“AA GAYI! AA GAYI! (She’s here!),” exclaim onlookers as Rajni Thakarwal’s car arrives. She is here to perform at the Guru Ravidas Committee premises in Phagwara, Punjab, to mark the 15th century mystic’s birthday. The gurudwara has been decked out for the occasion. Fairy lights greet passersby from a distance. The entrance arch is pasted over with a jaunty sign that reads, “Happy Birthday, Guruji!” Over 600 people have gathered in a makeshift tent for Rajni’s concert. A statue of BR Ambedkar holding a torch is perched next to the stage. Life-sized flex banners of Ambedkar and Sant Ravi Das form the stage’s backdrop. As Rajni walks towards the stage, heads turn.
For four hours, Rajni sings about Sant Ravidas, Ambedkar and ‘chamars’, interspersed with the teachings of her leaders. A group of youngsters is glued to the laptops they have carried to the venue. They are Skyping the performance to their friends and relatives abroad. She takes a break after two hours. The audience remains seated. Tall steel tumblers are passed around the stage and to those seated in the front rows. They contain piping hot milk. The performance resumes. By 2.30 am, when her performance is nearing its end, the audience has halved. But everyone is dancing. Young girls and boys. Middle-aged women and men. Old people. It’s a party.
Rajni, 24, currently rules the Punjabi Dalit music market. Dalits across India have always had a strong tradition of protest through music. Their resistance, pride and anger have been expressed in songs about oppression, about eating beef, about manual labour. But they do things differently in Punjab. Set to fast bhangra beats, these new songs celebrate material success, a sense of having arrived. The music videos portray young Dalits from Punjab, in sunglasses and tight T-shirts, cruising in expensive bikes and cars, living the current, international dream of the good life.
Starting with SJ Tajpuri’s 2009 song Bibe Putt Chamaran De, this kind of brash, confident music has been widely popular, heard at Dalit marriages, religious events, parties of all kinds. “Earlier, there used to be only Jatt songs,” says Satvinder Singh Azaad, 47, a popular singer based in Nawanshahr, near Ludhiana. “We had to dance to them. Now we dance to our songs. There is confidence that we too can own cars, bungalows and live well. Imaan ko uncha karne ki ladai hai, hum kisi se kum nahin hain. Kisi ko neecha dikhana humara maksad nahin hai. (This struggle is about asserting our identity and dignity. We do not intend to disrespect anyone.)”
PUNJAB HAS the highest proportion of Dalits to total population for any state in India: 29 percent, according to the 2001 Census. The setting up of a colonial cantonment in Jalandhar provided employment opportunities to Dalits, particularly those associated with the business of leather. This socio-economic mobility allowed many Dalits to settle in Canada, the US and England. However, the majority continues to be marginalised, both socially and economically. Surinder S Jodhka, chair of the Centre for Studies of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), says, “There is a significant internal difference between the Dalits in Punjab. A majority of them do not own agricultural land; 70-80 percent of them are poor.”
The use of the word ‘chamar’ is an offence under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Yet, much like African-American rappers use the word ‘nigger’, Dalits in Punjab are reclaiming the word through their music. Songs such as Cool Chamar, Fighter Chamar and Proud Sons of Chamar have gained popularity both inside and outside the country. “We use the word ‘chamar’ with pride,” says Roop Lal Dhir, a popular singer from Nawanshahr. “Our mission is to make the bearers of Manuwadi thought understand, that they can’t continue to oppress us.”
The artists producing these songs refer to it as their “mission”. Jelly Thakarwal, Rajni’s father, who also writes her songs, says, “Our mission is to spread the ideology of Dr Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Sant Guru Ravidas, which talks of a life of dignity and equality for all.” Dhir refers to his mission as working towards the establishment of Begumpura, Ravidas’ “regal realm… sorrowless realm… [where Dalits] stroll through fabled places unchallenged”, which the mystic described in a poem of the same name.
But it is not just artists from the Dalit community who are part of the process. Ghulam Ali, a Muslim, lent his voice to the song Chamar Boliyan. “Though people from the SC/ST community hold positions of power they’re still discriminated against,” he says. “The upper castes feel that Dalits are lowly people and deserve to be treated as such.” The response these videos have generated confirm Ghulam Ali’s opinion. Abuse and contemptuous comments on You Tube are perhaps to be expected; it’s not just trolling, though, some have gone through the trouble of making their own videos. Jatt vs Chamar is a typically egregious response. The video shows an animated tomcat addressing the Dalit community. A voiceover explains the need for the cat: “Unke mooh nahin lagna (We don’t want to deal directly with them).”
The makers of Jatt vs Chamar want Dalit musicians to stop producing videos that “celebrate chamars”, adding that if Dalits continue to “dirty or pollute” the world, the Jatts would have to show them their place. The video has received 62,698 views so far. A lot of the responses have been virulently misogynistic. Chamari Di Seal Todi Jatt Ne, another YouTube video, is an obscenity-ridden phone conversation between a married Jatt man and his Dalit ex-girlfriend, whom he harangues for refusing to sleep with him. It has received a dispiriting 2,462,687 views so far.
