Bringing Bhangra to the Bard

“I loved the idea of setting Bohemia in India with Polixenes a majestic Rajah and with colourful costumes and vibrant dancing. At one point bhangra dancing is taking place all around to the sides, front and back of the audience. I literally did not know where to look.”
Sally Knipe

In November 2015 I was really fortunate to be asked to choreograph for and dance in the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

The Director, Caroline Devlin, had decided to set Bohemia in India – and so this gave us scope to explore the sights, sounds and colours of India.

India has a multitude of classical and folk dances from which one can borrow inspiration to create dance routines that can fit any mood or Spot Heidi and Shalinienvironment. Setting Bohemia in India allowed us to draw on these many influences to create specific dances for the show.

You are first introduced to some Indian dancing in the dream-sequence featuring Autolycus and two beautiful women with whom he dances and sings. His enthusiasm does not hide the fact that he is not a natural dancer in contrast to the two women who are both nimble on their feet and alluring with their dance style. Because this is a dream-sequence we were able to draw on the bolder, more glitzy influences of Bollywood music and dance, using steps and hand gestures frequently seen in Indian films and in the Just Jhoom! dance style too.

We are then taken to the Sheepshearing festival which is set in Punjab, North India, a predominantly agricultural part of the country, where communities celebrate their harvests by singing and dancing Bhangra. Whilst Bhangra was specifically performed by men during the Sikh harvest festival of Vaisakhi, the women performed the gentler, more feminine Giddha. We felt these folk dances fitted in well with the atmosphere we were trying to create – one where the community come together in an exuberant, vibrant and energetic celebration and time of fun and joy.

Finally, we drop-in on a moment with the beautiful lovers Perdita and Florizel, both dancing with each other, oblivious to everyone around them. The moves are contained and intimate drawing on aspects of Mindful Movement which can be traced back to the ancient Indian practice of mindfulness and yoga. Influences of the classical dance style Kathak are used sparingly with the use of specific hand gestures.

The overall effect is one of celebration, colour, happiness and lightness!

The run is until 27 February 2016 – and tickets can be bought from The Guildford Shakespeare Company.

2 Replies to “Bringing Bhangra to the Bard”

  1. Shalini Bhalla

    Thank you so much for this Ravi – I accept your teachings and corrections. I am always keen to learn.
    Hope all well with you.

  2. Ravi Sandhu

    I hope this goes well.

    I hope you will correct this statement, because it perpetuates confusion, especially as many will perceive you as an expert.

    “Whilst Bhangra was specifically performed by men during the Sikh harvest festival of Vaisakhi, the women performed the gentler, more feminine Giddha.”

    Here are the reasons:
    1. Vaisakhi is not a Sikh harvest festival. Vaisakhi is more than 2000 years old, Sikhism is less than 400 years old.

    2. To describe Bhangra in the form of a dance or performance is incorrect. This is outsider’s misinformed perspective. Bhangra means ‘intoxicated joyous movement’; at least that’s the closest English description (this is important for point 3).

    3. Because Sikhism is against the consumption of toxic substances such as alcohol and cannabis, they disassociate themselves from bhangra as much as possible. To describe Vaisakhi as an event at which Bhangra is done and is Sikh, is offensive to many Sikhs.

    4. We have little idea of the originals of Bhangra and the connection to Vaisakhi. To suggest women did the gentler ‘giddha’ is hearsay and conjecture, and very unlikely. Especially since Vaisakhi events are typically thought to be public and open meleh/festivals. Traditionally women dancing in public was considered inappropriate. It’s likely that Giddha was the norm in private women-only events; but not at Vaisakhi.

    I have a suggested correction for that line, to help.

    Vaisakhi marks the beginning of the Punjabi calendar which marks the onset of spring and the beginning of the harvest season. It is thought that for thousands of years that communities in Punjab (which is one third in modern day India and two thirds in modern day Pakistan) celebrated Vaisakhi with an outdoor open festival called a mela. A feature of the festivals was for people, mostly men, to dance, which later became known as bhangra.

    [Optional] In 1699 the birth of Sikhism was announced on that year’s Vaisakhi celebration; so Vaisakhi is also the anniversary of the birth of Sikhism. However, bhangra is not something a dedicated Sikh would partake in.

    [Extra optional] Because most of Punjab today is in the Islamic state of Pakistan, the religious influences of Islam (similar to Sikhism) are not tolerant to celebrations that involve dancing.

    Thank you for your attention.


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