With a twinkle in his eyes, a young Hardeep Singh Sahota would spend hours watching the big boys in Patiala perform bhangra routines. The thunderous beats, combined with the melodic voices of legendary musicians like Daler Mehandi, Sardool Sikender and Bally Sagoo, would transport the seven-year-old to a different world.
Once back home from the lush green and yellow fields of mustard, Hardeep would try and recreate the steps in his room. Dancing was also a means to occupy himself till his widowed mother arrived home from work.
Soon, rigorous practice bore fruit and earned him a place in the dance troupe. A few days later he was competing against well-trained professionals on songs like Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale (from Machis, 1996) and Dupatta Tera Sat Rang Day.
This was the beginning of Hardeep’s dance journey, which he has since turned into a global bhangra movement.
Hardeep’s journey began in 2003, when he moved to Canada and worked as a teacher in a local dancing school. He joined various dance groups over the next 8-9 years.
In 2013, he established the Royal Academy of Bhangra and became the first certified bhangra instructor in Canada under the Canadian Dance Teachers Association to tell the world that the dance form is much more than ‘chak de phatte’, ‘harrippa’ and ‘burrraahh!’. He also uses the platform to give dancers an identity.
“I had no plans of launching professional training programmes when I moved to Canada. But I spent a few years digging into the history of bhangra and its significance in Punjabi culture, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the meaning behind songs often reflected the life of farmers. The lyrics are filled with references from deep rooted social issues in Punjabi communities,” Hardeep tells The Better India.
A dance for fields
Bhangra originated to mark the arrival of Baisakhi (harvest) season in the pre-partition Punjab region. Centered around themes of strength, patriotism, mother earth, love and stories from Punjab, the primary instruments incorporated in the dance are dhol and double-headed barrel drums.
Bhangra is an umbrella under which there are sub-dances that belong to various parts of Punjab. These include Sammi, Jhummar, Luddi, Giddha, Dhamaal, Sialkot, and more. Every segment has its distinct identity, steps and boliyan (short stanzas).
“Luddi is a victory dance that was performed after winning a battle. Sammi is performed to express love, and the steps of Dhamal resemble wrestling moves. One of the steps was invented when wrestlers tried to see who can stand on one leg for a longer time. Sialkot is also performed with one leg in the air and Jhummar is slow swaying dance comprising steps that depict animal movement, seed sowing, ploughing, and more,” says Hardeep.
He credits renowned artists like Paramjit Singh Sidhu (Pammi Bai) and Deepak Manohar, who took bhangra beyond the borders of Punjab when communication channels like the internet and television didn’t exist.
“In the 50s, Manohar’s talent was recognised by Maharaja Sir Yadavinder Singh, the ninth and last ruling Maharaja of Patiala. He supported him in introducing bhangra at the national level in Delhi. In 1956, he went to Bombay (now Mumbai) and performed Bhangra in a song from Jagte Raho. A year later, he choreographed songs for Dilip Kumar-starrer Naya Daur (1957). He went great lengths and breadths with his bhangra group to popularise the dance form. Meanwhile, Pammi Bai created steps in sync with the movement of crops. He worked with India’s cultural ministry as a programme director to promote folk dance. Artists like Jagmohan Kaur, Yamla Jatt and Jagjit Singh have flourished under his wing,” says Hardeep.
He did not want the earnest efforts of the stalwarts to go in vain. As the world was opening up, Hardeep feared, other dance forms, cultures and developments would juxtapose the authenticity of bhangra in the name of making it mainstream.
And that’s how his initiative began after moving to Canada.
Adding a global flavour to Bhangra
After opening his academy, the first task was to give back the dignity and respect to Bhangra dance and music performers. Hardeep came across cases of several families that were not getting a fair price for their services.
“Many artists including instrumentalists, singers and dancers who go to weddings, birthday parties and other such social gatherings to perform bhangra are deprived of a fair wage. I wanted to generate employment by organising stage shows around the world and hiring them to work at the academy. Through one of our programmes we bring artists from India to Canada for six months for paid public performances,” says Hardeep.
For those living in Canada, Hardeep designed a bhangra curriculum to promote the Punjabi language, culture and dance. Every week, nearly thousand students are taught body movements, names of different moves, counts, and more.
As a cultural ambassador of the University of Patiala, Hardeep connects various stakeholders like costumer designers, dancers, and drummers to promote exchange of knowledge.
He says one of the biggest differences that the academy has brought is collaboration with dancers from other countries like South Africa, United States, and United Kingdom.
“We have held fusion programmes and borderless events in Canada to highlight the similarities we have with other communities. Last year, our show showcased pre-partition Punjab and performed Bhangra segments from both India and Pakistan. Another show was titled ‘Persia to Punjab’ which was also about cultural similarities,” he adds.
Hardeep and his troupe have performed in several countries over the years.
‘My capabilities are recognised’
Simranjit Singh from Delhi has been pursuing bhangra professionally for four years now. He met Hardeep during one of the shows and was impressed with his expertise. So when he finally joined the academy, it was a dream come true, he says.
“I joined the academy when I was struggling financially and was not happy with the way bhangra was being handled in my region. After several rounds of interviews and online auditions, I was selected and my capabilities received the recognition they deserved. Working here feels like coming home to my bhangra family,” Simranjit tells The Better India.
Like Simranjit, Canada-based Deeksha Arora is also proud to be working at the academy as a certified CDTA gidha/bhangra instructor and operational manager. She left her career in criminal psychology so that she could pursue her passion.
“Bhangra has played a significant role by giving me a platform to spread my culture and help others grow. Through bhangra, I am able to help people recognise their talent and what they are capable of. I get unparalleled joy from coaching, being a dance performer, and a mentor for many,” she says.
Another significant way to empower people through Bhangra is scholarships. In 2017, Hardeep introduced scholarship packages worth $10-20,000 for those who want to pursue the artform professionally. Every year, four to six people are allotted this money and trained at the academy.
From dancer to choreographer, judge and a teacher, Hardeep had donned many hats in his illustrious career. He has successfully discharged these roles to keep alive the legacy of bhangra.
Edited by Divya Sethu