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Desis Celebrate Bonds Formed Through Music and Dance at Basement Bhangra’s 25th Birthday Party in Central Park

Desis Celebrate Bonds Formed Through Music and Dance at Basement Bhangra’s 25th Birthday Party in Central Park

  • Actors, celebrities, artists, feminists, and professionals gathered at the summer stage to hear leading Punjabi voices honor a movement started by DJ Rekha.

New Yorkers grooved to the beats of the dhol, bhangra and hip-hop in Central Park this past weekend to celebrate 25 years of Basement Bhangra. An array of groundbreaking South Asian artists gathered at the iconic summer stage at Rumsey Playfield on Aug. 6 to mark the occasion.

DJ Rekha at “The Encore” event to celebrate Basement Bhangra’s 25th birthday at Central Park in New York, Aug. 6. Rekha started Basement Bhangra in 1997, an inclusive club that embraced a variety of music and attracted a diverse group of people. Top photo: Actress Poorna Jagannathan, left, with celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi, center, and actress Sarita Choudhury, at the Basement Bhangra concert.

Started in 1997 by New York’s own Rekha Malhotra, popularly known as DJ Rekha, Basement Bhangra was an inclusive club that embraced a variety of music and attracted a diverse group of people. A New York City institution, the Thursday night dance party at the Soho club S.O.B’s, served as a musical mainstay for people of all shapes, sizes, colors, income levels and sexual orientations. And it was a place that blended Punjabi rhythms with that of hip-hop, creating a sound that was uniquely South Asian.

The importance of Basement Bhagra for South Asian American New Yorkers was on full display on Aug. 6. Braving the heat and humidity, people arrived by the droves — many with families — including actors, celebrities, artists, feminists, and professionals. They weren’t just celebrating the music, but along with it the friendships and bonds they had formed over the years, and the memories they created. For several Indian Americans, Basement Bhangra was more than a dance party, it was a movement. It was a space they could call their own.

Along with bringing the community together, Rekha has also been a powerful influence on the South Asian music scene and has given several artists and bands an avenue to perform and gain visibility.

New York-based band Red Baraat performs at the Basement Bhangra concert. Conceived by dhol player Sunny Jain, the group has drawn worldwide praise for merging bhangra with elements of hip-hop, jazz and raw punk energy.

After running for 20 years, the New York institution closed its doors on Aug. 6, 2017, with an epic event in Central Park. That final mic drop was a true testament to the sounds Rekha created at the underground party. Five years later, at the same venue “The Encore” event rocked with the sounds of some well-known bands in the Punjabi music scene. Music lovers were treated to the New York City debut of Punjabi superstar Jasmine Sandlas, as well as the fusion sounds of Sunny Jain’s Red Baraat, along with Ganavya, Raaginder, and Sikh Knowledge.

“The idea behind Basement Bhangra was to create a space that was unpretentious, did not cost a lot of money and had no dress codes,” Rekha told this correspondent in a 2017 interview. “[It was] a place that was welcoming to all kinds of people.” A lot of sound was being categorized and so the idea about Basement Bhangra came to create a space that embraced both hip-hop and bhangra.”

Although she didn’t anticipate Basement Bhangra to become a movement, Rekha said at the time that the past two decades were “life-changing.” The experience gave her exposure, and “taught her so much,” but at the same time “kept her rooted.” She hopes people will remember Basement Bhangra for what it was. “Nostalgia is a very powerful thing.”

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Since Basement Bhangra closed, Rekha got a Master’s Degree from MIT in Comparative Media Studies. She helped Spotify launch in India and continued to DJ nationally and internationally.

A collage of photos posted by actress Sheetal Sheth at the Basement Bhangra concert.

A vital part of several Indian American lives growing up in the Tri-state area, Basement Bhangra has turned up as a central subject in novels and academic papers. Tanuja Desai Hidier, whose first book “Born Confused” includes a few chapters that refer to Basement Bhangra, told WNYC radio that the music that was played there was something she wanted to listen to all her life. In a 2014 article in The Aerogram, she refers to the ’90s as an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum.

For writer Swati Khurana, Basement Bhangra drew “writers, activists, artists, community organizers, teachers, people in queer circles,” compared to other desi parties which she described to WNYC as being more “heterosexual.”

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