Bhangra is an exuberant form of folk music and accompanying acrobatic dance that is based on traditional folk songs of Punjab, a region that straddles the Pakistani/Indian border. Bhangra became an international phenomenon when South Asian immigrants in the United Kingdom infused it with Western musics like electronica and pop. Do you want to learn how to dance to bhangra? The internet is ready to help. The best “how-to bhangra” videos — like this one, our favorite — will even teach you the names of the steps.
The folk dancing in Pakistan’s and India Punjabi-speaking regions MAKES US SMILE. Hands up in the air swaying side to side, a hop on one foot then another, nothing tricky or suave, everyone who wants to have a good time can literally jump in. Watch the Ravi Kooner Dance Group dance the Punjabi Jhumar and you’ll see what I mean.
“Bai Tharo” gives us a chance to spin. This popular Rajasthani folk song celebrates the region’s dancing and joy found in life. Rajasthan’s favorite joyful folk dance is ghoomar. Dancers are usually women wearing flowing colorful veils and dresses called ghaghara. They spin, twirl their ghaghara, and dance around the room in a graceful, exuberant circle. In our “Bai Tharo” video we try ghoomar dancing. Exuberant? Yes! But graceful…?
We start our bonus week in Rajasthan, a state in India’s northwest. Rajasthan (“Land of Kings”) is India’s largest state by area though not by population, in part because its land includes the vast Thar Desert. The state is known for its vibrant ghoomar dancing, epic folk songs and colorful embroidery and block print art. It also home to several wildlife refuges — a great place to see tigers — and is potentially the ancestral land of the Romani people, who migrated westward and now mainly live in Europe.
Last week we essentially bid Namaste to our season of songs from South and Central Asia. Usually during the week between seasons we take a break from the geographic focus and sing songs that take us many places. This time…A TREAT! Even after three months of South and Central Asian explorations in our online class there were several songs and dances I experience with kids in my real life classes that we didn’t even try. This week we right that wrong. A bhangra dance, perhaps? Or Rajasthani ghoomar? Or a love song about about a Bengali king?
Let’s spend one more moment in Assam, a state in far eastern India, to wind up our week. “Ilelele,” the song the Sand Family in singing in this video, captured in our friend’s backyard in Massachusetts, is a work of the Adi, an Assamese minority people who live in an area known as the “Abor Hills.” These Tibetan-descended groups became known as “Abor” — an Assamese word for “independent” or even “barbarous” — because of their history of defying outside rule, especially in the late 19th century when they clashed with British colonial forces. Today these groups shun the Abor label by calling themselves the Adi.
In other news…a pleasant surprise. My original plan was to end our South and Central journey today and spend next week with a cross-border “between the seasons” class before kicking our next season into gear. I’ve really enjoyed the times we’ve spent here though, and realize there are a few South and Central Asian songs and dances I recorded along the way that I still haven’t shared. Let’s right that wrong over the next week and make our last week in the region right.
“Ilelele” is a greeting song from Assam, a far eastern Indian state nestled at the foot of the Himalayas between Bhutan and Bangladesh. Assam is a center of eco-tourism in India, promoting itself as the home of Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, and the almost-but-not-quite extinct one-horned Indian rhinoceros. Assamese culture is a fluid mix of influences from the many ethnic groups that have mingled in the region, like North Indian Vedics, Tibetans, Burman, Shan and many others from as far east as China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
We opened our class this week, looking back on three months of explorations in South and Central Asia, with one of our favorite songs — “Ilelele” from the far eastern Indian state of Assam. When we visit India at the beginning of the season we mainly paid attention to the larger states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, but Assam has its many charms. We can easily get into the Assamese mood with this video of the Bihu dance. We’ll go there tomorrow.
Yesterday we learned about Dudurai, a song about star-crossed loves in Kazakhstan. During the Soviet era the Soviet Union integrated Kazakhistan into the USSR, and integrated Soviet “gulag” labor camps into Kazakhstan. Stalin forced hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs to migrate out of Kazakhstan and millions of Russians to migrate in. Communist leaders ruled Kazakhstan both from Moscow and internally, strongly squelching dissent and using the nation as a nuclear test ground. By the time the USSR fractured in the late ‘80s Kazakhstan was inextricably bound to Russia. The interplay between Kazakh and Russian culture, language, economy, politics is at the heart of Kazakhstan’s development into a strong, independent nation today…and of this song.
In class this week we sang “Dudurai,” a famous folk song from the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. The original tells the story of a Russian girl, Maria, who loves a Kazakh boy, Dudur, despite her family’s objections based on longstanding conflicts between Russians and Kazakhs. Our version, which I’ll share tomorrow, is admittedly much less cool than the performance in this video, but whatcha gonna do?