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The Punjabification of South Asian Culture

I am often asked why Bangali’s* do not have music and/or art forms that are similar to the Bhangra of the Punjabi’s of India and Pakistan . Mostly we’re dealing with requests for remixed energetic dance music with heavy drum and baselines – South Asian “bump ‘n grind”, if you will. My response is often to joke about how we Bangali’s have a stick too far up our arse to remix our culture. At desi parties, you will often hear the DJ give a shout-out to the Punjabi’s or the Gujarati’s “in da house” and a roar will go up from the crowd. You never do hear a shout-out to all the Bangali’s “in da house.”

These requests speak to a certain homogenization of South Asian culture as it starts to be brought into the mainstream of American and Western culture. (Even the common moniker desi is a homogenization). The mission of college cultural organizations is to try to spread understanding and appreciation of South Asian culture but in this effort, they sometimes dilute and marginalize the individual cultures of the motherland. Remixes of Bollywood and Bhangra/Punjabi songs contribute to a one-world view in the minds of even those who wish to share their cultures with their non-South Asian friends. I don’t speak a lick of Hindi but there are Bollywood songs that I know by heart. I have no idea what I’m singing and given the content of many Bollywood movies, maybe I don’t want to know the meanings of these songs.

The Indian Subcontinent is too diverse a land in and of itself to be effectively promulgated by one message. Two summers ago, I attended a Bangali cultural conference called Bongo Shommelon. At the conference, one of the youth panel discussions tried to address the increasing “Punjabification” and “Gujratification” of South Asian culture and its negative impact on how young Bangali’s view their indigenous culture. I suspect that Telugu’s, Tamils, Kannadiga’s, Malayali’s and other groups around the country are also coming to grips with this troubling phenomenon.

I’m not trying to disparage or pick on Punjabi’s or Gujrati’s specifically. I love Bhangra and Raas. They’re really quite fun. Punjabi’s deserve commendation for their efforts to blend Occidental and Punjabi art forms in order to make Bhangra relatable to as many people as possible.

However it is important to remember that each culture has a role to play and a place to contribute to the greater South Asian American experience. For instance, go pick up a book by Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri or Monica Ali who are prominent writers of Bangali heritage. Attend a classical dance – Kuchipudi and Bharata Natyam both originated in Southern India . Check out the music of M.I.A. – a Sri Lankan-English artist who mixes musical genres – old-school electronica, dance hall reggae, punk, hip-hop – while moving from cockney to Tamil to American slang and back.

The New York Times recently reported on the creation of a new music channel called MTV Desi geared solely towards children of South Asian immigrants. One of its stated objectives is to show the breadth and depth of the South Asian experience and not just become another Bollywood channel. In the end, remembering that not all South Asians are Punjabi and that Bhangra isn’t the only South Asian musical art form will only lead to a richer cultural experience for all of us. Remember – “Tradition lives because young people come along who catch its fire and add new glories to it.” -MAHER HOQUE


* – I am using the word “Bangali” to represent the shared culture of both West Bengali’s and Bangladeshi’s.

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