Bhangra dance originated in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan, but a Halifax group turned it into an Internet sensation.
You may remember Maritime Bhangra from a video shot at Peggy’s Cove, which (at the time of writing) has 333,000 views on YouTube. After that went viral, they were featured in news stories worldwide. They had a second video involving bhangra and shovelling that also went viral early last winter.
But fame alone isn’t the point. They want to use dance to increase awareness about humanitarian issues and to raise money for charity. “We actually started dancing bhangra 3.5 years back in a volunteer capacity—me, my cousin, and two more dancers,” says co-founder Hasmeet Singh Chandok.
The group has since grown to include six core members and about 12 who participate as needed, most of them are Sikh and originally from India. Chandok handles media and event bookings while his cousin, Kunwardeep Singh, choreographs dances and videos. And they all collaborate to decide on how things are run and which causes to support.
Before performing professionally, Chandok says he and his friends would often do bhangra. “It was a fun thing to do when we were away from home just to feel like we are still connected to the culture,” he recalls.
In July 2016, they decided to form a professional group and started performing at local festivals and events. Those performances were well received and then the Peggy’s Cove video gave them a big boost in September 2016. “It was just another day,” says Singh in an interview with Dal News. “We often go to that place because it’s so beautiful.”
That day changed things. “When the Peggy’s Cove video came out, it just took that jump,” Chandok says. “After that, we did a small interview with a channel owned by Ashton Kutcher…that interview was viewed almost 15 million times.”
The biggest rewards come from the reactions of people who see the videos. “We have so many messages coming from people living with mental-health issues, especially depression,” explains Chandok. “They say there are not many things that can make me happy but your videos are one of those few things that I watch and I just forget my problems for awhile.”
They get thousands of messages; Chandok replies to each one. “Each and every reply is different, it’s not that we have one reply written up and we just copy and paste it,” he says. “Each and every person’s message is read and understood and especially the emotions they are trying to portray.”
Chandok recalls one situation at the Halifax airport where the group had a photo shoot. “A man who had some health issues came over to us and said, ‘You know what, one of the wishes I have on my bucket list is to dance with you guys’ and the team just left the photo shoot and danced with him,” Chandok says that was unforgettable. “People send us messages saying it’s changing their lives. We are amazed by that every day.”
The group is passionate about supporting charities and humanitarian causes as well. Through their videos, performances and fundraisers, they have raised about $300,000 for different charities. At the end of their second viral video, for example, there was a message for people to donate to the ALS Society of Canada if they liked the video.
“We don’t make money off of it,” explains Chandok. “We did buy some costumes and stuff from the money we got from performances, but other than that each and every single penny goes to charities.”
Most of the group members work full-time and part time jobs to make ends meet. It’s not a business venture, it’s a way to share their culture and start conversations that they hope will break down cultural and religious barriers.
“We have always been trying to find ways to let people know who we are and where we come from because we had our fair share of bad experiences,” reflects Chandok. “We had people confusing us with other races, saying slurs to us…so we wanted to give the message that we are all humans and if you don’t understand who I am, just ask me.”
Bhangra started out as a way to stay connected to their culture but it has now become a way to share it. It provides a window into a part of their culture that others can easily appreciate. But Chandok and the other group members hope that it will also encourage others to not only find out more about Bhangra but also to be more open minded about what other people have to offer.
“We need to work on making this environment around us more comfortable for the people who are different in any way,” says Chandok. “We need to embrace differences.”
The group meets a couple times weekly, and this topic often comes up. They want to ensure the performances and the causes they support match their core message. “One message we are trying to get out is how we can practice all different religions and still be united,” Chandok says.
That’s a message they also try to spread when they do presentations in schools. “We go to schools, especially rural schools where we go and talk about failures and rejection and how racism kills diversity,” says Chandok.
The group also has to devote some time to keeping up with the changing world of bhangra. For them, that often involves watching videos together and learning new bhangra moves and trends. “With globalization, the music has changed and the moves have changed, so you have to keep up to date,” explains Chandok.
While it is clear that the group is well on its way to introducing others to a new cultural experience and sharing a message of hope, while also fundraising for charities and worthy causes, Chandok says that they still have a long way to go.
“I personally feel like we still haven’t had a big impact on the community, we still have a lot of work to do,” he says. “I would feel that I’m successful when every person on this planet has food to eat and a job to do. And until that date, we have to work; there’s a lot of work to be done.”