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April 18, 1999

Song of India Migrates as Tabla Hip-Hop

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

WASHINGTON -- On a Saturday night this month at Constitution Hall, young women in long braids and shimmering, sequined outfits sashayed onto stage, carrying water jugs and swinging their hips to Punjabi folk songs. Young men with sky-high turbans, some with two-headed drums whirled, leaping and heaving their shoulders in rhythm, their arms raised to the roof.

Every now and then, dancers clasped their legs around a partner's torso and spun at breakneck speed. At other times, they build human pyramids atop one another's shoulders.

Welcome to Bhangra Blowout, an annual intercollegiate dance competition in which teams from a dozen schools perform their renditions of traditional Punjabi dance in a bid for a $1000 prize. At the sold-out show, students from universities like Duke, Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filled the 3700-seat auditorium. They came to cheer on their home teams, and to party all weekend amid the roots-seeking crowd.

Now in its 6th year, Bhangra Blowout, organized by the South Asian Society at George Washington University, has become a rite of spring for the growing legions of South Asian-American college students along the East Coast -- akin to, say, the spring break pilgrimage that some collegians take to Fort Lauderdale or to the streets of Atlanta, where black students gather for Freaknik.

Bhangra, a rowdy folk dance traditionally practiced by the menfolk of Punjab, a province in India's northern farm-belt, bhangra has been retooled by a generation of Americans growing up far from bhangra's native soil. Bhangra, New World-style, is done by women and men. Folk songs from the old country are remixed with techno and hip-hop. Its signature moves are woven together with African-American dance traditions -- namely step and breakdancing.

Onstage the students danced to songs celebrating the Punjabi farmer and that told tales of a young bride eager to dance. Amar Kendale, a chemical engineering major from MIT, danced to a song that boasted of hiding bottles of alcohol in their turbans.

In a break before intermission, came a South Asian version of an Ivy League tradition: Penn Masala, a men's acapella ensemble didn't do Cole Porter standards, but came dressed in black Nehru-collared suits and sang a medley of popular Hindi showtunes.

What do the elders think of all this?

At one point in the show, Reena Ninan, the evening's lithe, sari-clad emcee, a George Washington junion, crouched low and approached a man in the front row, one of several in the audience who looked as though they were a few decades from their last college midterm. "Uncleji," she inquired, addressing him with the ubiquitous honorific used to refer to an elder. "How has bhangra changed?"

"It's much better now," the man replied into the mike, rocking his head in delight. "More energy, more enthusiasm and no inhibitions!"

The spectacle at Constitution Hall was more than a talent show. The young bhangra enthusiasts were spinning a new collegiate tradition, a curious mix of Indian ethnic pride and American party fever.

"You're celebrating your culture, and then, you can get your groove on afterward," said Dawinder Sidhu, 20, a University of Pennsylvania junior, at his fourth Bhangra blowout.

The groove is a major attraction of the weekend. The "official after party" at the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, drew more than 4,000 revelers, despite a $40 cover charge at the door -- $22 in advance.

Fades, shaved heads and turbans bobbed on the dance floor until 4 a.m. Thesalwar kameez, the long, loose outfit worn on the South Asian subcontinent, was donned early in the evening but was shed in favor of short skirts and strappy sandals. Inside the pavilion, three deejays were spinning everything from hip-hop to drum and bass.

The party organizers estimated that, all told, profits from the competition and party would exceed $50,000, which is earmarked for charity and a scholarship fund at George Washington.

What began in 1994 as a modest local fund-raiser in the student cafeteria drew a dozen teams from around the country this year, from Duke University in Durham, N.C. to Case Western University in Cleveland and Cornell University in New York. The 12 were selected from about 20 teams that applied, organizers said.

But not all those onstage at Bhangra Blowout could claim bhangra as their own motherland groove. Many of the dancers, like Pauravi Shah of MIT, have families that came from parts of South Asia where bhangra is as foreign as the bolero. Many of the teams this year even attracted dancers with no roots in the Indian subcontinent at all.

Miss Shah, 18, whose parents are from Gujarat, is a native of Sugarland, Texas, and a freshman majoring in chemical engineering at MIT. She was drawn to bhangra when she arrived on the Cambridge, Mass., campus last fall. The MIT team had placed second in the blowout that year, and she was hooked, though her parents had more interest in her devoting her time to studies.

"I was like, 'I got to do bhangra,"' Miss Shah gushed after the performance, her parrot-green salwar drenched in sweat. "Besides, I live a thousand miles away," she added. "They can't do anything."

Shweta Udeshi, whose parents also emigrated from Gujarat, was oblivious to the bhangra scene while growing up in Huntington, N.Y. In high school, she played field hockey and badminton, and served as the treasurer of her senior class. Bhangra wasn't an option.

"Where I lived on Long Island there were only two Indian people," Miss Udeshi, 20, a George Washington junior recalled. "It was pretty isolating."

Today, her two roommates are Indian-Americans. So are her closest friends. And this year, she is a vice president of the campus South Asian Society, whose central project is the Bhangra Blowout.

Her mother, Miss Udeshi concedes, is bewildered by the insularity of her social circle. So is her younger sister, now in high school. "I'm like, 'Just go to college, and I'll talk to you then."'

That bhangra has been embraced by youngsters who are not Punjabi has stirred debate in South Asian student circles. Some favor authentic Punjabi tradition ("the real deal," is how Sidhu of Penn describes it), while the experimentalists go for a more hybrid approach.

The team from Cornell opened with a rapper. The men from Johns Hopkins marched onstage in hooded sweatshirts and warm-up pants, and began their number with a high-octane stepping routine before stripping down to saronglike lungis and gleaming knee-length kurtas.

But at the Bhangra Blowout in Washington, authenticity was at a premium. Many of the contestants believed that the more traditional they were, the better they would fare with the judges, who were, after all, Punjabi dance aficionados.

"That's what we thought the judges were judging us on," Miss Shah said. "Our goal was to teach people this is what bhangra is in the motherland, or whatever. In India. In Punjab."

Indeed, the judges gave first prize to the George Washington team, which expertly performed a traditional routine dressed in costumes brought from India. But the runner-up was the team from Johns Hopkins, with its hoodies, warm-up pants and painted-on beards.




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