Bhangra: stop cultural stereotyping of Punjabis

By: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

How do you tell a Canadian of Punjabi heritage to step out and take a walk?

Going by David Suzuki Foundation: wear a bhangra outfit, put on Punjabi music and invite Punjabis to explore nature in their mother tongue – Punjabi.

The concept is great – we need to reach more and more communities in their mother tongue to tell them how important exercise is, how a walk in a park, or a trail can de-stress the mind and fill the lungs with fresh air and keep one healthy.

But why the bhangra outfit?

Why?

Bhangra is a traditional Punjabi dance – to celebrate the harvest. The dance form is very dear and sacred to a Punjabi heart – including me. It is impossible to be a Punjabi and not know bhangra. Every Punjabi knows how to sway to at least one step of the dance form. No celebration is complete without bhangra. In nutshell – it is hard to separate a Punjabi from bhangra.

But the traditional colourful outfits worn by bhangra dancers are limited to professional performances on stage – be it at school, college, university or professional troupe level. Punjabis do wear traditional wear – in India, Canada and the world over, but they are not colourful outfits.

For men: it’s a simple cotton kurta (tunic) worn with a chaadra (loincloth) and a pagg (turban). For comfort, most of the men have substituted the loincloth with pyjamas (loose pants with drawstring). In Canada, most of the senior citizens of Punjabi heritage wear kurta with pyjama. Women wear a similar outfit – a kameez (tunic), salwar (loose pants) with a chunni (stole). The fancy versions – silken fabric with glitter – are mostly worn for festivals and celebrations.

But still the traditional colourful bhangra outfit is restricted to stage performances.

So why did David Suzuki, a leading environmentalist, pick a stage performer’s outfit to speak to a common Punjabi on Canadian streets is beyond me. If he really wanted to dress the part, he could have just worn a simple kurta pyjama and a turban. But again, one has to keep in mind that a turban is a mark of respect and honour in our culture – not a part of a child’s dress-up.

I am tired of depiction of Punjabis in ‘costumes’. Bhangra is close to our hearts but bhangra doesn’t define us. We define bhangra, we invented it, and we made it what it is today.

Don’t use it to speak to us.

We understand when people talk to us without breaking into bhangra in colourful stage outfits.

We are not foolish.

And yes, we understand environment. We are the lovers of nature, we have been since we came into being – we tilled the soil, we reaped it with our sweat, and we toiled in the harsh sun and produced grain. When harvest came, we celebrated it – with bhangra, through steps that showed how hard we worked in the fields. Bhangra flows from a Punjabi’s sweat – don’t make fun of it.

Like Coast Capital Savings Credit Union has in many of its ‘bhangra commercials’. In one, a Punjabi man climbs on to a desk, and breaks into bhangra on hearing the bank’s lucrative offer – complete with a colourful bhangra dancer and another playing dhol. I cringed when I saw that commercial.

So to the David Suzuki foundation, if you want to speak to us about taking a walk in the park, please do your homework first.

No one knows environment like Punjabis do, no one understands soil like Punjabis, in fact our sacred scriptures ask us to treat earth as mother. The hard-core farmers have a gift of predicting which cloud will rain and which will just darken the sky. I say this because my father, who adopted the urban lifestyle in India, stayed true to his roots. He never lost his bet with me on environment: it rained when he said it will and it didn’t when we all said it will.

Mr. Suzuki, I know your intentions were good, so please do talk to us – in Punjabi, but without a ‘costume’. Find our pulse, respect us, and we will listen to you. And we will teach you, not one, but all bhangra steps.

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Categories: Canadian Identity

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16 replies

  1. Very well-written post, Anu! I’ll take it a step further and ask Punjabis to take a walk out of Surrey. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of integration into Canadian culture. Like Richmond, Surrey has ‘ghetto-ized’ itself. The Coast Capital commercial is a depiction of Surrey. Sad, but true.

    Don’t just immigrate, integrate. Not to be mistaken with assimilate.

    Thanks for tackling important discussions with eloquence and intelligence.

    • Thanks for your kind comments Renu. I understand what you are saying, but what I am asking for is integration as well. When the “authorities” keep portraying us as in a certain cultural framework, we stay away from integration. We are always portrayed as “different”, people who climb desks, people who break into bhangra, people who are less intelligent and have never heard of “free” stuff, who have never taken a walk in the nature. Uh c’mn “mainstream”, give me a break! We are more than this cultural depiction.

