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Chartbustin’ Chamars

Updated on: Jan 16, 2018
BLink_Ginni performing in New Delhi

BLink_Ginni performing in New Delhi

BLink_Roop Lal Dhir

BLink_Roop Lal Dhir

The burden of their hit songs is revolution, a yearning for the medieval Dalit mystic Ravidas’s utopian Begumpura, and the modern Ambedkarite assertion of equal rights

Roop Lal Dhir’s biggest hit is a song called ‘Hummer’, or ‘Putt Chamaran Da’ (Son of Chamar). The video of the song, set to a catchy tune, shows a young man coming to college in a Hummer. However, aside from his gimmicky entry, which gets a mention in the lyrics, the young man is a serious student, and a follower of Bhimrao Ambedkar. He has no interest in the affections of women, including the one smitten by him in the video and lamenting his aloofness: “ Jadon da liya une Chandigarh dakhla/ rakhda bana ke hun saade kolon faasla/ Hummer gadi vich aunda nee putt Chamaran da/ hun nahin ankh milaanda putt Chamaran da ” (Ever since he started studying in Chandigarh/ he keeps aloof from me/ He comes to college in a Hummer car/ but the Chamar boy refuses to look into my eyes).

The reason for this single-minded devotion to studies, with the hero peering into a book almost the entire running time of the video, is that he wants to become a deputy commissioner. In an updated version of the song, Gabru Chamar Munda, also on YouTube, he wants to be either a deputy commissioner or a superintendent of police.

Dhir, who lives in Punjab’s Nawanshahr, is one of the earliest exponents of a genre that has come to be known as Chamar pop. Since the late 1970s, he has been singing songs invoking caste identity and paying homage to Ambedkar as the liberator of Dalits; his first album was released in 1985. “While others sing of love, we sing of the revolution,” he says, seated on a sofa in his spacious, double-storey concrete house, a poster of the album Hummer on the wall behind him. The shelves in his well-appointed living room are filled with plaques of recognition from community organisations all over Punjab, Europe, Canada and the US.

In fact, he even has a song about how the Chamars have taken over Europe.

The son of a woodcutter, he studied at a government polytechnic before landing a job in the railways. He used to be an activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in college. “The party once called for an agitation to demand higher payment for farmers’ produce. I participated and ended up going to jail for three months. When I returned, my father asked me how I could agitate for higher prices for agricultural produce as that would only cost us more, being from the labour class,” he says, explaining his shift to Ambedkarite politics, which has since shaped his worldview and music.

A major influence on Dhir, and others associated with Chamar pop, was the movement started by Kanshi Ram in Punjab to popularise the BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minorities Employees Federation), which was relaunched in 1978. Through his music, Dhir began associating with the Ambedkarite movement in the State to which Kanshi Ram originally belonged. By 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Dhir became completely disillusioned with the communist movement. Around the same time, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the political party Kanshi Ram launched after BAMCEF, started to taste electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh. Dhir is now a committed activist of the BSP. A few years ago, he refused an offer from Rahul Gandhi, who met him in person, to campaign for the Congress in UP.

In a room in Ginni Mahi’s house in Jalandhar, an hour’s drive from Nawanshahr, a picture of Kanshi Ram with her father, Rakesh Mahi, appears slightly obscured by other pictures and a television. The photograph’s placement, away from Ginni’s numerous awards that fill the living room, is deliberate. Although Rakesh remembers his association with Kanshi Ram fondly, he does not support the BSP actively. A former travel agent who quit his job to manage his daughter’s music career, Rakesh likes to steer clear of party politics but maintains his faith in Ambedkar and Guru Ravidas, a medieval mystic saint from the Chamar community.

Despite her meteoric rise as the face of Chamar pop, Ginni is like any other 17-year-old girl from an upwardly mobile family, although the family lives in a colony with dilapidated houses and congested streets occupied mainly by Scheduled Castes (SCs). Her speech is peppered with English words, and she says she enjoys hanging out with her friends from the local college, where she pursues music and dance six days a week. “I like it when people come up to me and say they want to be my friend. I have friends from all communities and we sit together and have lunch, ” she says. The desktop computer in the room displays her Facebook page, where an article about her participation in the recently held India Today Conclave as a young leader is visible. Media attention has been unrelenting and the family has left a wall in the house unplastered because it is a good backdrop for photographs, says Rakesh. “There are interviews almost every day,” he affirms.

At lunch, Ginni wants a puri and her younger brother Prince scoffs at her. “The oil (in which the puri is fried) may affect her voice,” he says. He finally relents after some cajoling, leading to a toothy grin from his sister, who is dressed in an orange-and-cream salwar kameez embellished with golden threads.

