K. Deep and Jagmohan Kaur, and Alam Lohar.

Bhangra in the 1980s
It was not until the early eighties that Bhangra moved from "secluded halls and venues to the bright lights of the clubs and cities of England." First generation Asians were intrigued by their musical heritage, and helped bring Bhangra to the mainstream in their new country.

One of the biggest Bhangra stars of the last several decades is Malkit Singh - known as "the golden voice of the Punjab" - and his group, Golden Star. Malkit was born in June 1963, in the village Hussainpur, in Punjab. He attended the Khalsa College, Jalandhar, in the Punjab, in 1980 to study for a B.A. in Arts. Here he met his mentor, Professor Inderjit Singh, who nurtured his skills in Punjabi folk singing and Bhangra dancing. Thanks to Singh`s tutelage, Malkit entered and won many song contests during this time. In 1983 he won a gold medal at the University of Guru Nanak, in Amritsar, Punjab, for performing his hit song Gurh Naloo Ishq Mitha, which later featured on his first album, Nach Gidhe Wich, released in 1984. The album was a strong hit among South Asians worldwide, and after its release Malkit and his band moved to the United Kingdom to continue their work. Malkit has now produced 16 albums and has toured 27 countries in his Bhangra career.

Gurdaas Mann also had a huge impact on Bhangra music. He started his career in 1982 with his first album, Dil Da Mamla. Since then he has become an idol for many, not only for his musical talent, but also his acting ability. He appeared in the Punjabi film Long Da Lishkara, which included the mega hit Challa (recently remixed by Punjabi MC on his album Legalised). Since 1982 Gurdass Mann has released a number of hit albums, performed at sold-out concerts around the world and recently released the hugely popular single, Apna Punjab.

The group Alaap, fronted by Channi, the man made famous by his white scarf, hails from Southall, a Punjabi area in London. Their album Teri Chunni De Sitaray, released in 1982 by Multitone, created quite a stir at a time when Bhangra was still in its early days in the UK. This album played a critical role in creating an interest in Bhangra among Asian university students in Britain.

Heera, fronted by Kumar and Dhami, was one of the most popular bands of the eighties. Fans were known to gatecrash weddings they played. The group established itself with the album Diamonds, released early in the decade. This album is notable for being one of the first Bhangra albums to successfully mix Western drums and synthesizers with traditional Punjabi instruments.

Several other influential groups appeared around the same time, including Apna, from Birmingham, and the Bhujungy Group. Apna, most famously known for their hit Mera Yaar Vajavey Dhol, are still performing and are known as one of the best live acts in Bhangra.

Bhangra in the 1990s
Bhangra took massive steps toward mainstream credibility in the 1990s, especially among youths. At the beginning of the nineties, many artists returned to the original, folk beats of Bhangra, often incorporating more dhol drum beats and tumbi. This time also saw the rise of several young Punjabi singers.

The most influential of these young superstars was the "Canadian folkster," Jazzy Bains. Originally from Namasher in Punjab, "Jazzy B," as he is commonly referred to, has become one of the preeminent Bhangra artists in the world after his debut in 1992. Having sold over 55,000 copies of his second album, Folk and Funky, he is now one of the best-selling Bhangra artists in the world, with a vocal style likened to that of Kuldip Manak. Although his music has a traditional Punjabi beat, Jazzy Bains has taken up a particularly modern, thug-like image for himself, perhaps helping his popularity in the process.

Another famous young Bhangra super star is Bhinda Jatt, "the Folk Warrior of California." Jatt, whose style reminds many of Bains, started his career alongside his brother Kaiser, an excellent dhol player. Their first album was a huge success and Bhinda is currently is one of the top singers in the industry.

Balwinder Safri, based in the UK, gives strong vocals to classic tracks. Since releasing his first album, Reflections, in 1991, Safri has signed with BMG Multitone and become one of the most sought-after Bhangra singers in the world. His career highlights include his 1994 album, Get Real, which remained atop the Bhangra charts for eight weeks, and releasing the first Bhangra single ever, Legends, in 1995. Over the last few years he has reaped tremendous success around the world, through both live and recorded performances. His releases to date highlight his vocal versatility.

Hailing from the Punjab, Surjit Bindrakhia has arguably the most powerful and versatile voice of any modern Bhangra singer. Featuring a throaty and wide-ranging voice, Bindrakhia is the most successful traditional artist in the world, producing most of his music in India. He has been famous in Punjab for many years, but he only reached worldwide notoriety with Dupatta Tera Sat Rang Da, one of the most popular Bhangra songs of all time. There are more sustained dhol beats in Bindrakhia`s work than in that of most UK-based Bhangra artists.

Other influential Bhangra artists include Surinda Shinda - famous for his Putt Jattan Da, Harbhajan Mann, Manmohan Waris, Sarbjit Cheema, Hans Raj Hans, Sardool Sikander, Geet the MegaBand, Anakhi, Sat Rang, XLNC, B21, Shaktee, Intermix, Sahara, Paaras, PDM, DCS, Amar Group, Sangeet Group, and Bombay Talkie.

