The battle of bhangra

Catchy beats, whirls of color, and unbeatable energy: These three phrases encapsulate the essence of all that is bhangra, and on Saturday night, at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, all these elements were on full display.

Mayur South Asian Student Alliance’s (MayurSASA) Bhangra in the Burgh, their now-annual bhangra competition, returned again this year to entertain Pittsburgh with a battle between the best bhangra teams. This year’s competition featured eight competing teams, two fewer from the previous year to prevent the show from becoming too monotonous. Also, similar to last year’s show was the choice of an Indian comedian as the host, along with several exhibition acts, such as The Originals, an all-male a cappella group; Tanah, a South-Asian fusion dance team; and Chak De, Carnegie Mellon’s bhangra team. There were three new acts this year: a performance by Impulse, a hip-hop dance troupe from Point Park University; a brief and not-so-entertaining act by Variety Hour; and a dance by Pitt Raas, the University of Pittsburgh’s raas team who gave the audience a flavor of the other cultural dances originating from India.

The competition is a charity event, and its profits go to the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, which provides education opportunities for needy children in Allegheny County.
The entire event was a huge production, one that has been in motion since last semester. The co-chairs this year –– Shephalie Lahri, a senior biological science and business administration double major; Raunaq Palejwala, a junior business administration major; and Subha Patibanda, a sophomore biological sciences major –– had been working hard to make sure that every part of the show ran smoothly.

The co-chairs had a different vision for Bhangra in the Burgh this year. Last year, the competition was aimed more toward drawing out the Pittsburgh community and to “put Pittsburgh on the map,” as the then-MayurSASA president Dhruv Mathur was quoted saying in The Tartan’s reveiw of last year’s show, but this year it tried, and succeeded, in garnering the Carnegie Mellon community’s awareness and support.

“One of our main goals as co-chairs was to unify the Carnegie Mellon campus and involve as many students as we can in our event,” Patibanda said. “So, this year, we involved over 120 students in PR for the event, sponsorship, events, and other committees. We also involved the campus by having four teams from Carnegie Mellon perform in the show.”

The competition faced some challenges in the sponsorship and marketing areas. The co-chairs were unable to receive too many outside sources of funding and, as a result, reached out to over 35 of the university’s departments for sponsorship.

Promoting the event was also an area of concern for the co-chairs. Considering the flyers plastered everywhere, the constant tabling outside Doherty, the bright orange shirts speckled around campus, and an entire week of events leading up to the competition, Palejwala asserted that “getting [the promotion] to that level was difficult, especially finding ways to think outside the box.” But in the end, the efforts paid off because the show completely sold out. In fact, there were even some disagreements over tickets as the show was oversold and people weren’t being provided seats.

The actual show was very entertaining, giving the audience a taste of traditional bhangra, as well as fusion dances in which bhangra moves were set to hip-hop and other genres of music. The teams this year were very impressive, continuously shocking the audience with their inventive stunts and dance formations. There seemed to be no end to the dancers’ energy, as they effortlessly jumped up and down for more than five minutes without stopping smiling even once. Rutgers University Bhangra, last year’s champions, kicked off the show. Their performance was set to live music sung by two of their team members. The female singer was especially talented. From then on the show went by in a blur of color and music.

To alleviate the overdose of bhangra, the show had exhibition acts interspersed in between, along with a hilarious stand-up comedy routine by the show’s host, Paul Varghese. Varghese was a definite improvement to last year’s stand-up comedian, and he was able to draw a clear line between being funny and being offensive. The highlight of the evening was the performance by the home bhangra team, Chak De. Their much-anticipated performance was very well received, and the Bhangra in the Burgh staff members pumped up the crowd by dancing enthusiastically in the aisles.

Bagging first place this year was a new entry, VCU Bhangra from Virginia Commonwealth University. The performance was unique in the way the dancers slipped in and out of formations. They also enhanced their dance with the innovative use of strobe lights, making the choreography stand out. The defending champions, Rutgers University Bhangra, placed second, followed by Drexel University Bhangra.

Apart from the honor of winning, the winners also got an automatic invitation to compete at the Best of the Best Competition in 2009.

“This year, Bhangra in the Burgh has a larger presence on campus, in the Pittsburgh community, and in the Bhangra competition circuit,” Lahri said, emphasizing how this year’s show was different from last year’s.

Yet, even with the greater publicity and manpower, the year’s show was essentially very similar to last year’s show. Anyone who witnessed the first Bhangra in the Burgh hasn’t missed out on much by not attending Saturday night’s performance. Also, the money raised for charity this year was only over $5000, a $1000 shy of last year’s contribution. The difficulty in obtaining sponsorship and the over-the-top publicity, as pointed out by Lahri and Palejwala, evidently took their toll here.

The show, it can be safely said, was a huge success with regard to the response it received. This is evident not just from the huge turnout, but the excitement and enthusiasm the audience brought with it. There were some technical hitches along the way, with songs missing their cue and videos not playing, but overall, the performances were engaging
and enjoyable, especially for those new to bhangra.

Bhangra in the Burgh definitely provides a great showcase for not just Indian culture, but talent in Carnegie Mellon and the Pittsburgh community in general.