Welcome to Photo Focus, where each Friday I will examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs.
This is the third and final week of a three part series of my MA art history research paper titled, “Changing Perspectives: Gauri Gill’s The Americans.”
Gauri Gill, Stanford University Bhangra Competition, Dianza College, California, 2002/ Performers Kwane Wilkinson and Shane ‘Shake’ Dhillon from the California Soul Hip Hop Dance Academy based in Modesto, California, 2002 (figure 6)
The final photograph under examination from Gill’s series is titled Stanford University Bhangra Competition, Dianza College, California, 2002/ Performers Kwane Wilkinson and Shane ‘Shake’ Dhillon from the California Soul Hip Hop Dance Academy based in Modesto, California, 2002. This diptych, like the other two, is 16 ½ by 50 inches (Figure 6). The photographs that make up this diptych feature two groups of young men backstage who appear to be getting ready for a public performance. The photograph on the left side depicts five men in formal, glamorized Punjabi dress and two other men who appear to be wearing white button-down shirts. The other photograph shows two men in western-style clothing, one is getting dressed while the other sits casually in a chair. Bhangra, as noted in the title of the photograph, is a type of music and dance which originated in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan and has been popularized through Bollywood films and the music industry. Hip Hop is an American music and dance style that asserts African-American history and politics. Bhangra and Hip Hop have both become mainstream music beyond their country of origin showing they are able to cross cultural lines and have meaning for multiple groups. Furthermore, both of these styles of music and dance allow youth to assert their identities through competitions such as the ones indicated by the back stage photographs by Gill.
Men performing Bhangra in Punjab. Reproduced from Alka Pande, From the Mustard Fields to Disco Lights: Folk Music and Musical Instruments of Punjab (Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corporation, 1999): 15. (figure 7)
In the photograph on the left side of the diptych, the men are getting ready for a Bhangra competition. The five men in the photograph are wearing very specific outfits consisting of kurtas (long white top), pajamas (pants), vest, chadar (the long scarf), and paags (the elaborate turban). These outfits are made in a variety of bright colors to fit the taste of the wearer. Originally, Bhangra did not require any specific clothing but participants usually wore kurtas and tehmands which are pieces of fabric wrapped around the waist. However, photographs from the book Folk Music and Musical Instruments of Punjab: from Mustard Fields to Disco Lights show the lineage of stylized turbans (figures 7 and 8). Figure 7 shows several men wearing turbans that have cloth protruding out of the top, but the cloth is jutting out of the side or back of the turban. Furthermore, these turbans are made of everyday fabrics. Figure 8 shows an even more elaborate turban where the fabric on top is probably starched into place and there is an additional band stitched with gold thread. This stylized turban resembles those worn by the men in Gill’s photograph as their headgear displays gold accents and an excess of fanned material at the front of the turban. The stylized turban coordinates with the silk kurta and pants to complete the outfit.
Man wearing stylized turban. Reproduced from Alka Pande, From the Mustard Fields to Disco Lights: Folk Music and Musical Instruments of Punjab (Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corporation, 1999): 69. (figure 8)
In Gill’s photograph, the five men appear to be getting ready for their performance. While Bhangra was originally a harvest folk dance performed only by men, it has transformed into a dance form performed by both men and women around the world. Alka Pande argues that media and technology have contributed to the decline of folk music in Punjab as people look to movies and television for entertainment. Hans Raj Hans was one of the first musicians to bring Punjabi folk music to mainstream radio and television in 1979. However, Bhangra appeared in Bollywood as early as 1959 with the movie Bhangra. This trend of mainstream Bhangra has continued into the 21st century with movies such as Jab We Met, which has led to Bhangra being perceived as part of a pan-Indian identity. As this trend grew, folk beats and lyrics were merged with pop beats. The sound of popular Bhangra music has been further modified by people of Punjabi decent living abroad who have fused the music of their new country with Punjabi folk music. This music has returned to the Punjab and affected the music there. Furthermore, as the music has been modified due to its globalization, the dance moves have been changed as well.
