Once a spontaneous expression of a situation or one's emotions, the Punjabi boliyan are today limited to occasional cultural festivals. Boliyan are couplets that were traditionally sung by Punjabis on festivals, family gatherings and functions, cultural fairs and at the time of reaping of the harvest, passed down to generations as rich culture is.
Explains cultural activist Nirmal Jaura, "The folk dances of the state such as giddha and bhangra, traditionally associated with farmers and their wives, had boliyan as their composition. One can dance on a 'boli'. They have a uniform rhythm, characterised by a rhyme, and are often accompanied to the beat of a dholak, ghadda (earthen pot), chimta or claps. Boliyan are composed on themes of relations, culture and lifestyle.
While women used to publicly express their innermost feelings through boliyan, these were also sung by men while performing the Malwai giddha or bhangra." While this folk art has survived in villages, it is losing its sheen with the urban youth, which has grown up on a diet of pop music. So, when a popular Punjabi television channel recently started a show to hunt a promising young 'boli' singer, people took notice.
The show, Big Boli Star, on Big CBS Spark Punjabi, has already chosen five candidates following a grueling three-month audition across the cities of Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala, Chandigarh and Jammu. According to the channel, over 300 participants from each centre had turned up to showcase their talent at reciting boliyan, judged by noted singers such as Master Saleem, Gurmeet Bawa, Raj Brar, Gulrej Akhtar, Kulvinder Kelly and Kolaveri D Punjabi Boys.
The show is ready to select its finalist on July 29. Singer Pammi Bai, credited for his significant contribution to reviving Punjabi folk, will be one of the two judges for the finale, the other being Sukhi Brar. Pammi, who made his debut in the music industry in 1995 with an album exclusively on boliyan titled, Majhe Malwa Doaba Di Boliyan, applauds the concept of the show for "its good intention to support Punjabi folk." However, he feels that the show would have been better if the recital of boliyan accompanied musical instruments, as is the tradition.
Ludhiana-based Harpreet Kumar, one of the finalists, says the show has given him an opportunity to showcase his talent in front of a huge audience and an esteemed panel of judges.
"Boliyan are now just a part of youth festivals. Such an effort can bring the tradition back to mainstream entertainment," says the 23-year-old, who is pursuing final year of graduation at GGN Khalsa College, Civil Lines. Harpreet is also the president of the music club at his college, sings at melas, family functions and college festivals, and even won the first prize in Kali Singing in college, two years in a row.
While such efforts to promote the folk arts are welcome and may even create a new wave of enthusiasm among the youth, some feel that commercialisation of such folk entertainment has its own limitations. Boliyan express one's innermost feelings, mostly in good humour. To sing them to win a competition kills some of its essence," adds Jaura.