Bhangra fever!

Boston Globe, November 12, 2010

One Friday last fall, Omer Mirza, cofounder of the Bay Area dance troupe Bhangra Empire, received an unusual request. Would the group be available, asked the e-mailer, to perform in Washington, D.C., that Tuesday?

It was far too short notice: The members of Bhangra Empire, one of 100-plus groups in the United States dedicated to the energetic Punjabi folk dance bhangra, all had jobs or classes to attend. Still Mirza replied, out of courtesy. He was glad he did. The request was on behalf of the White House.

And so, after a hectic weekend, Bhangra Empire found itself performing, alongside Jennifer Hudson, Kurt Elling, and the National Symphony Orchestra, at the lavish state dinner for visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“We were kind of in awe,” Mirza says. The group even got some private time with the first lady and President Obama: “He tried to do a couple of moves with us.”

A year later, the Obamas have had the chance to try out their steps on their own visit to India. Back in the United States, bhangra – like all things Indian, it sometimes seems – is thriving.

One measure: This year’s Boston Bhangra competition, which takes place tomorrow, expects to sell out the 2,700-seat Orpheum Theatre as it has done for the last five years. The afterparty, featuring rising-star British bhangra performers Jaz Dhami and Dark MC, will take over the entire Middle East club.

Mirza, whose Bhangra Empire is one of 12 selected groups – chosen from 44 applicants – in the competition, says Boston’s event is a highlight of the North American bhangra circuit, which also includes New York, Washington, Toronto, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Boston is one we look forward to every year,” he says. “The crowd is so amazing, the atmosphere is second to none.”

Ritu Gupta, who hasn’t missed the event in six years, agrees: “It’s electric. It’s amazing,” she says. “The audience is really part of the show. When you’re waiting for the show to start, you can feel it pumping in your blood.”

Gupta, who works in finance and lives in Cambridge, grew up in New Jersey, where the South Asian population is much larger, but where she says there is no bhangra event on the scale of this one. One reason, she speculates, is the presence in Boston of so many universities with their own bhangra team.

Boston Bhangra has its own roots in college life, says Brookline’s Rohit Bhambi, who started the group 10 years ago with his brother Amit. Rohit had founded the Boston University bhangra team; Amit had done the same at Northeastern.

“We never got to dance with each other, because we were rivals,” says Bhambi, a business analyst for a health care technology company by day. “So we founded Boston Bhangra partly so we could dance together, and to create an elite bhangra team for the whole area.”

Born in the harvest celebrations and wedding parties of Punjab and set to the rhythm of a large drum called the dhol, bhangra is catchy and fun. But it’s also serious business, with a heritage of traditional instruments, steps, and chanted lines called bols.

In the South Asian diaspora, its appeal has spread to young people from other regions than Punjab – and indeed, to a growing non-Indian audience. Boston-area teams have had members of all ethnicities, Bhambi says; he estimates the audience at last year’s competition was at least one-quarter non-Indian.

The art has mutated as well from its orthodox roots in all-male performance with live instruments. A US bhangra team might be all men, all women, or coed. Some stick to dhol and traditional strings; others dance to tracks that mix in hip-hop or reggae. The choreography might focus on traditional steps, or borrow from other dance forms.

Mirza’s Bhangra Empire skews toward the modern side. “Our goal is most of all to entertain,” Mirza says. “We base our song selection on high energy, with a lot of formations across the stage. Last year we had a Michael Jackson segment. We mix in hip-hop or swing dancing. We have some new things in store for Boston this year.”

Bhambi says Boston Bhangra tries to present the whole range of the music when setting the field. In the competition, each team gets seven minutes to strut its stuff. They earn points for originality, along with choreography, footwork, expression, energy, and so on.

The presence of artists from the United Kingdom, where most commercial bhangra is produced and which has some of the braggadocio and flashy appeal of hip-hop here, adds pizzazz to the festivities. It also helps to connect the American scene, which is scattered and college-based, with the British one, which is bigger but also more insular.

“I’m amazed how many of these universities have got their own team,” says Sanjay Singh, a UK bhangra marketer and Dark MC’s manager. He says that in Britain, bhangra has much less crossover appeal, and groups feature far fewer non-Indians. “Sometimes South Asians hold back to themselves,” he says. “It’s very niche.”

But Mirza says in the United States, bhangra’s potential to draw new audiences seems limitless. While still competing on the circuit, his own group is trying to perform more and more for non-Indians too. “Once people see bhangra and listen to bhangra, they take to it,” he says. “It’s very contagious.”