  2. Bingo, agree with your thoughts. I hate stereotyping any community.

  3. Take a chill pill Ma’am. I am a Punjabi, wear turban, work in a company of 30,000 of all backgrounds but mainly white. I don’t take David’s comments to be offensive. There is a thing called sense of humour. Listen to Larry the Cable Guy if you had a chance. I love humour (it is good for a person), I hate political correctness. Which is what you are trying to push. We need to stop acting like “Indo-Canadians” & start acting like Canadians.

    And please stop getting offended by minor stuff.

    • Thanks for your comments Paul. Let me just clarify, I am not offended by David’s efforts. I am just not comfortable in the depiction of Punjabis. I am talking in the framework of identity and representation. When we continue to show Punjabis jumping up and down, it shows this community can’t intelligently understand anything till the dhol is playing. It has larger implications than being amused for a few minutes. I am targeting those implications that tie the community in a specific “less-intelligent” framework. Thanks for being engaged in the dialogue Paul. Stay connected.

  4. Off the top, I will confess – I love bhangra. Love the energy, love the movement.

    And this post is very well thought out, but I feel compelled to point out that the Coast Capital Savings commercial is not a typical stereotypical Punjabi commercial. The man on the desk gets excited, and then a white guy throws off his shirt and starts to bust some bhangra moves.

    It is very clever, I think. As clever as a commercial can be. You would expect the guy on the desk to start bhangra dancing, but the white guy does. He turns the stereotype on its head.

    How has no one noticed this? Ach, whatever….

  5. I don’t find the ad offensive at all. It is just a marketing campaign targeted towards a particular segment of the society. They want to send out the message with some humor added to it and ensure it gets registered in the minds of potential / current customers. I don’t think its done in a bad taste. It is targeted towards the broader market segment who will be able to relate to the content of the ad.
    My comment was regd the bank mortgage ad.

    • Yeah – I see your point. And when Punjabis get associated as people who jump up and down and need bhangra to understand a simple thing as a bank offer, that isn’t right. Thanks for being engaged.

      • In the ad, the man does the bhangra after understanding the concept of the bank’s product, not before that. He’s just expressing his joy for the new offer. In the ad world that is called – ‘adding humor to the ad’ which is done the right way here. What you are saying might be correct in some other context, not here.

  6. Check out another version of the same ad

  7. Renu’s comment above is bang on, loved it. We have ghetto-ized ourselves. Actually it is not only us, why majority chinese live in richmond ? why majority koreans live in coquitlam, why majority persians live in north van ? why majority rich whites live in west vancouver ? So true that people do not want to integrate, only immigrate. Mint only money out of Canada. But I agree with Anu as well, Bhangra or any single cultural symbol should not be required to depict the whole community. Just because we have numerous deep vivid cultural symbols doesnt mean you have to use them to communicate to us. Mr Suzuki probably thought he will get our attention too quick with this. But I have a question here, when we say symbol X or Y is an integral part of an identity, we take pride in that, we flaunt it all the time, we demand our right to use it the way we want, eg the turban and the ‘kirpan’ issue (no offence to anyone) , why then, when the others depict us with symbol and we get a little defensive ? We do not fight for anything else as much for our cultural and religious identity and then we dont want to be stereotyped ? I am fully against the stereotyping of any kind. BTW the coastcapital adverstisements, both the versions, are absolutely ridiculous , if not offensive.

    • Sandeep – exactly my point: why? Why do we that? Instead of blaming ourselves, we need to look at the larger picture and the real reasons. It is easier said than done: why do people of one culture or ethnic make up live together? These are not easy questions but the answers have been researched and documented. What passes around in the media and the impressions of the general public never ever present the true picture. That is why we challenge stereotypes and negative and specific representations.
      I will challenge incorrect, and negative representations, because I love to dig deeper… when a community is “taught” to loathe itself, the very things that define that community, becomes a problem in the eyes of the community members. It doesn’t take long for its people to self-destruct themselves. Then is it fair to blame its people? I am challenging that. Thanks for the comments and stay engaged, readers like you keep the dialogue running; much appreciated.

  8. I totally respect your words and thought…….

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