Fighter Chamars in Beghampura

Fighter Chamars in Beghampura

Dalit pop makes a caste-defying statement in Punjab.

Dalit pop makes a caste-defying statement in Punjab.

At the recent launch of his fourth album Hummur 2,Dalit singer Roop Lal Dhir crooned lines from a track in the CD — “Kharka dharka karna kamm Ravidassiyan da,aiven nahin hunde charche Chamaran de (To create loud noises and ruffle feathers is what the followers of Ravidass do; it is not for nothing that Chamars are being talked about)”. He was interrupted by his phone,which began ringing incessantly. Amidst the congratulatory messages was a fair share of hate calls. “How dare a Chamar think he can make a noise and ruffle feathers? We will set you right,” screamed the caller. Dhir disconnected the phone,but as the caller persisted,he let out a stream of abuses. The singer later said rather apologetically,“I didn’t want to say anything,but when these people get so abusive,you have to tell them that even we can abuse.”

Dhir is among a crop of “mission singers” — Dalit singers who produce albums not for entertainment,but for a “mission”,that of reassertion of Dalit identity. They surfaced two years ago,when half a dozen Dalit singers launched audio and video CDs to counter Jatt pop music that rules Punjab. The initial lot included singer/writer SS Azad,Kaler Kanth,Harbhajan Tajpuri and Pamma Sunarh among others. While some like Sunarh launched themselves with mission music,others like Dhir,who was a folk singer crooning about landless labourers,and Azad,who would sing paeans to Chamar saint Guru Ravidass at functions,transformed into mission singers.

“Our music is pro-Dalit,not anti-Jatt. The word ‘Chamar’ finds mention in the Gurbaani. If the gurus have given us respect,why should we not be proud of ourselves?” says Azad,the pioneer of Chamar pop in Punjab. Azad’s debut album was called Anakhi Putt Chamaran De (Proud Sons of Chamars). Released in 2010,it was a direct challenge to the prevailing ‘putt Jattan de’ (sons of Jatts) culture.


Yet,despite its effort to counter Jatt pop,Chamar pop took to aping it,by glorifying carrying weapons,driving big cars and going to Chandigarh to study. Sample Pamma Sunarh’s hit song from his first album The Fighter Chamar (2011): “Hath leke hathiyar,jad nikle Chamar,pher vekheyo pataka kiven pao mitro,aj dekhde pana keda lao mitro (When Chamars walk out with weapons in their hands,watch the fireworks,friends,we’ll see who can cross our path then)”. Some 20,000 copies of the album were sold,despite being available only at small music shops in towns in Jalandhar district. “The whole point is to show that we are equal to them in every way. If they can flaunt biceps,so can we. The Chamar is not the poor,lowly man anymore. He is educated and doing well economically,” says Sunarh.

But Chamar pop is not a mirror image of Jatt pop. For example,unlike several Jatt songs that extol boys going to Chandigarh to check out girls and not study,the Gabru chamar munda video in Hummer 2 shows a young boy studying in Chandigarh while a girl tries to divert his attention. The Chamar boy says,“Padh likh ke main banunga SP ya DC ya phir kisi university da VC (I will study and become a DC or SP or the VC of a university).”

The Chamars’ exertion of identity through pop music has not been spared discrimination. An ugly Jatt vs Chamar battle is raging online. Hate videos by Jatts abusing Chamars flood YouTube. Under direct fire are not just Chamar singers,but also Dalit spiritual leaders. The Dalits have retorted with their own set of abusive videos. Sunarh,though,sees this as a phase that shall pass,and that “a balance between the two kinds of pop will emerge “. “Jatt singers are now open to performing with us. At a small rural show,where a Jatt singer was performing,I was also called on stage to sing,” he says.

Chamar pop,too,has mellowed — from just reacting to Jatt music,it now also seeks to revive the glory of Dalit history in Punjab. Sunarh’s album Aarhab Chamar (Stubborn Chamar),released last year,has songs glorifying historical Chamar figures. “I have sung about Jai Singh Khalkhat,a Chamar who was hanged to death by the Mughals after he refused to renounce Sikhism. It goes,‘Gallan karoonga main sada sach kharian bhanve lag jaan mere hathkarian,bhanve Jai Singh vaang puthi khal den utaar aiselayee saanu aakhde badhe raab Chamar (I will always straight-talk even if I am jailed,and even if I am hanged upside down like Jai Singh,that is why I am called the stubborn Chamar)’,” he says.

