In this age of identity crisis and self-projection, the means to address problems have changed altogether. One can stoop to any extent. The logic can be derived from English writer GK Chesterton's saying: "The vulgar man is always the most distinguished…"
We have a number of quality Punjabi singers, but very few are seriously trying to be 'distinguished'. Folk singer Amar Singh Chamkeela once became (in)famous for his vulgar songs. Sample this: "Teri maa di talaashi laini, bapu saada gumm ho gaya (I want to frisk your mother as my father is missing)." Consequently, the singer was killed by extremists.
Today, we have many singers who quote Chamkeela's couplets in their songs. Obviously, elimination is no solution. The resistance by extremists, in fact, might have proved counter-productive. But now, sensitive women of Punjab have raised their voice against vulgar songs and even named the 'erring' singers.
This has generated a meaningful debate.
Collective appreciation or gratification of art is essentially a social act in which obscenity, sexual attraction, romance and love can also be meaningful. While vulgarity is an acquired phenomenon, the others are natural.
Three years ago, a Lahore court banned vulgar songs sung by the talented Naseebo Lal. It was presumed that Pakistan is a backward/conventional society that dubbed the songs as 'indecent', 'immoral' and 'against the values of Muslim society'. Earlier, some dancers were also banned. But listening or viewing those songs is a disgusting experience.
Vulgarity in the arts is an indirect testimony to artlessness. At the same time, it's extremely difficult to define vulgarity. Sophistication or refinement is a relative term. There is no absolute unrefined behaviour, words, actions or gestures. Kissing in public has different connotations in different cultures.
An argument goes that vulgarity gives pleasure. But don't forget that it's equally painful for others. One may argue that if great medieval Punjabi poets took the liberty of describing a woman's body, why can't singers speak of a girl's vital statistics today?
Well, nothing is profane in an individual's personal domain. A vulgar text gives joy to an individual without disturbing others. If likeminded adults are collectively viewing an X-rated film, it isn't a problem. They have taken a conscious decision. But the real concern arises when one suddenly confronts 'musical' vulgarity while watching a TV programme, attending a wedding or being present in a public place.
Is it not distressing that we have a censor board for films but no control over songs that are highly abrasive and are being presented loudly in public, be it on TV channels, in buses, bazaars, weddings, etc? The encounter of impressionable minds with this moral pollution is most disturbing. In case of kids, the individual interaction with internet vulgarity is dangerous.
Over the years, the Punjabi music industry has swelled phenomenally through popularity in Bollywood films, involvement of top music directors, solid presence in the wedding industry, and substitution of the traditional Ladies Sangeet with an electronically-produced, 'orchestrated' programme.
An Ernst and Young report says that the Indian music market is expected to grow by 35% over five years. Undoubtedly, Punjabi music will be a substantial part of this. Moreover, the industry is not confined to our country. Western entrepreneurs, composers and singers have started playing a decisive role. Be prepared for more vulgarity.
If decades ago, American songwriter Cole Porter could write, "It was hard for me to say no when she asked me to visit her volcano", how can we stop - in today's global market - the likes of Honey Singh ('Marjaani paundi bhangra…') from dishing out what we consider vulgar?
Where lies the solution? It's not in banning singers or songs. Let there be all kinds of songs, but the debatable ones shouldn't be allowed on any public platform without clearance from a well-defined board of culturally-sensitive and artistically-creative people. Regular meetings of the board are a must. Erring radio/TV producers or DJs must attract punishment.
Now we can sum up vulgar singers by quoting Chesterton's saying in full: "The vulgar man is always the most distinguished, for the very desire to be distinguished is vulgar." I salute the women who have taken the lead to dare such singers. The effort shall certainly be fruitful.
The writer is a noted Punjabi playwright