Inside a tiny recording studio, atop a kirana shop in a village in Nawansheher, singer Roop Lal Dhir and his music director are discussing the merits of a Lamborghini over any limousine. It’s a choice that matters — Dhir’s last big hit was about a young man driving a Hummer, and ‘killing it’ with his rustic, Punjabi swag.
The young Chamar boys of Doaba want a feel of the good life, says Dhir. Fast cars, big houses, foreign locales. If in his album,‘Putt Chamaran Da’(Son of the Chamar), the boy driving a Hummer wanted to study and become a “district collector”, this time round, he seems to have finally arrived. “Now, in this song, the boy has a Lamborghini, a Bullet, and even a horse at home. And he’s the talk of the town in Sydney,” Dhir, 55, explains a line from his upcoming single, ‘Keda chak luga time chamar da’(No one can take away the chamar’s destiny).
But it’s not just the boys of Doaba who have arrived. About two hours away from Nawansheher, in Jalandhar, a slim teenager in a heavily embroidered churidar kurta, is gushing abut her “popularity”. Ginni Mahi, 17, clears her throat to regale the guests with her latest hit, ‘Main dhee haan Baba Saheb di, jinhe likhiya si samvidhaan’ (I am the daughter of Ambedkar, who wrote the constitution). She also plays a video of one of her stage performances for us; in the clip, frenzied male youths clicking her pictures on their mobile phones, are being pushed away from the stage so that she can perform. In the clip, Ginni is unfazed, and continues her performance with the same energy. “They were even offering me money for an autograph!,” she giggles, even as her father goads her to talk more about “Baba saheb”. “I have heard about Baba Saheb from my parents; he spoke for equality and empowerment of women,” she says.
Pride and Prejudice
Across Punjab’s Doaba region, comprising of the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawansheher and Kapurthala, where Census numbers point to the highest SC population in the country – Punjab has 32 per cent SCs, and most of them are concentrated in the region of Doaba – a sub genre of Punjabi music, locally referred to as “chamar pop” is changing the narrative of caste-based identity politics in the region.
In the world of “chamar pop”, caste consciousness and pride is expressed in its aspirational and assertive lyrics, foot-tapping beats, and the iconography of B R Ambedkar and Guru Ravidas, a 19th century Chamar saint.
“It’s always been about them.... The Jats. Their songs, their music, their histories. Look at Josh TV [a popular Punjabi music channel]. Full of their stuff. But we also have cars, big houses, a history, a Guru. So we make songs about it,” says Dhir, who says he started making “chamar pop” back in the 80s.
In their songs that have gained ground in the last six years, Chamar youths are all that they have always wanted to be – ‘risky’, ‘danger’, ‘lion-like’, and of course, rich. In their videos, they have flexed every muscle in their bodies – in Ginni’s videos, there are male model to do so -- driven around in the latest SUVs, danced next to mountains and rivers, and saved the damsels in distress too. “We are no less than anyone, that’s the message of my songs. I tell them, if being a girl, I can make it, so can you. Guru Ravidas dreamt of a casteless society where there’s no sorrow, and that’s what I am trying to project through my music” says Ginni, who unlike her seniors in this genre of pop, is something of a breakout star, with her bold voice, confident persona, and slick videos on Youtube.
This story of the cultural assertion of the chamars, however, is rooted in the state’s Dalit politics, particularly the Ad-dharmi movement started by Mangu Ram Mugowalia in the 1920s. Mugowalia belonged to the Chamar caste, and was a member of the Ghadar party in the US, from where he came back to Punjab to initiate a movement against the caste system. In 1931, the Ad-dharmi movement got some success when they were recognised as a separate caste distinct from the Hindus, in the Census that was initiated by the British, says JNU sociologist Surinder Singh Jodhka.
However, the move was opposed by Gandhi, who wanted them to be clubbed under Hindus, and in 1935, in the famous Poona pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, he succeeded in doing so. The Ad-dharmis were compelled to accept this — if they didn’t, they would have to forego the benefits of reservation, says Jodhka. By now, however, they had developed a separate religious and social identity as followers of Ravidas.
