It may come as a surprise to some, but the idea of men showing affection towards each other is nothing new to the Punjabi. In fact, according City of Bhangra Festival co-founder Mo Dhaliwal, it is the younger members of the East Indian community that have seemingly embraced a Western intolerance to a perceived homosexuality.
“My dad wouldn’t think twice about seeing two men holding hands,” says Dhaliwal, who points out that Indian culture includes room for a third gender along the masculine and feminine spectrum.
“Traditional bhangra was only performed by men and it was okay for men to be both masculine and feminine,” explains Dhaliwal. “As the popularity of bhangra grew in North America there has been a lot of female participation which has created a separation of masculine and feminine roles.”
Dhaliwal goes on to explain that it is only from Western influence that the looser definition of sexuality, that had endured for thousands of years in India, has found itself under attack starting with the influence from his country’s British rule.
“What has happened over time is that homophobia has been imported from the West,” claims Dhaliwal. “Two men holding hands in the north of India takes on a whole different meaning. In North America that physical affection seems to always come with a sexual connotation. That isn’t the case in traditional Indian culture where a physical display of male-to-male affection is not uncommon, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean it is quote unquote gay.”
But even as the idea of two men holding hands in the Punjab doesn’t carry any sexual weight, Dhaliwal does go on to say that with changing perceptions, especially among what he calls the “young dudes”, those innocent gestures take on a wholly different cultural meaning.
“In putting together our campaign this year we wanted to make a statement that would create a dialogue around diversity,” he says. “The idea of this third gender has been pushed underground for many decades and it is what we want to explore again. There was a time when we were comfortable with gender being part of a spectrum, but over time we have become polarized around sexual identity.”
For Dhaliwal, building on the inclusiveness that the City of Bhangra Festival has grown over the past years to now include gender is a natural progression of what they Festival is all about.
“At its essence the Bhangra Festival is a celebration of the Punjabi folk music and dance that originated in Pakistan, but that really is a superficial understanding,” says Dhaliwal.
Originally created to build bridges between siloed communities in Vancouver, the Festival grew out of what he and his co-founders could identify with, bhangra, but with the knowledge that there was a need to bring Vancouver’s culturally different landscape together.
“There is a recent Vancouver Foundation report that talks about how communities in Vancouver feel disconnected and alienated from their city and their neighborhoods, and there is not a lot of understanding between cultural communities,” says Dhaliwal.
Even ten years ago Dhaliwal says they knew instinctively that even though the South Asian community has been part of Vancouver’s cultural fabric for over a century, there wasn’t enough understanding.
“We set out with bhangra as way to stitch together a community and to provide an entry point in creating cross-cultural collaborations”.
Part of that mix comes from the variety of performances that are part of the ten day Festival that may use the music and dance of the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan as its base, but attempts to bridge the cultural divide in Vancouver by including other cultures as well. No demonstration of that blend is bigger than the festival’s opening night, TransFusion, which includes mash-ups of bhangra with tap dancers, African rhythms, highland dancers, members of British Columbia’s Lil’wat Nation and more.
“To see a bhangra drum and dance group is commonplace these days,” says Dhaliwal. “But we wanted to get away from the notion of the origin story; we wanted to get past the ethnic story and make the Festival part of Vancouver’s fabric. We are most proud of the music and collaborations we have had over the years with members of a variety of groups.”
Those groups now include a bridge to the local gay community by opening a dialogue about the gender spectrum. And while Dhaliwal admits that there is still much work to break down the Western influence that has muddied traditional waters, it is, at least, a starting point.
“It is a discussion point,” he says of the images and the choice of #bhangralove as this year’s Festival theme. “We want to see if we can help in that conversation and help mold and change attitudes.”
The 10th Anniversary City of Bhangra Festival runs May 27 through June 7. Visit http://vibc.org for more information and the complete schedule of events.