A CLUTCH OF YOUNG VOLUNTEERS is pulling bindis out of plastic wrappers in a room that smells of chana masala in Washington DC. They are helping transform the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art for Bhangra Night, when museum-goers can have mehndi designs painted on their hands and sip on Indian-themed cocktails. There’s a bhangra dance troupe performing, too, but the reason everyone is here is DJ Rekha, the woman credited for almost single-handedly popularising bhangra in the United States. When the DJ herself is led into the room, there is a stir of excitement among the volunteers. It seems unlikely that the well-heeled guests gathering outside the Smithsonian in the steamy July evening will be pumping their arms in the air to DJ Rekha’s blend of bhangra and hip-hop later tonight, but that’s what they’re here to do.
Although many of the guests at Bhangra Night are wearing bright colours, Indian-inspired dresses and crisp sherwanis, few of them are of Indian origin. For the most part, they are young professionals with no connection to India beyond the plates of kebabs and samosas they are eating tonight. The Indian-American population is growing fast and becoming more confident, bringing with it a certain amount of awareness about all things India. Still, for most Americans, knowledge of India is limited to the Taj Mahal, the film Slumdog Millionaire, and, of course, Bollywood and bhangra. The credit for the latter two, many say, goes to DJ Rekha, who was born Rekha Malhotra, but likes to say that her “first name is DJ, second name is Rekha.”
When DJ Rekha first played bhangra in a New York club in 1997, it was unheard of in mainstream American culture, which makes her a sort of folk hero—both to South Asian immigrants and to music lovers. Thirteen years later, she still presides over the monthly Basement Bhangra parties at SOB’s in New York, but now she also travels all over the country to spin her tunes at parties, clubs and performance spaces. Her 2007 debut album, DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra, featured original music by Panjabi MC(Rajinder Singh rai), Bikram Singh, and hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean. “DJ Rekha has been a huge force for not only bhangra, but generally for Indian music in America,” says MC Yogi-G, who co-hosts the music radio programme GenerAsian Radio and started playing Bollywood and bhangra to crowds in Houston, Texas, in the mid-1990s. “And Indian music has been really exciting in the last ten years. It has opened up a whole new genre by mixing so many different styles.”