Why it's so important to make language and culture accessible

Rumneek Johal/@rumandwoke

I sat at my phone, incredulous and smiling ear to ear while watching a boli tutorial on Instagram -- a sentence I didn’t really expect myself to be writing, because I hadn’t ever taken the time or interest to learn them on my own.

A boli, or boliyan, are songs or couplets sung in Punjabi, usually accompanied by bhangra or gidda, which are popular Punjabi folk dances.

As I scrolled through my timeline, I came upon a Saggi Boli tutorial by @BhangraDiaries, AKA Manjot Bal, and it made me reflect on the way that this type of accessibility is so incredibly important to the vitality and continuance of Punjabi culture.

Growing up, language and culture were an intrinsic part of my upbringing, but as I got older I began to lose touch with that, not speaking Punjabi as well as my peers, or not being as knowledgeable about certain cultural traditions, to the point where it became an area of shame for me.

I went from regularly speaking the language and celebrating the culture, wearing traditional Indian and Punjabi outfits to school for picture day (yes, really), regularly wanting my hands covered in mendhi (henna), to beginning to lose touch with the culture, partly because I feared I knew less about it than my Punjabi peers, especially growing up in a space surrounded by other Brown people.

Further, dance, specifically bhangra and gidda, were a huge part of my childhood, and music and dance were one of the key ways I stayed connected to and celebrated my culture. 

I took bhangra lessons and did dance performances at family member’s weddings with such immense joy. But as I grew up, for whatever reason, I began to feel almost a sense of shame or embarrassment around these aspects of my culture, despite how much joy they brought me, because I felt that my peers would see me differently as a result.

I went to Punjabi classes with my brother, but as I grew older, none of those skills really ended up sticking, and I began to become really insecure about speaking Punjabi outside of my home, as I didn’t have an advanced understanding of the language like many of my peers. 

Now that I’m older, and I’ve managed to unlearn much of the internalized racism that dictated my beliefs and behaviours, along with the internal policing from within the community for my lack of knowledge, I recognize that having these elements of cultural knowledge passed on to you through cultural traditions is a huge privilege, which only makes me want to learn it even more.

Seeing Manjot’s Saggi Boli tutorials, which she says is one of the ways she learned Punjabi herself, really inspired me to reconnect with this aspect of my roots, and teach myself these traditions that I hope to carry forward in my own life, including both the culture and language.

It also put into perspective the importance of sharing cultural knowledge, and continuing to make it accessible for future generations, to ensure our culture survives and is passed down, because it is beautiful and impossible to watch without smiling.

People like Manjot, who use social media to ensure that there is no gatekeeping of this knowledge, are integral to passing on this knowledge to people who would otherwise have no other means of learning it, or to reconnect so many -- including myself --  with their roots in ways they never realized they wanted or needed.

I don’t know about you, but you can for sure catch me singing the lyrics of all the epic boliyan Manjot has been teaching at the next post-coronavirus wedding.

And as Manjot always says, “Nakhra comes first”.

Catch exclusive content from Manjot in the 5X Fest app for our first ever virtual festival, 5X Race to the Stage!

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