Sunarh says Chamar pop has “widened” its cause. “It is no longer just a reaction to Jatt pop. It now also aims to protect the interest of the Dalits and help them not feel inferior,” he says. In their “widening” effort,mission singers now avoid using the word ‘Chamar’,preferring the more generic ‘Ravidassiya’ — followers of Guru Ravidass.

While Jatt pop’s appeal cuts across castes and extends beyond Punjab,Chamar pop attracts only its own community,not just in terms of audience,but also producers. No music company is willing to produce their albums,and no music channel airs their videos. And it’s not because they are Dalits,but because they sing about Dalits. Their branding as mission singers has ensured that they are no longer invited to perform at sabhyacharak melas,rural fairs that give local talent an opportunity to perform,generally at the expense of the singer.

The fact that no music company wants to produce their songs,or so they allege,has led them to start their own firms. “I had to open my own company to launch my CD. But we are not going to give up. We are not doing these songs to earn money,” says Dhir. On the other hand,the internet has made up for the lack of telecasting opportunity,and many Dalit singers now upload their music videos on YouTube. “We are in the market because of the internet,where our songs are a superhit,” says Dhir. Dalits living overseas often fund production of their music,buy their CDs,and invite them to perform abroad. Dhir is currently performing in Greece,and Azad has performed several times abroad. The Dalit singers don’t specify sales figures of their albums,only saying they are sold “in thousands and lakhs”.

The Chamar music explosion is limited to Punjab’s Doaba region,where the Dalit population,at 35 per cent,is the highest in the state. Doaba’s Dalits have,over the past three decades,steadily migrated to the US,the UK,Canada and the Middle East,thus improving their economic status,reflected in wealth markers such as palatial houses and big cars. Within Punjab,too,education and government jobs have helped Dalits improve economically. But financial mobility hasn’t helped them socially,and Dalits are still frowned upon as the “lowest of the castes”. Discrimination and violence against them still persist,and are fodder for their music. The killing of Sant Niranjan Dass and Sant Rama Nand of the Dalit Dera Sachkhand at a gurdwara in Vienna in 2009 is a motif in many Dalit songs. Sunarh’s second album The Fighter Chamar 2: Badla (2012),for example,was a reaction to that incident. A song in Hummer 2 is called Ravidassiayan noon kade nahin bhulna Austria shahr Vienna (Followers of Guru Ravidass will never forget Vienna city in Austria).

If reaction to Jatt music could be called the first phase of Chamar pop and revisiting Dalit heroes the second phase,then the emergence of a new generation of women singers might as well be its third milestone. Women singers such as Miss Pooja and Rajni Thakarwal are releasing songs by the dozen. Miss Pooja uses her music to exhort her community to unite and work towards the creation of “Be-ghampura”,the territory of Dalits. “Ik ho jao Beghampura vasaona hai (Unite to establish Beghampura ),” goes one of her popular songs.

Her “demand” for Beghampura has been met with flak. “Radicals in Punjab and abroad threatened Pooja for singing this number. She doesn’t talk about a territorial entity per se,but the concept of an ideal land,something Guru Ravidass espoused 6,000 years ago. It means a land without gham or sadness,” says Paramjit Singh Kainth,president of the Chamar Mahan Sabha in Punjab. But the Jatts don’t seem to buy the theory. The most watched Jatt vs Chamar video on YouTube is that a of a masked man spewing venom against Miss Pooja.


It seems the women are easier targets. Rajni Thakarwal,a Dalit singer from Hoshiarpur known for her fiery lyrics that talk of “a Chamar’s daughter taking up arms in the battlefield”,survived an attack by a group of Jatt boys who disrupted her performance in Phagwara,a town in Kapurthala district,last year. Armed with kirpans,the attackers threatened her not to sing Chamar songs. But they were stopped by the “Beghampura Tiger Force Punjab”,a group of village boys who gather before every function and arm themselves with knives and swords to protect the singers. “Among the audience were my brothers of this force,as also the Ambedkar Sena and the Guru Ravidass Force Punjab. They made the Jatt boys bow before the photographs of Guru Ravidass and Bhim Rao Ambedkar and apologise,” says Thakarwal. Mohan Lal Bhatoya,president of the Beghampura Tiger Force Punjab,mobilises youths in different villages before a performance and briefs them about their “action plan”. “We are present at every performance of Dalit singers. We will not tolerate any attack on them,and want their message to be spread unhindered,” he says.