Singer Rabbi Shergill reflects on Punjabi music — the hits, the flops, what it represents, what it could & should
Punjab has been a difficult place for me. I don’t live in it but feel it lives in me. Sometimes like a warm memory, at others a dreadful one. Despite being born and bred in Delhi, living smack in the middle of the nation’s capital, in my mind for the longest time I lived on the fringes of Punjab, in some forlorn outpost. Despite living 8 km away from Ghalib’s haveli, I idolised Shiv Batalvi and Bulle Shah. I mourned the wilting of the Punjabi Delhi under the UP-Bihar onslaught. I consciously spoke Punjabi with my friends, secretly condescended to the Punjabis who had forgotten ‘real’ Punjabi values, almost never pausing to ponder over my debt to the city that hosted us. Such was the seduction and glamour of ‘Punjabi’ culture. Which mostly was just a code for Jat culture. Punjabis may have been refugees here once, but were now its lords. There was no sign of their once-miserable existence here anymore. The slums that once housed us at Kingsway Camp or Old Rajinder Nagar had given way to stacks of builder floors spilling onto roads and endless squiggles of car-lines. People living in the new shanty-hells weren’t ‘us’.
Is it the right time to be critical? My counter-question would be: How many more religion-invoking, caste-hyping, war-mongering pop songs can we afford in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, nationwide, delicate mass movement where a trigger-happy State is begging the cosmos for a mistake?
And even within this rabble of privilege, there were private perceptions of hierarchy. “Sandhu-Sidhu ikk baraabar, Gill zaraa ucheraa” — my grandmother took great relish in delivering the punchline to a folk tale that proclaimed our clan superior to its two nearest rivals for pre-eminence.
Self-congratulation infused our language, public posture, verily all outward communication. Self-critique was a private shame only to be indulged in away from public view. Despite living in a tapestry of castes, languages and communities, our referencing was almost always to the self. A very limited self.
Later, same patterns of behaviour glared me in the face at the societal level as well. We were incapable of taking a backward step. Realpolitik was cowardice. Only wilful annihilation honourable. And then there was the history. Entire realms staked for moral gains two generations later; promptly squandered in a single generation; holocausts, internecine warfare, bickering, monumental gallantry, unfathomable pettiness, 18 raids of Delhi but no plan to actually rule it. If there was a plan, it wasn’t always clear to me. But maybe I was looking through the wrong glasses. Maybe the objective was never to create an external raj, but a kingdom of God within, like Jesus said.
But through it all, there was the poetry. And music. A current of denunciation runs through almost all classical Punjabi poetry, from Baba Farid to Bulle Shah. So much so that it doesn’t seem like a separate category at all; just a ready-at-hand idiom.
But along with sky-high aesthetics, social insights, one of its biggest achievements was the examination of self. It went a long way in pushing it deep into our collective consciousness and congeal into the bedrock of suggestions that formed our historical character.
It’s the lack of those attributes that grate the most in today’s protest music. It may be hewn from the familiar rock of Guru Nanak and Sultan Bahu, yet feels weird to touch. It’s strange to note that non-Jat Punjabi music rarely, if ever, references any limited clan-self and through that becomes a tool for inclusion and maybe even social cohesion, whereas the reference to Jats in music, especially contemporary music, is almost always a call for othering.
Jats are no more the subaltern and therefore the self-hyping that once shored them up psychologically in an ancient paradigm, transforms into overreach in the modern one. Why do we still do it? Because it feels good. But not everything that feels good is indeed good for us. Or others. Clichés serve a purpose after all.
A focused sampling of today’s protest music hits reveals an assembly-line template: mid-tempo guitar/piano/synth riffs, set to hip-hop beats with the occasional dhol/dholaki and algoza/tumbi accompanying almost the same melody. But actually, it’s the sameness in lyrical content that’s mind-numbing. The call to violence, love for owning land masked as love for land, simplistic invocations of Sikh history, Jat identity… If Bulla is an ocean, today’s protest music can sometimes feel like a puddle.
But it is of its own choosing. It’s not as if the singers don’t feel the text or the voices lack pathos, or even that lyrics don’t aspire to poetry. It ticks all of those boxes; it’s in othering tracts of its own ontological being and an intellectual laziness that the ‘problem’ lies.
Punjab is not its arable land, Punjabiyat is not its Jat subculture, Punjabi history is not just the last 350 years. It’s more than that. It’s in recognising, respecting and reflecting the vast body of Punjabi thought, that perhaps Punjabi music — protest and otherwise — can do justice to its legacy. Where’s the critical eye for own role in the ongoing denouement? That 1 kg of Basmati rice sucks up 5,500 litres of water has been known for decades, but where’s the anthem to bell that cat? Criticism is dangerous business, but it is the essence of art. Without that, our noble musical intentions run the danger of becoming slogan-flakes.
But the flip side is, it is tremendously popular, notching up millions of views in double time, galvanising youngsters, ensuring a constant stream of youth into a movement run by septuagenarians. My worry is regarding the chasm between expectations of the leadership and that of its pop-loving cadres. Also, music is the terms of agreement between co-citizens, it has a moral obligation to be inclusive. There are exceptions to this, sure, but nowhere in the significant enough numbers to lend it redemption.
But its edifying effects on Punjab and India cannot be denied. Punjabi musicians have come out and taken a stance. Contrast it with the deafening silence elsewhere in India and it’s clear that its heart is in the right place, it’s just got to expand that and let those it has unknowingly excluded — in. Every movement needs its songs; I suspect they may play a crucial, even decisive, role in its ultimate fate. It is an enormous responsibility. I urge my artist-friends to approach the studio like the sanctum sanctorum of our shared democracy’s high temple. Punjab is at its shining best when it is at the vanguard, fighting for more than itself.
Is it the right time to be critical? To this, my counter-question would be: how many more religion-invoking, caste-hyping, war-mongering pop songs can we afford in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, nationwide, delicate mass movement where a trigger-happy State is begging the cosmos for a mistake?