The (very recent) Roots of Bhangra: Jagat Ram Lalka

Bhangra: Punjab's essential traditional dance

Bhangra: Punjab’s essential traditional dance

Ram Jagat Lalka whose work we feature this evening is a proud exponent of the musical tradition of the Bazigar people of northern India (mainly Punjab). By traditional we should not assume that this is a stagnant form of museum piece music that has been passed down from time immemorial. Rather, I use the term traditional in reference to the Bazigar people and the way in which they have adopted and adapted their culture to circumstances (many of them traumatic) while remaining broadly true to their original tribal roots.

Jagat Ram Lalka. The turban does not signify adherence to Sikhism but rather is a cultural expression of Bazigar identity.

Jagat Ram Lalka. The turban does not signify adherence to Sikhism but rather is a cultural expression of Bazigar identity.

The Bazigars are a group of originally nomadic, gypsy like people who congregated in the northern and central parts of Punjab in districts that were included in Pakistan in 1947. When that fateful line in the sand was drawn and loyalties were forced upon people, the Bazigars, who broadly identified as Hindu/Sikh even though their spiritual beliefs included elements of Islam as well, felt compelled to move eastward. Today they live mainly in and around Chandigarh and Patiala and have been forced to abandon their itinerant lifestyle in favor of a more settled existence.

Bazi is a Persian term for ‘play’. Gar is the Persian suffix that denotes a ‘do-er’. Bazigar is a common Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi word which loosely translates to acrobat or jester, clown or contortionist. And in that way carries a derogatory connotation.   The Bazigar people themselves, however call themselves Goaar and trace their lineage back to the late 18th century. They speak their own dialect as well as a ‘secret’ language (that hits the ‘suspicious’ button of outsiders) which they refer to as Parsi or Pashto, but which in fact is neither.

Historically the Goaars claim to be high born people but have lived and earned their living on the edges of ‘respectable’ society. Mainly as nomadic herders and seasonal agricultural workers they supplemented their income as dancers, musicians (especially dhol players and singers), magicians and acrobats. Like other communities across India and Pakistan that provide specialized ‘cultural’ services to others, the Bazigar/Gooar performed at weddings and celebrations and were sought out as master drummers.

Originating, most scholars believe, in the western deserts of Rajasthan, they moved freely and frequently across what are now the border districts of Pakistan and India but were compelled to settle down in ‘colonies’ when access to their ancestral homes around Sahiwal, Faisalabad, Gujrat and Sialkot (all in Pakistan) was blocked after the departure of the British. In Independent India they continued to pursue their varied livelihoods but eventually merged into the ‘mainstream’ as farmers, small shopkeepers and other professions.

India, like most de-colonized countries, made a concerted effort in the first decades after Independence, to create a public consciousness about what it meant to be Indian. And perhaps a bit surprisingly, part of that agenda stressed the diversity of India’s many regions. Each year in January in the capital, dance and music troupes from all across India swarmed to New Delhi to perform as part of the celebration of this new nation. From Punjab, the organizers and cultural barons recruited Bazigars as dancers and drummers to represent ‘traditional’ rural Punjabi society. Pleased for the gig Goaars eagerly agreed and put together snippets of various dances and musical styles they remembered from the former days back in the west.   Initially these were presented blandly as “Male dance from Punjab” or “Ladies Marriage Dance”, but by the late 60s were being referred to as bhangra. And of course, if there is a single Indian folk dance style that is known around the world it is bhangra. I am one of those who assumed that this colourful harvest dance was as ancient as the Siwalik mountains. But like so much about India, I have been surprised: this phenomenon now almost synonymous with Punjab and Sikhs is but 50 years old!

Jagat Ram Lalka

Jagat Ram Lalka

Jagat Ram Lalka was born in 1952 and has maintained his identify and secured his living as a performer. In this collection put out by the great label De Kulture (Jaipur) he provides a glimpse into several musical styles of his people: ghidda, sammi (originally a wedding dance exclusively for women) and dostango all accompanied with amazing rhythms from the dhol and tumbi.

For an in-depth article on the Goaar click the link. It is a fascinating insight into a small corner of Indian folk culture.

Zindabad!

Made In Punjab

Track Listing:

01 Jaimal Fatta – Ambala

02 Mirza Ki Vaar

03 Vir Jodh

04 Pir Muradia

05 Sassi

06 Dhol Sammi

07 Kahan Marke Rona Malki

08 Ranjhu

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