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Bhangra in Vancouver

A photo essay exploring the Indian subculture of Bhangra, seen through the eyes of a Punjabi youth. More →

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Exemplified by high-energy routines and rhythmic dhol drum sounds, Bhangra originated as a dance performed by Sikh and Muslim men in the farming districts of the Punjab.

In recent decades this regional dance form has evolved through a growing Western diaspora, including Greater Vancouver, which is now considered a world leader in Bhangra dance culture. Through Guriqbal Singh Kullar, a Punjabi Sikh youth living in Surrey, BC, I found a window into a community and cultural tradition seldom understood by the wider Canadian public. Over the period of several months I documented Guriqbal’s life and involvement with a local dance team as they prepare for a major competition in Vancouver.

Raised by immigrant parents from the Punjab, Guriqbal recalls growing up with strong ties to Punjabi and Sikh culture. His father’s Saturday morning routine of reciting articles from the local Punjabi newspaper and the many musical and cultural events he attended at a young age came to shape his worldview and a sense of belonging.

Although he had little interest in Bhangra as a child, Guriqbal’s connection to his heritage persisted through high school. There he met a group of friends with whom he formed a dance team — PANJ Bhangra.

His first experience with Bhangra was a deeply moving experience: “that first practice, I still remember… the people that were there, the music that was playing, it was almost meant to be,” he says. It wasn’t merely the energy and camaraderie, though, but the ability to tell stories through dance and balance a modern relationship with his heritage that ultimately sparked a life-long passion.

Like Guriqbal, his teammates attest to the trials and tribulations of a competitive Bhangra dance team — training at times up to 30 hours each week. Although physically and emotionally demanding, it was ultimately those sacrifices that forged deep bonds which continue into adulthood.

The Punjabi community, like many diasporas in Canada, has not always experienced an amiable relationship with with the dominant culture. From his parents’ struggles in Williams Lake (as one example among many) there is deep respect for the sacrifices made by earlier generations. Today, festivals such as Vaisakhi — where I met Guriqbal, and which draws crowds of tens of thousands in the lower mainland — are a testament to the power and growing appeal of this very unique art form.