Dancing Around Culture

An article of mine recently published on sikhchic

Dancing Around Culture
by Rubin Paul Singh

Recently, I was invited to a discussion sponsored by the Sikh Student Association at a local university titled “How Bhangra fits into a Sikh’s lifestyle: Should it be allowed or not?”
There’s been a lot of discussion on this topic on the various blogs and social networks and it has been a contentious issue, especially amongst students. Although I never had a strong opinion on this matter, the title of this particular discussion got me thinking …

We cannot deny the connection between Sikhi and Punjab. It is the land where our Gurus walked, it is the home of cities and institutions our Gurus both planned and built. It is the land where the blood of our martyrs spilled over and over again through the centuries … and continues to, even during our own generation. It is deeply tied to our history. It is the very cradle of Sikhi.

From a Gurmat perspective, I cannot doubt that one who is well versed in the Punjabi language and familiar with the common metaphors of Punjabi rural life will have a better literal understanding of Gurbani than someone like me who is born and brought up in the U.S.
However, as for experiencing Gurbani through self-realization, I believe the message is universal and boundless. It cannot be confined to any one language or culture.

Whereas the principles of Sikhi are enunciated through the lives, experiences, and writings of the Gurus, Punjabi culture cannot be as clearly defined. What is Punjabi culture anyway? Isn’t it subjective? Does it vary by which part of Punjab you are from? Do Punjabis who live in Punjab and Punjabis who live in the West have the same idea of what Punjabi culture is? So, how do we establish the relationship between Sikhi and this evolving concept of Punjabi culture?

There are many wonderful things that I personally attribute to Punjabi culture: e.g., the importance of the family unit, respect toward elders, and the close-knit communities that help one another out. And at the heart of Punjabi culture is its beautiful language, wonderful food, and spectacular art, music and poetry. From a different perspective, if you look at some of current day goings-on, you will also find a heavy-drinking, heavy-partying society, with youth deeply involved in drugs and alcohol. It is a highly patriarchal society, where female feticide runs rampant. Thus, our culture has some positives and negatives – but neither have anything to do with Sikhi. So why the question of “Does Bhangra fit into a Sikh’s lifestyle?”
Does ballroom dancing fit into a Sikh’s lifestyle? Do movies fit into a Sikh lifestyle? What about video games? What about racing cars? Where do we draw the lines? I guess that would depend on the Sikh and his/her relationship with the Guru.

The very opening page of the Guru Granth Sahib does not start with “Thou Shalt Not …”
Our Gurus gave us 1430 pages of poetry and empowered us to read, think, reflect, understand, and internalize the message – so that we can make such ethical decisions accordingly.

Personally, I loved Bhangra. I was part of my university’s first Bhangra team in the mid-90’s ,where we competed in the early years of the now famous “Bhangra Blowout” in Washington, D.C. I loved Bhangra parties and, even more so, loved performing Bhangra on stage. Today, I have no issue with Sikhs or anyone else doing Bhangra, regardless of how bad the lyrics may be. Who am I to judge?

At the same time, as I’ve been learning more about Gurmat and trying to look within myself, I’ve become less interested in Bhangra. Sure, I may take to the floor when dragged out by family members or friends at receptions, but the truth is – I don’t get that “rush” anymore every time I hear a dhol. And the poor taste in lyrics turn me off and makes me less interested, the same way I change the station when certain rappers come on the radio. Many place blame on the negative stereotypes and distasteful lyrics on the Punjabi music industry itself or specific artists, but this is risky. Just like here in the West, sex and explicit lyrics sell. The entertainment industry will always exploit this. Trying to combat this truth is a waste of time. Still, this has nothing to do with Sikhi. Just like anything else, we should be smart enough to make individual decisions on whether we should listen, buy, and support such music. The last thing we need is to bleed the lines between religion and culture, where the Jathedar of the Akal Takht intervenes and suggests new lines for some of Babu Maan’s songs. And if we make blanket statements like “Sikhi doesn’t approve bhangra” – well, such arbitrary edicts solve nothing and give the fence-sitting youth yet another reason for distancing themselves from this “rigid” view of Sikhi.

The previous city I lived in boasted a large Sikh and Punjabi community; it had a model that drew the lines quite well. A “Punjabi Cultural Society” organized all of the culture events, from Bhangra shows, Punjabi melas, parties, etc. Although many people from the gurdwara attended these events, the administration of the two were completely separate. This worked out well, and the lines were very clearly drawn between cultural events and religious ones. The Punjabi Cultural Society had a large member base, and became even more influential than the gurdwara, with local elected officials attending some of the events, looking for the “Punjabi vote” in their election campaigns. Which is great; why not? Sometimes the folks would have disagreements on issues, and run off and create their own separate organization. As much as I would have wished for unity, I was still happy that all this stuff was kept out of the gurdwaras.

It is important to draw such lines.
I, for one, am not worried about bhangra being around for my children and grandchildren, I feel no particular need to preserve or oppose it. However, there are many aspects of SIKH culture that I do care about, elements of our tradition and history that are slipping away. I suggested to the Sikh Student Association that, in addition to focusing on Gurmat and history, they should also organize cultural activities like gatka, Gurmat sangeet workshops, kavi darbars, art displays, concerts for dharmik geet and dhadi vaaran, “shastar” exhibits, “yudh” games, and consensus-building workshops (“Sarbat Khalsa”).

Perhaps our student organizations can create a “movement” to bring about a renaissance within Sikh culture!

December 18, 2008

About RP Singh

Writer. Poet. Organizer. View all posts by RP Singh

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