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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

New York's DJ Rekha celebrated as her 20-year South Asian 'Basement Bhangra' dance party

DJ Rekha

From left: Swati Khurana, Gayatri Gopinath, DJ Rekha, Joseph Patel and Greg Tate.

Thursday evening's Basement Bhangra Unplugged event at NYU Global Center marked the end of an era for New York's South Asian community in that while it commemorated the 20th anniversary of DJ Rekha Malhotra's renowned Basement Bhangra monthly dance parties, it also recognized that those parties, which established DJ Rekha as "the Ambassador of Bhangra" (per The New York Times) are coming to an end Aug. 3 with her final Basement Bhangra party at SOB's (featuring Mickey Singh) and one last Central Park Summerstage bash, billed as "Final Mic Drop," with special guests including Apache Indian and Panjabi MC.

The event was presented by the Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) Institute at NYU in condjuntion with the South Asian American Digital Archive, which recorded attendees' personal memories of Basement Bhangra, and the South Asian Women's Creative Collective.

As artist/writer Swati Khurana noted in her opening remarks, Malhotra has been "the anchor for so many of us in this room—but also for the community." Sure enough, Malhotra not only co-founded Basement Bhangra—and launched other club nights like Bollywood Disco and Mutiny Club—she brought her knowledge and promotion of bhangra, the invigorating traditional folk dance music of the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, well beyond New York City.

Malhotra moved bhangra well past its traditional roots, incorporating Bollywood pop and especially contemporary electronic dance music, hip-hop, dub and other world music genres. She released an acclaimed album DJ Rekha presents Basement Bhangra, was sound designer of the Tony-winning Broadway production Bridge and Tunnel, and earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for her work on the play Rafta Rafta. Additionally, she was associate proeducer of the NPR documentary Feet in Two Worlds.

Among Malhotra's numerous citations was her 2009 induction into the New York City People's Hall of Fame. Besides Central Park Summerstage, she curated events for Celebrate Brooklyn, was artist-in-residence at the A/P/A Institute at NYU from 2006-2007, Grand Marshall of the 2015 NYC Dance Parade, and an official DJ for the Women's March on Washington in January.

Malhaotra performed at the White House, and has spun her signature bhangra mix all over the U.S. and internationally. She hosts the weekly podcast Bhangra and Beyond.

Basement Bhangra Unplugged also showcased a reading by South Asian Americcan novelist/poet Bushra Rehman of a story inspired by a hookup at Basement Bhangra, and a personal recollection from San Francisco-based artist Chiraag Bhakta, who works under the moniker *Pardon My Hindi, about how he was deeply influenced by Malhotra's parties, and eventually designed her "visual identiy" through flyers and posters, notably including a Bhangra Against Bush poster employing vintage boxing poster design.

The biggest segment of the program was a panel moderated by Khurana and otherwise comprised of Malhotra, NYU Department of Social and Cultural Analysis associate professor Gayatri Gopinath, VEVO head of content Joseph Patel and journalist Greg Tate. The gist of the discussion was the changes in the South Asian community and culture over the last 20 years, and how DJ Rekha had affected them via her Basement Bhangra dance parties on the first Thursday of every month.

"It's an old school New York dance party with all kinds of people and just a lot of fun," said Malhotra in a clip from Desi Dub, a 1997 documentary co-directed by Khurana, that was screened at the the start of Basement Bhangra Unplugged. And as its name suggested, Basement Bhangra reflected an undergound character for the young community of South Asians who frequented it and the other parties presented by Malhotra in and out of New York.

"There were a lot of ups and downs," said Malhotra. "So much has changed in New York since the '90s."

Citing 20, as "a nice round number," she explained that "it's a lot about understanding when it's okay to stop something" and added, "I've been doing this the first Thursday of every month fo r 20 years. It's run its course."

And now, Malhotra observed, "[South Asian] music is coming from everywhere, and what's great is that now, on any given night in New York City, more than any other city in the world, more South Asian culture is being produced--even more than in South Asia."

Indeed, as Malhotra pointed out, the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards are now taking place in New York, with the first of a weekend full of associated events occurring in Times Square at the same time as Basement Bhangra Unplugged.

"I want to do other things," concluded Malhotra, who has enrolled as a grad student in comparative media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I just want to say thank you," Patel said to Malhotra, to sustained applause from a small fraction of those in and out of New York's substantial South Asian community who have been impacted by DJ Rekha and Basement Bhangra.



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