In the video of her song ‘Danger Chamar’ — shot and edited by family members, many of whom now work with Ginni, with the music composed by an ‘elder brother’ — Ginni wears a black leather jacket over fitting trousers. “Some people could not recognise me in it. They thought it was an actress,” she chuckles. She adds that the ‘cool look’ was part of the plan. “I worked with the team behind the video to create a look that will appeal to the youth,” she says. The plan worked and the video has close to two lakh hits on YouTube.

But unlike most girls her age, she speaks of the inspirational figures behind her music — Guru Ravidas and Ambedkar — with a rare urgency and eloquence.

She is careful not to say anything provocative or offensive and plays down the caste angle, vouching more for humanism. “Equality amongst human beings has been the message of all the gurus, whether Namdev, Guru Nanak or Kabir. Guru Ravidas wished for a world where there is no pain, no suffering, where everyone is equal and no one is discriminated against. He spoke of Begumpura, a place where there is no sorrow and no one is afraid of anyone else,” she avers.

The saint’s birth anniversary has been celebrated in Bootan Mandi, Jalandhar, since 1937. Both Ginni and Dhir have performed there, the latter for ‘20 years in a row’. Jalandhar is also the seat of Dera Sach Khand, a holy place for the Chamars.

Both Nawanshahr and Jalandhar, the places to which Dhir and Ginni belong respectively, fall under the region called Doaba. While SCs form nearly one-third of Punjab’s population, in Doaba they form 35 per cent of the total population. Non-resident Dalits abound in the region and their remittances from abroad have helped the community acquire a measure of financial security here — Dhir’s son and daughter, for example, are both settled abroad.

However, this has also led to tensions with the upper-castes, like the violence in Talhan in 2002. In 2009, Ramanand Maharaj, a religious guru of the Chamars with allegiance to Dera Sach Khand, was shot dead in Vienna, Austria. This incident, in particular, caused a major rupture in the relations between Chamars and Jat Sikhs, the dominant community in Punjab, contributing to a resurgence of the Chamar pop genre. The music became an important ingredient of the movement called Mission Chamar that followed, funded largely by affluent overseas Chamars.

Ashok Das, who edits the monthly Hindi magazine Dalit Dastak , has covered the Chamar pop phenomenon for a while now. He believes that while the music earlier served as a tool to educate the masses, who were mostly poor and illiterate, its purpose has changed now. “The Chamar youth of today is educated and better-off. For them, it is a means to assert pride in their caste.”

Vishal Sherwal, a 33-year-old computer operator, who also runs a bookstore in Delhi featuring books by Ambedkar and other Dalit writers, had met Ginni during her concert early this month in Karnal, Haryana. He is now trying to organise a concert of hers. “I like the tunes of her songs, but more than that, I like the revolutionary message they contain,” he says. He agrees with Das that the music is now a means to assert pride. “The Chamars are doing it and it is time now for other Dalit castes to do so too,” he adds.

Rajni Thakkarwal, who has been singing Chamar pop for the last seven years, proudly calls herself a ‘missionary’ involved in spreading the message of Mission Chamar. Her father, Jelly Thakkarwal, who writes all her songs, was inspired by Kanshi Ram after meeting him as a young singer performing at a gurudwara. Kanshi Ram had appreciated his music, says Rajni, inspiring her father to continue with it. “He adopted the Ambedkarite philosophy and has been with the BSP for the last 25 years,” she says.

Unlike Ginni, who is open to singing other kinds of songs and dreams of making it big in Bollywood ultimately, or Dhir, who sang them earlier, Rajni sings only songs that have a message by Ambedkar or Guru Ravidas. “Not even five per cent of the Constitution written by Babasaheb has been implemented. If it were to be done, Begumpura would be naturally established. In Western countries, everyone is equal and is respected by others. The same needs to take place here,” she says.

She has faced threats and assault attempts for singing the songs she does. “I have been attacked three to four times, although I was saved by the boys of our community. My husband and I continue to receive nasty phone calls and people abuse us online,” she says over phone.

Dhir too has faced such threats and had to petition the UPA government for a firearm after it was denied by the local administration. He got it after an intervention by the then minister of state for home affairs, Jitendra Singh. Despite the threats, and lack of response from mainstream music channels, the Chamar pop singers have no intention of giving up yet. Armed with the ideal of Begumpura, and knowledge of Ambedkar’s contribution to nation-building, they keep churning one hit after another, and creating a revolution in the process.

Abhimanyu Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist and Aletta Andre is a Dutch journalist based in New Delhi

Published on October 21, 2016
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