anti-babel – sanjay sharma

Telling Stories about Bhangra: A Short Review of the Soho Road to the Punjab Exhibition

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Some notes based on a talk I gave at the Bhangra Symposium, School of African and Oriental Studies, 15 Sept 2007:

I’m interested in how we can tell the story of Bhangra. The majority of accounts about South Asian life in Britain have been invariably reductive: either an immigrant story of doing ‘shit work’/racism or a predictable tale of community/exotic celebration

The Soho Road to Punjab Exhibition attempts to tell another story of Bhangra vis-à-vis a multiplicity of narratives. One way of reading the Exhibition is through three moments (periods), which roughly coincide with the 1970s, 80s and 90s decades, respectively:1

First moment invisibility: South Asians were not part of the national culture, it’s like we didn’t exist. Bhangra offered an alternative space of community formation, and alternative subterranean ‘popular-public’ sphere.


Second moment marginalisation: South Asians now appear to be entering into national culture, but considered still as ethnic others – on the periphery. Bhangra became knowable in terms of the eurocentric moniker of ‘world music’. And the popularity of ‘daytimers’ was not just about young women dodging patriarchy and so-called ‘tradition’, but also due to racist marginalization in club culture.


Third moment ambivalent recognition, is structured by a multicultural logic that has at least two elements:

  • multiculturalism regulating ethnic otherness, banally celebrating diversity while managing and containing difference
  • multicultural commodification proliferates particular kinds of ethnic diversity in capitalist circuits of production and exchange


Bhangra’s entry into the popular mainstream has been uneven. For example, in national radio play such as the digital BBC Asian Network – needs to be understood in terms of this ambivalent recognition.

And there’s something culturally disruptive about Bhangra:

  • we’re constantly reminded that its ‘origins’ are from North India/Punjab, often claimed by Punjabi nationalists; yet its Britishness tells another story
  • Bhangra has not been simply absorbed into the British Nation – resisted easy assimilation


Bhangra co-exists both inside/outside the national space; the current ideology of New Labour (neo-liberal multiculturalism) wants us all to be British (located within the white nation), yet Bhangra defies such a move?

You would have thought that the exhibition title should have been the other way around: “From the Punjab to Soho Rd”? But it points to divergent global geographies and place.


Nor does it present a linear story of migration: ‘from over there to over here’. Rather the exhibition highlights how we multiply belong, neither defined by ethnic origins or determined by a British nation. It offers a way of imagining both the routes (movement) and roots (identity) of Bhangra.2

Of course, routes, movement, change are celebrated in postmodern multicultural times. Much of the focus on music dwells on so-called hybridities of culture. Accounts of British-Asian music has focused on its authenticity and fusions. The underlying multicultural logic is the desire for authentic fusional hybridity. This has resulted in a problematic splitting of Bhangra in relation other popular musics, such as the ‘Asian Underground’ or R’nB/hip-hop.

This splitting results in some Bhangra artists being marked as ‘authentic’ but not ‘hybrid’ enough. It’s ‘cross-over’ artists such as Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney who are considered by the style media to be at the cutting edge of Brit-Asian music – at the expense of marginalizing (‘traditional’) Bhangra.

It appears only when Bhangra is mediated through hip-hop for instance does it become properly acceptable for a ‘mass’ multicultural appeal. (Recall Panjabi MC’s track, Mundian To Bache Ke, only being picked up in Britain via the circuitous route of a USA hip-hop DJs remix).3

Perhaps Bhangra is considered to be still too ‘ethnic’; it’s not fully translatable – linguistically, culturally… – for the national-popular, even with its ‘mass’ sub-cultural appeal.

The exhibition however, attempts to avoid claiming that Bhangra is authentically Asian and/or progressively fusional. Instead, it offers the viewer an opportunity to trace histories and representations of Bhangra through album covers, flyers, performances, and its multiply contested audience investments.



Acknowledgments: Images from the Soho Road to Punjab Exhibition

1 This periodisation however, does not work in a linear manner. The argument here has been developed in Sharma S (2006) ‘Sounds Asian’, in N. Ali, V.S. Kalra & S. Sayyid (eds) A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, London: Hurst, pp. 317-326.
2 See Mercer, K (1994) Welcome to the Jungle. London: Routledge.
3 Via the USA, Mundian To Bache Ke was actually made popular in Germany before (re-)entering Britain.

Written by sanjay sharma

4 Oct 07 at 2:11pm

Posted in culture

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