The site of this Bhangra competition, as indicated in Gill’s title, is the Stanford University campus. Many colleges across the United States have Indian student associations that have Bhangra teams who perform at their home school and at national competitions. For over fifteen years there has been a large Bhangra competition in Washington D.C. In April 2008, this event drew 3,000 spectators to watch the top college Bhangra teams compete. The typical Bhangra team has eight to sixteen dancers, but only five can be seen in Gill’s photograph. For the most part, team members are of South Asian heritage and all of the members in Gill’s photograph appear to be South Asian, however, teams across the United States have non-South Asian participants and in the diaspora this traditionally male dance has included women. The growing popularity of Bhangra among American college students is creating a new site for traditions from one country to be modified and participated in by American youth from a variety of backgrounds.
The photograph on the right side of the diptych shows another way Indian-American youth create identity. The two Indian-American men in the photograph are backstage awaiting a performance just like the men on the left side of the diptych. The man sitting in the chair who appears to be ready is identified as Shane ‘Shake’ Dhillion, while the man who is adjusting his outfit is Kwane Wilkinson. Both men wear short sleeved button-down shirts and dress slacks. Dhillon wears a black bowler hat while Wilkinson wears a white one. It appears that both men have on red bandanas under their hats. Dhillon finishes out his outfit with a pair of Adidas shell toe shoes. On Dhillon’s Myspace page he has a photograph where he is still sporting the bowler hat nine years later.
Kanye West. Reproduced from Xpoz Online Magazine, Accessed: March 20, 2011, http://www.xpoz.com/2009/12/page/6/ (figure 9)
Wilkinson and Dhillon’s dress is both typical and somewhat atypical of Hip Hop fashion. In the U.S., most people probably think of oversized T-shirts and sports jerseys, baggy pants, sneakers and a baseball cap as traditional Hip Hop attire. However, it is common for Hip Hop performers to get more dressed up in the same manner of Wilkinson and Dhillon when performing at music awards or other special occasions. For example, Figure 9 shows Kanye West performing in a fitted suit jacket, black button-down dress shirt, and khaki slacks. West’s look is just slightly dressier than that of Wilkinson and Dhillon, who are not wearing sports jackets. While Wilkinson and Dhillon are dressed up, Dhillon still wears signature Adidas shell toe shoes. These shoes have a long-standing history in Hip Hop fashion. In the 1980s, Hip Hop group Run D.M.C. was featured in several Adidas shell toe ads (Figure 10). This ad campaign started the long history of Adidas shell toe shoes not only as a fashion trend but also the use of music for advertisements. On Run D.M.C.’s third album they had a hit single titled “My Adidas.” This was followed in 1992 by House of Pain’s song “Put your S—t Kickers” which contained the lyrics “I got the Shell-Toe Adidas, with fat strings.” This tie with fashion history shows that Dhillon and Wilkinson are aware of long-standing fashion trends of the identity they are constructing.
Adidas Ad featuring Run D.M.C. Reproduced from Kamau High, “Adidas ads Feature Musicians but not their Music,” Accessed: February 27, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/12/03/us-adidas-idUSTRE4B28EH20081203 (figure 10)
South Asian Americans have become known for being a “model minority” as they are typically college educated, hold white collar jobs and live similarly with middle-class white Americans. Nitasha Tamar Sharma theorizes in her book Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness that South Asian Americans participate in Hip Hop culture in part because of racism they have faced. This gives them a shared experience with African-Americans. Ajay Nair and Murali Balaji posit this backlash against the “model minority” by some South Asian Americans as a way to find their own South Asian American identity instead of just taking on the characteristics of the white middle class. Nair and Balaji further argue that participating in the “model minority” can pit Indian-Americans against African-Americans because as a “model minority” Indian-Americans have more access to education. On the other hand, those South Asian Americans that chose to participate in Hip Hop culture create a space to connect with African-Americans because both groups have experienced racial discrimination. It is through this shared experience that people are able to bond and cultures are able to blend.