In his work on the subject, Jodhka also underlines that Chamars of Doaba — sub-category among the SCs, not including the Valmikis or the Mazhabis – also gained significantly from the arrival of the British cantonment in Jalandhar, raising the demand for leather goods, and the Chamars, who worked with raw animal skins, made good of the opportunity. Members of the caste also migrated to the West, where too, the enterprising community managed to do well for themselves.
Which is why Jodhka says that the music of the Chamars has to be seen in the context of caste as subject to local historical specificities and material conditions.“The Chamars of Doaba are highly urbanised, upwardly mobile, and already had a sense of a specific identity, even within the SC community. They have also been able to lay claims on commercial resources in the village, and are supported by a large Chamar diaspora in the West, which has given them a confidence to assert themselves. In that context, their music is not subversion, but a statement of arrival, and somewhat exclusionary in that it has a specific appeal only for the Chamars and not others in the SC community,” says Jodhka.
Making it big
In the mid-90s, the cultural assertion of the Chamars had already begun, and slogans such as “Chamar power” could be seen on scooters in Jalandhar, Amritsar-based sociologist Paramjit Singh Judge notes in an essay on the subject in Economic and Political Weekly. But it wasn’t until 2009, after the attack on Ravidassia holy men by Sikh boys in Vienna , that “Chamar pop” became really big. Local artistes recall JH Tajpuri’s big hit,‘Bibe Putt Chamaran De’ (The good sons of the chamars) that spawned a trend of sorts of similar songs.
Several enterprising artistes jumped into the fray — at least one Jat singer has also started singing these songs — with ‘Hummer gaddi wich aounda putt chamaran da’, ‘Munde Chamaran De’ (Boys of the Chamars), ‘Balle Balle Chamaran Di’; some of these videos were even shot in fancy locations. “If every other song is about the Jats, why should our boys not have their music to dance to in weddings, in social gatherings and feel proud?,” says Raj Dadral, 44, a pop artiste from Nawansheher district, who has written and sung over 200 such songs. Dadral says these songs have given him a sense of “identity”.
Ginni says she too had started with devotional numbers but after ‘Danger’ came out last year, she hit it big. In Danger 2, which is the sequel to Danger 1, Ginni is seen in a black leather jacket, with a scowl on her face. “I want to convey that you shouldn’t mess with the Chamars. I have heard stories about untouchability from my grandparents, from my parents. It’s hard for me to relate to them, but I try to understand it for my work,” she says, as the ‘Danger ’ video plays on her desktop. “I had to really work hard on my look and expressions,” she laughs. Each of Ginni’s videos cost a couple of lakhs, and although Ginni’s father insists that it’s only for the “cause”, other artistes say that they after a song becomes popular, costs are recovered through live performances.
However, Dhir , who has recorded 30 albums till now, recalls that the going has not been easy, even if it seems so now. “Josh TV doesn’t air our songs, nor does Doordarshan. Also, initially, music companies were scared of the word ‘chamar’ and had problems with anti-Gandhi lyrics too,” says Dhir, who quit the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) because he got fed up of the “Jat comrade” versus “Chamar Comrade” culture.
Both Dhir and Dadral also say that their songs — and their popularity — have also brought with some backlash, in the form of abusive phone calls and sometimes, even threats.
Outside of the world of chamar pop though, caste identities are diffuse. Dhir’s wife is the village sarpanch – she won with both Jat and chamar votes – and Dadral is a member of the panchayat, whose sons claim that they are “best friends” with the Jat boys. Ginni insists her generation is beyond “caste politics”. The aggression of the chamar music, in opposition to that of the Jats, is then, somewhat of a paradox in the villages, where the chamars, no longer dependent on the land-owning Jats, and are able to assert themselves.
Both Dhir and Dadral say they identify with the electoral politics of the BSP in the region – ‘how can we forget Kanshi Ram, who changed it all for us’? – even as an aspirational Ginni is already nursing her ‘mainstream’ dreams. “I don’t believe in caste. But these songs have given me a new direction, a new career. Now, I want to be a versatile singer, and maybe, even sing in Bollywood,” she says.