Jodhka sees more than mere sexism in the targetting of Dalit women. “The responses are using the language of humiliation,” he says. “It is an attempt to attack the masculinity of the men through the women. It’s to humiliate the whole community and not just its women.” The aggressive Jatt responses to these songs have also taken the shape of life-threatening phone calls and having their performances disrupted. Singer Azaad says he’s been threatened a number of times. “How,” ask the callers, “can chamars own cars and bungalows? We will kill you if you continue to sing such songs.” Azaad is undeterred. “People feel threatened by something new, so they fight it. You have to face them. I’ve faced my share of humiliation; finally I’m getting some recognition,” he says.
Rajni too has become increasingly popular, her concerts are a magnet for fans and the occasional upper caste bigot, one of whom a year or so ago even tried to physically disrupt a performance. She began singing, she says, seven years ago. Her father, a devout follower of Kanshi Ram, had written a song about Ambedkar. Rajni sang this song at a local function. Impressed with her performance, her father asked her if she wanted to sing professionally. He had one condition though, that she only sing songs associated with the mission. She agreed. Her room at home is covered with posters of Ravidas and Ambedkar. The one exception is a life-sized poster of her four-year-old nephew Navish. She calls him her “blessing”. Every decision, personal or professional, needs his sanction. If he doesn’t want her to perform on a certain date, she doesn’t. Her car bears a sticker with his name.
According to Rajni, she has not faced discrimination as a woman. Mostly, she concedes, because she is accompanied everywhere by her father and brother. She loves performing. Rani Armaan, 28, who has been singing alongside Roop Lal Dhir for the past eight to 10 years, isn’t so sanguine. When her four-year-old daughter Khushi expresses any enthusiasm for following her mother’s footsteps, Rani is quick to say, “Be an engineer or a doctor; never become a singer or a dancer. Yeh line aisa hi hai, ladkiyon ke liye theek nahin hai. It becomes difficult to find someone willing to marry you and that is only one of the many problems we face.” Although a Dalit, Rani doesn’t belong to the chamar community. Her father polishes shoes for a living. Roop Lal heard her sing at a wedding, and searched for her for two years so that he could recruit her for his group. She has since travelled thrice to England and once to Italy to perform.
Whatever the sacrifices Rani describes, there are significant financial rewards for the most popular singers. Throughout Rajni’s four-hour long concert, with which this piece began, a steady stream of people walked up to the stage and threw 10 notes at her feet. Her brother collects the money and hands it to Jelly, seated next to her on stage. Jelly counts the money and stashes it in a bag. Rajni doesn’t charge a fee for the gig; whatever money she makes is through such donations. The bulk of her earnings comes from tours abroad; like Rani, she has travelled to Europe, performing in Italy, Germany and Austria.
Roop Lal Dhir has performed in Canada and America, and is preparing for a trip to Germany. “Tours abroad are an opportunity to make 2-4 lakh at one go,” he says. “We then use this money to produce a new album. It’s a cycle. There is very little left for ourselves.” He spends close to 5 lakh on producing a music video. A thousand CDs of every album, released for an average price of 20, are hardly enough to recover the costs. Most singers survive on funds they receive from community members who have settled abroad. Many are promoted by King Star Canada, run by Narinder Khera, a Hamilton-based entrepreneur. Rajni, who started with King Star Canada, now has her own production company named, naturally, after her nephew.
‘Apart from CD sales, musicians promote their music through video broadcast on Punjabi music channels. But the bulk of their publicity, especially if they are to reach out to the diaspora, is through social media. “The Internet is great for us,” says Dhir, “because the media doesn’t support our cause.” The singers take pride in finding their own way to success. As Pamma Sunnar sings in his raucous Fighter Chamar: “Hath jodon di bagair hath vich hathyar le/ekta di daag le, taleem di talwaar le/Uth jaag, babar sher ban/Hakh mangiya nai milde. Khulke apne adhikaar le.” (Instead of begging, take up arms, the weapons of unity and education; Wake up. Rights are not given. They are taken.)
Even a cursory glance at the comments on YouTube shows that such songs have managed to inculcate a sense of pride in their listeners. But they fail in other ways. While these songs are attempting to eradicate caste boundaries, they prop up other regressive structures. Their idea of ‘having arrived’ is unimaginative, borrowing from existing tropes. You can hear the same vapid, flashy boasts about consumer goods, about cars, clothes and bling, as in music videos everywhere. Inevitably, young male singers mimic patriarchal patterns. In Cool Chamar, SJ Tajpuri warns those who would misbehave with the sisters and daughters of his community of dire consequences. His video features several men in sunglasses, speeding on their fancy bikes. Women are invisible.
Dalit folk music has been relegated to the margins. Stringed instruments and references to traditional caste occupations are no longer dominant. The majority, still bound to caste occupations with no access to social mobility, is not represented here. But, it would be churlish, in the world as it is, to begrudge these singers, their audiences, their aspirations, their desire for a slice of the pie.