Bhangra dance team uses platform to raise money for Indian issues

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shania Paul | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 2 print edition.

In the Indian state of Punjab, farmers camp out on the cold streets to protest new agriculture laws. Over 8,000 miles away in Texas, an Indian student dance team brainstorms about how to raise money for the farmers.

Texas Bhangra, a University of Texas Punjabi dance team, raised $1,276 and bought over 50 weatherproof tents for the protesting farmers. The team’s co-captain, Shania Paul, said they use their social media platform to raise money and awareness for causes affecting Punjabi people as a way to honor the culture.

Paul said Bhangra dance moves are derived from Punjabi agricultural practices. One of these movements, called fasla, resembles wheat blowing in the wind.  

“We wanted to do this fundraiser for the farmers in Punjab especially because everything that we do … originates with them,” Paul, an electrical and computer engineering senior, said. “I feel like it's kind of our duty to give back to that community.”

In August 2020, millions of Indian workers went on strike from their jobs in the fields to protest against laws minimizing government protection of agricultural labor. Team member Ishpal Singh said her family members were farmers in Punjab before they moved to America. She said she urged Texas Bhangra’s fall executive board to take action on the issue.

“The whole reason that we do Bhangra (is) to celebrate the harvest, and without a harvest, without farmers, there's really nothing to celebrate,” Singh, a supply chain management sophomore, said. “It's a very somber time right now.”

In May 2020, after the team came under new leadership, team co-captain Shaili Mehta said Texas Bhangra shifted their social media content from competitions and accolades to social justice issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“When you participate in a dance form, it's really difficult and unfair to separate the dance form from its culture because that's where it comes from,” Mehta, a supply chain management senior, said.

Paul said neither of the team captains are from Punjab, but they both share a love and respect for the dance and culture.

“You don't have to be Punjabi to be able to enjoy this dance form,” Paul said. “For me, especially whenever I first started, I fell in love with it immediately because it was so energetic. I love the adrenaline that you feel when you're doing it.”

Due to the pandemic, Mehta said the team only competes in virtual competitions which cost less to attend, leaving extra money for fundraising purposes. 

“Competitions are really important, but team culture and what we stand for is a little more important,” Mehta said.

After posting a Venmo fundraiser for the Punjabi farmers on their personal social media pages, the team raised over $600 and matched the donations. The funds were sent to a team member’s connection in Punjab, who bought and distributed weatherproof tents for the protestors.

“We wanted to make sure that we were gonna know exactly what's happening with the money,” Paul said. “Most organizations were kind of just donating to (aid) organizations, but we wanted to do something a little bit more personal.”

She said the team creates a culture around the music, dance and the Punjabi culture, which is why they find it crucial to acknowledge current events.

“It's not just about the fun and the dancing,” Paul said. “We’ve got to be able to give back to the community as well.”