Neha Pant, writes on the voices of ‘chamar pop’ as it is called in its home state and how they are taking control of their narrative in popular culture
In 2009, when a Ravidassa Sikh was attacked by Sikh boys in Vienna, the chamar pop movement gained almost mass momentum. This was when the JH Tejpuri song Bibe Putt Chamara De (Good sons of Chamars) became a huge hit. Three years later in 2011, Roop Lal Dhir, released an album called Munde Chamara De (Sons of Dalits). From that album, a song that received cult status was, Putt Chamara De, where he talked about the aspirations of a boy driving a Hummer who wanted to study become a district collector. The album voiced the aspirations of thousands of Dalit boys in Punjab who wanted a taste of the good life. He followed it up with an assertive album called Hummer Charhat Chamara Di (2014) peppered with songs such as Charche Chamara De, that talk about the aspirational boy with the aspirations has finally arrived and who now has a bullet, Lamborghini, is the talk of the town, not only in his hometown but also in Sydney. He even has a horse at home. The two albums see the palpable shift from aspiration to assertion and mimic the state of the Dalits of Punjab today who are sick of the mainstream Jatt narrative that left little space for them to assert or express their identity.
But times, they are surely changing, the reason his songs represent the rapidly evolving landscape of Punjabi popular culture and can be seen as much as political assertions, as entertainment is the fact that 55-year-old Dhir is an active Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) worker and also that he knew he was taking a pay cut when he started singing these narratives, losing almost Rs.7, 000 in the process. He would earlier get Rs. 22,000 for a performance whereas he only gets Rs. 15,000 now. But he is keen to spread his message of empowerment. These figures come no way close to the remuneration that mainstream Punjabi singers get.
Dhir started making these Chamar pop songs in the 80s, but they have gained mass popularity only since 2010. “All of Punjabi pride is only about the Jatts and their lifestyle, even we have many of things that they have and sing about, why should we not talk about them?” says 20-year-old Dilpreet Singh, who even says that he was ridiculed the first time he made his classmates hear some of the popular chamar pop. According to the last census, Punjab has 32 per cent SC’s and they are all seem to be sick of the popular Jatt narrative doing the rounds. “Self-empowerment is something that the chamars have really had to work at themselves. Caste is often celebrated in Punjab and the chamars are often mocked. So the ones that have broken these barriers have had to consciously study hard or go abroad and even then, they are mocked at when they come back,” says 23-year-old Amreek Kaur who is a PhD student in Jalandhar. She also says that caste-based questions are something that get thrown at her every day. “Even the most non-political Punjabi is inherently casteist. Even today, the representation of chamars in the media as well as popular culture is next to nil. Until recently, the chamars were not even openly expressing themselves and now that they are, people mock them for doing so. We are often expected to just be meek and take all the harassment that comes our way,” she says.
44-year-old Raj Dadral is another singer who has written and sung at least 200 odd such songs stating that these songs have given him a sense of identity and purpose. Then there is of-course Bant Singh, unarguably the most visible face of Dalit resistance and is an agricultural activist who sings about oppression against the Jatt landowners.
But the most famous and newest voice of this genre is definitely 17-year-old Ginni Mahi whose song Danger Chamar has been a viral hit. Although Mahi doesn’t identify with caste politics and believes that her generation is above the communal bias, she still chooses to sing about it and believes in the BR Ambedkar motto of “educate, empower, mobilise.” A large part of her following comes from her spiritual songs and songs of Ambedkar, her song, Fan Baba Sahib Di is another number that gained her mass popularity. Mahi who has refused various offers to perform abroad says that they distract her from her studies, she aims to do a PhD and study as far as she can. Last September, while at a concert in New Delhi she told the audience that she wanted her community to grow in prestige so that it is known all over the world.
For now, the sub-genre seems to be working well and even some popular Jatt singers such as Rimpy Grewal have jumped onto the bandwagon, if music is what it takes to change a mind-set, we say play on.