Ginni Mahi: The new voice of ‘Chamar pop’, Dalit assertion via Punjabi music

  • Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times, Jalandhar
  • Updated: Jul 25, 2016 18:08 IST
Singer Ginni Mahi at her residence in Jalandhar. (Aarish Chhabra/HT Photo)

She is the voice behind ‘Danger Chamar’, and has a story to tell about it. Amid slogans on the street and in Parliament, hers is a viral voice online of assertion by ‘lower’ castes through Punjabi music. ‘Chamar pop’ and ‘Ambedkar folk’ have a new star in 17-year-old Ginni Mahi.

“There was this girl who asked me my caste,” recalls Ginni, now in first year of college, from school. “I am from among the SCs,” Ginni told her. “Which one?” the girl asked. “Chamar,” Ginni replied.

“Oh! I should be careful. Chamars are danger, they say,” the girl laughed, innocently casual in her casteism.

“That’s perhaps where the song ‘Danger Chamar’ comes from,” says Ginni, “She’s to thank for it. She’s still my friend.” ‘Danger Chamar’ in 2015 and a sequel in February this year have nearly 80,000 views on YouTube.

A large part of her fan following also comes from religious songs in reverence to Ravidass and ‘Baba Sahib’ Bhim Rao Ambedkar, which she sings with folk tunes. ‘Fan Baba Sahib Di’ released five months ago had 54,447 views till 8pm on Friday.

Who is she, really?

Ginni was born to Rakesh and Paramjeet Kaur Mahi in Jalandhar, the heartland of Dalit-dominated Doaba region of Punjab, the state with the highest proportion of SCs at 32%. In Doaba, this goes up to 45% in some segments.

She showed her singing chops around the age of 7, when her father took her to a friend who got her some training. She found chances in multi-artist albums soon, and her first solo album, ‘Guraan di Diwani’ came out early last year.

The second album, ‘Gurpurab hai Kanshi Wale Da’, was released in February this year, on the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidass, the 15th century saint who is one of the contributors in Guru Granth Sahib and is revered as a Dalit icon.

She is a favourite for cultural and religious congregations of Dalits, particularly Ravidassia community — the Dalit breakaway religion from Sikhism — since 2011.

There have been Ravidass singers before. What makes her stand out is the near-religious stature in her folk-pop to Ambedkar. “I do not want to say I sing caste songs,” she insists. “What did Baba Sahib preach? Bhed-bhaav nahi hona chaida (That there should be no discrimination). Basic humanism!” But she gets acerbic reactions too online. “For every bad comment, there is a counter from other users,” she says.

Road behind and ahead

Her father credits the surge in Dalit music to community self-empowerment in the “past decade or so”. “Many have gone abroad. And there is more social exposure too,” says Rakesh, whose father plied a rickshaw and who is himself into the business of air-ticketing.

Ginni understands her audience is limited. “I want to become a Bollywood playback singer,” she says. Next up is a song with “spirituality, not specific to any caste” and a “Sufi touch”. “It should be out on YouTube in a couple of months,” she gushes.

“My talent and Ravidass maharaj will ensure that. In reality shows, I will not go as a contestant, but someday as a judge.” (HT Photo)

For now, she is following Ambedkar’s motto of ‘educate, make aware and mobilise’. “I’ll study up to PhD and even beyond.” How does she plan to break into Bollywood? Reality shows? “My talent and Ravidass maharaj will ensure that. In reality shows, I will not go as a contestant, but someday as a judge.”

Will she stop singing ‘Chamar’ songs? “Devotional music is my soul. But I won’t be known just for that.”

Roop Lal Dhir, who belongs to the founding generation of ‘Chamar pop’ from half a decade ago, explains: “When I used to sing the usual ‘Jatt’ fare, in 1995 I used to get Rs 22,000 a show. Now, I get around Rs 15,000.” He says the “Mission of Jai Bhim” is more important. He is an active worker of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and his wife, Nirmal Kaur, is their native village’s sarpanch in Nawanshahr.

Ginni gets about Rs 30,000, says her father. That is hardly equal to what even moderately popular ‘Jatt’ singers get. “But never has Ginni sung from a political stage,” Rakesh says.

Pardeep Sharma, manager with Amar Audio, the production house behind Ginni, says songs with the word ‘Chamar’ have hit a plateau. “There are only 5-6 singers at a time since it began.” Ravidassia devotional music is still the primary genre of ‘Dalit music’.

Will ‘Chamar pop’ ever stand next to ‘Jatt’? Ginni says the idea is not to compete, “We want to be proud of who we are.”

Then why does she not use her real surname ‘Mahi’ in official documents where she’s Gurkanwal ‘Bharti’. The father replies, “‘Bharti’ means ‘Indian’. That’s what we want us all to be. Not of a caste alone.”

For them, it is as much about owning certain words as it is about shedding some.

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