What began as a conversation between friends has become the story of a decade of contribution to Punjabi culture in the Bay Area. Dholrhythms Dance Company just celebrated its ten year anniversary in September, and this October NonStop Bhangra, a monthly event featuring Punjabi music and dancing, is celebrating its ninth anniversary. Incorporating brass band baraat processions, dholis, live collaborations with Bay Area artists and traveling musicians, DJs from both coasts, and drawing crowds between 500 and 10,000 people, NonStop Bhangra and Dholrhythms are an integral part of the Bay Area desi scene. They’ve also introduced thousands to the concept of chardi kala, used not only to conclude prayers in the gurudwara but also as a phrase that describes the buoyant state of optimism and joy central to Punjabi culture.
The New York Times voted NonStop “One of the Top Five Things to Do in the Bay Area” and India Today highlighted the event in their “Top Five Punjabis Making Waves Across the World.” Behind the press, though, is a story of perseverance. “The fact that we are still sharing this energy after a decade is a reminder that we were meant to create this community for a purpose far bigger than just accomplishing our own individual goals,” says Vicki Virk, Creative Director of Dholrhythms and Co-Founder of NonStop Bhangra. Although driven to share the joy of Punjabi dance with others, Virk started without an obvious plan. “Both Dholrhythms and NonStop Bhangra have grown organically over the last decade from having two students in class to a venue full of people from all walks of life dancing to bhangra,” says Suman Raj, Business Director of Dholrhythms and Co-Founder of NonStop Bhangra.
DJ Jimmy Love, Producer of NonStop Bhangra and Co-Founder with Virk and Raj, helped create an event where the students of Virk’s bhangra classes could come together and dance. The first NonStop was at an art gallery in San Francisco and drew 75 people. “When we started this it was to provide an outlet for students, and to think it has become something a lot of people know about is inspiring on many levels,” comments Love. In the past year NonStop Bhangra has hosted Ustad Lal Singh Bhatti, Delhi 2 Dublin, DJ Rekha, and Bikram Singh. “We have had opportunities to perform on some amazing stages and venues that we used to go watch shows. After all these years of performing, teaching and sharing this with as many people as we could, we have made ourselves an integral part of the Bay Area arts,” says Virk.
“I am always reminded of the perseverance that it takes to keep something like this alive and growing… I think the lessons we have learned and the adjustments and change we make on a regular basis still surprises me,” says Raj. Love, in his early career, was challenged by audience members that felt only Punjabis should spin bhangra. Love dug into the music and refined his craft, becoming an internationally respected DJ. “In many ways we feel it is something we were meant to provide in our lives, and the community we built is enriched by the hours we put into creating a platform for Punjabi music in San Francisco” says Love.
Part of chardi kala is to maintain a positive state of mind despite adversity. The three have had plenty of opportunity to develop this quality, constantly forced to outreach to new communities to keep NonStop vibrant. Other challenges have arisen from within the community. “One of the challenges has been to explain why this can become someone’s life’s work. Most people think of any creative outlet as a hobby or something you just do on the side. There are times when we feel we must work extra hard to prove what we are doing,” says Virk. Odell Hussey, having just completed a three-year documentary about NonStop, says his biggest surprise “was how they keep going. Seeing some people leave due to injury or life changes and having new people come in… it just keeps rolling along. I think that is a credit to Vicki Virk’s leadership and the entire group’s love for the art form of bhangra,” says Hussey.
“I was impressed by how they continue to do outreach work with kids and communities that otherwise aren’t exposed to Punjabi culture,” says Hussey, speaking to the cultural impact of Dholrthyms and NonStop. The longevity of the troupe and the event are notable. “Celebrating these milestones is really remarkable. Not many events get past the five year mark, so we are grateful for the community that has helped keep us doing what we love,” says Love. Raj concludes, “We have been lucky enough to bring something so joyous to our communities… our anniversary is not only a celebration of Dholrhythms and NonStop Bhangra contributing a very positive aspect of Punjabi culture but also a celebration of the community that has been created through our work.”