Bhangra Pop & Remixes
Many South Asian DJs, especially in America, have mixed Bhangra music with house, reggae, and hip-hop to add a different flavor to Bhangra. These remixes continued to gain popularity as the nineties came to an end.

Of particular note among remix artists is Bally Sagoo, a Punjabi-Sikh, Anglo-Indian raised in Birmingham, England. Sagoo described his music as "a bit of tablas, a bit of the Indian sound. But bring on the bass lines, bring on the funky-drummer beat, bring on the James Brown samples," to Time Magazine in 1997. He was recently signed by Sony as the flagship artist for a new label based in Bombay. Another remarkable fact about Sagoo is that first single off his album Dil Cheez debuted in October 1996 at No. 12 on the British pop chart, the first Urdu/Hindi song ever to do so; the second, Tum Bin Jaya, entered at No. 21. Says Time, "Sagoo meanwhile has sketched a profile as high as his spiky coiffure, appearing on BBC TV`s Top of the Pops, as host of MTV Asia`s Club MTV, and as the opening act for Michael Jackson`s mammoth Bombay concert." Artists like Sagoo, while not performing traditional Bhangra, are an important factor in Bhangra`s growing mainstream presence.

The continued success and growth of Bhangra music worldwide has provided the impetus for many different offshoots from traditional Bhangra. The most popular of these is Daler Mehndi, a Punjabi singer from India, and his music, known as "Bhangra Pop." Mehndi has become a major name not just in Punjab, but also all over India, with tracks such as Bolo Ta Ra Ra and Ho Jayegee Balle Balle. He has made the sound of Bhangra-pop a craze amongst many non-Punjabis in India, selling many millions of albums. Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment is the selling of 250,000 albums in Kerela, a state in the South of India where Punjabi is not spoken.

Toward the end of the decade, Bhangra continued its assault on mainstream culture, with artists like Bally Sagoo and Apache Indian signing with international recording labels Sony and Island. Moreover, Multitone Records, one of the major recording labels associated with Bhangra in Britain in the eighties and nineties, was bought by BMG. Finally, a recent Pepsi commercial launched in Britain featured South Asian actors and Bhangra music. This, perhaps more than anything else, is a true sign of the emergence of Bhangra into popular culture.

Bhangra in North America
Punjabi immigrants have encouraged the growth of Bhangra in the western hemisphere. However the Bhangra industry has not grown in North America nearly as much as it has grown in the United Kingdom. Indian Lion, a UK Bhangra artist explains why:

The reasons there`s a lot of bands in England is because there`s a lot of work in England. In England the tradition that`s been going on for years now is that there`s weddings happening up and down the country every weekend, and it`s part of the culture that they have Bhangra bands come and play, who get paid 1800 quid a shot, you know. Most of the bands are booked up for the next two years. And England is a country where you can wake up in the morning and by lunchtime you can be at the other end of the country, it helps. In Canada it takes 3 days to get to the other side of the country, so there`s no circuit there. And it isn`t a tradition [in North America] to have live music at weddings. There are a few bands here that play a few gigs, but nothing major.

However, with the emergence of North American Bhangra artists such as Jazzy Bains, Bhinda Jatt, and Sangeet Group, and the growth of the remix market, the future for Bhangra in this continent looks good.

Bhangra Competitions
Bhangra competitions have been held in the Punjab for many decades. However, now universities and other organizations have begun to hold annual Bhangra dance competitions in many of the main cities of the United States, Canada, and England. At these competitions, young Punjabis, other South Asians, and people with no South Asian background compete for money and trophies. In the West, unlike the Punjab, there is less emphasis on traditional Bhangra moves, but rather more focus on a general look of the dance; for example, many teams at these competitions perform several hip-hop moves. This synergy of the Bhangra dance with other cultures` parallels the music`s fusion with different genres. University competitions have experienced an explosion in popularity over the last three years (Bhangra Blowout, hosted by George Washington University on 1 April 2000, sold out to a crowd of 4,000 people, with scalpers reportedly getting $80 per ticket at the door), and help to promote the dance and music in mainstream culture.

Beginning as a form of lively folk music performed at harvests in the Punjab, Bhangra has evolved remarkably over the past five hundred years. The music now fully represents the culture of the Punjab region, and the struggles of its people in their long and storied history. Moreover, the music still evolves today, incorporating elements of many different kinds of music from around the world, while still existing in its traditional form. Thanks to this diversification, Bhangra now reaches a larger audience than ever, all over the world. Bhangra competitions at universities in England, Canada, and America, as well as Southeast Asia, help to further the dance`s popularity. A person can easily expect Bhangra to continue its movement into mainstream culture well into the 21st Century.