Furthermore, Hip Hop has become a way to subvert South Asian parents. This rebellion takes place because immigrant parents often associate ancestral culture as good and innocent while American culture is bad and corrupt. Going against main stream culture and especially one’s parents is true of youth across the globe. It is in this action that young people find the identity of their generation. Sunita, an Indian-American interviewed by Sunaina Maira for her article “Identity Dub: The Paradox of an Indian American Youth Subculture” states, “identifying with Hip Hop is a little more rebellious because it is not the norm associated with white culture.” Indian parents often see white culture as the pathway to the ‘American Dream’ which leads to some tension between parents and children. The parents and families of South Asian American youth that consume Hip Hop culture are seen as “somehow deficient in ‘Desiness’,” meaning they are less Indian than South Asian Americans who conform to a more traditional Indian or Anglo-American lifestyle. However, that is exactly the point for these youth, to assert another identity than their parents, one that speaks of the time and geography in which they live.
Furthermore, it is plausible that Indian-American youth become involved in Hip Hop because of the neighborhoods they live in and other students they go to school with. As a third wave of Indians entered the United States in the 1970s, they did not all have advanced degrees, so many of them lived in less affluent, minority predominant neighborhoods. This shift in socio-economic status created a space for children of Indian decent to become socialized with African-American and other minority groups which influenced music and fashion tastes of the Indian-American youth in these areas. Rawj, an MC in the Hip Hop group Feenom Circle, states that Hip Hop was his first culture because he grew up with Black and Filipino peers who participated in the culture. Forming an identity around Hip Hop negates both Indian and white culture. Another one of Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s interviewee’s states,
Being Indian is just like… that’s where I come from I guess. I mean, I look around now – it has nothing to do with being Indian. You know? So how can I say I’m more proud to be Indian? If I was Indian, I would be living in India, you know, wearing a dhoti or a lungi and I’d be praying or doing whatever that comes with being Indian.
This statement expresses a young second-generation girl’s perspective on her identity and how she does not associate herself with an Indian identity. Though she does not specifically claim an American identity in this statement it is implied through her rejection of her Indian identity. Her statement is also stereotypical of what non-Indians might think about the daily lives of Indians in India. This statement shows that the girl is entrenched in her American identity as she does not really understand the lives lead in India.
There is a third subculture being created in the United States and other places in the Indian diaspora that is not shown in the diptych but perhaps is alluded to by Gill’s juxtaposition of a Bhangra and Hip Hop pre-performance. This new genre is referred to as Bhangra Hip Hop or Desi Hip Hop in which musical styles from both Punjabi folk music and Hip Hop are fused. As children of immigrant parents go out into the world they become surrounded by the music and fashion trends where they live while probably continually being exposed to Indian music, food, and fashion at home. These second and third generation populations are creating a new style by combining these elements.
Musical artists such as Nitin Sawhney move between Indian and western music in seamless ways. In his song “Migration,” Sawhney begins with an Indian beat that slowly melds into a western beat that includes jazz piano. These transitions continue while the lyrics are sung in Hindi. Ananya Jahanaral describes the song in her essay “Musical Recall” as
Perfectly structured, its journey starts in the east – with tropical birdcall, tabla and dhol (South Asian percussion instruments) , snake – charming bagpipe-flute or been [sic], and a classical vocal refrain – but, as the sleeve notes describe, ‘ the percussion stacks up gradually, building up a nice bustling groove.’ At midpoint, a confident jazz funk sound takes over, although one can still hear an eight – beat Indian rhythm cycle underneath.
As Maira states nicely, the beats go in and out of one another fusing within the song. It is this melting of the east and west together that constitutes Desi Hip Hop.
Another Bhangra Hip Hop artist, Panjabi MC, uses both western and Indian beats as well as melding English and Hindi in his lyrics. In 2004, he worked on a song with Jay-Z titled “Beware.” In this song, Panjabi MC sings some of the lyrics in Hindi and some in English while Jay-Z raps in English. There are two specific lines in the song that point to Hip Hop history, South Asian American identity and the American psyche, “Before Bin Laden got Manhattan to blow/ before Reagan got Manhattan to blow.” Most American youth globally recognize that the reference to Bin Laden is connected with September 11th and this deals conceptually with both the American psyche and South Asian American identity. The events of September 11th rocked America to its core as people could no longer take their safety for granted. Americans rallied as a nation to help those at ground zero and the military began to mobilize to find Bin Laden. On the other hand, this deeply affected many South Asian Americans as they became victims of racism and violence due to the color of their skin. The reference to Reagan is probably less understood by youth unless they have a deep knowledge of Hip Hop history or the Reagan administration. This history is explained by Natasha Tamar Sharma in her book Hip Hop Desi:
Hip Hop began in the early 1970s when minorities, particularly Blacks in urban areas, lost jobs as a result of deindustrialization. President Reagan’s politics and economic policies in the 1980s compounded the situation by removing the security of social services from the newly jobless and restricting children’s opportunities for education and play. Black and Puerto Rican youth in the South Bronx responded to these structures creatively by making use of the technologies available to them. They hooked up speakers to stadium lights at local parks, played records on one and even two turntables to mix them back and forth to produce a continuous party track.
These multiple histories that all play out in New York make for conceptually minded lyrics and provide a base for different groups to come together.
The photograph, Stanford University Bhangra Competition, Dianza College, California, 2002/ Performers Kwane Wilkinson and Shane ‘Shake’ Dhillon from the California Soul Hip Hop Dance Academy based in Modesto, California, 2002 explores several ways in which South Asian Americans are creating new identities. Through the participation in Bhangra competitions, some Indian-American youth highlight their “Indian-ness” while creating a space that is being explored by youth outside South Asian heritage. On the other hand, youth like Wilkinson and Dhillon have downplayed their “South Asian-ness” by adapting another minority culture. Moreover, through the juxtapositions of music in the photographs, Gill consciously or unconsciously indicates the assimilation of these two practices in the form of Desi Hip Hop. As each of these sub-cultures develops, they will continue to grow and fuse into a new American sub-culture.
Manorma Sharma, Folk India: A Comprehensive study of Indian Folk Music and Culture, Volume 2 (New Delhi, India: Sundeep Prakeshan, 2004): 47.
Alka Pande, Folk Music and Musical Instruments of Punjab: from Mustard Fields to Disco Lights (Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corporation, 1999): 15 and 69. Govind Rangrass, “Bhangra Boom: From Punjab villages to American college frenzy,” Dance Magazine (November, 2008): 69.
Pande, Folk Music and Musical Instruments of Punjab,110.
Pande, Folk Music and Musical Instruments of Punjab, 40. Rangrass, “Bhangra Boom,” 68.
Rangrass, “Bhangra Boom,” 69.
Myspace page of Shane Dhillon, Accessed: March 8, 2011, http://www.myspace.com/shakestylestudios Kermit E. Campbell, “There Goes the Neighborhood: Hip Hop Creepin’ on a Come up at the U,” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 3 (February 2007): 326.
Kamau High, “Adidas ads Feature Musicians but not their Music,” (Wednesday, December 3, 2008) , Accessed: February 27, 2011, http://www.Reuters.com/article/2008/12/03/us-adidas-idUSTRE4B28EH20081203
Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010): 5. Ajay Nair and Murali Balaji, “Introduction,” Desi Rap: Hip-Hop and South Asian America (New York: Lexington Books, 2008): vii.
Nair and Balaji, “Introduction,” Desi Rap, vii.
Nair and Balaji, “Introduction,” Desi Rap, ix.
Sunaina Maira, “Identity Dub: The Paradoxes of an Indian American Youth Subculture,” Cultural Anthropology 14, no. 1 (February 1999): 38.
Maira, “Identity Dub,” 40.
Sharma, Hip Hop Desi, 14.
Nair and Balaji, “Introdiction,” x. Sharma, Hip Hop Desi, 15.
Sharma, Hip Hop Desi, 8-9.
Outside the scope of this project, Bhangra Hip Hop is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Bhangra Hip Hop is popular in other locations of the South Asian diaspora such as Great Britain. One influential artist there is Apache Indian, who is a British born Punjabi. He fuses the sounds of Reggae and Punjabi folk music to create a unique blend of Bhangra Hip Hop.