Punjab strikes a chord

Shriya Mohan | Updated on December 17, 2020

Soul stirrer: In Jawani Zindabad, Grewal (in the photo) and lyricist Cheema sing an ode to the youth of Punjab who have lent their voices to the farmers’ protest   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KANWAR GREWAL

Young singers from farming families are using their mighty pens, trained vocal cords and the power of the social media to make their voices heard as protesting farmers gather outside Delhi

* Kanwar Grewal is among a crop of young Punjabi singers from farmer families to have captured the imagination of the protest, transforming the image of a defamed young Punjab suffering from drug abuse and disillusionment to one where it is filled with purpose and idealism.

* “People our age listen to music more; they read less. We wanted to use music as a medium to distil social messages,” says Cheema, 30, who belongs to a farming family in rural Sangrur.



When Kanwar Grewal stands in front of the mike, he is welcomed with deafening cheers that brim with expectation. At Delhi’s Singhu border, where farmer protests running into their third week have blocked the NH44 for more than 20 km, all the way up until Murthal in Haryana, Grewal is a hero. Dressed in a white kurta-pyjama, with a red zippered jacket and a matching turban, he waits for the cheering and applause to subside.

The 35-year-old Punjabi singer from Bathinda isn’t here to entertain the audiences with a song. Not just yet. He wants them to hear his thoughts. “This isn’t your maama’s son’s shaadi — your uncle’s son’s wedding. This isn’t a party. Let’s keep our focus. Let’s maintain our discipline. We’re here to wage war with the Centre,” he says in Punjabi.

His voice travels through the speakers to the far ends of the protest, from the elderly seated in the front, sipping on chai and munching on gajak (distributed by the gurudwara kitchen volunteers), to the children holding up placards that say ‘Don’t cut the hands that feed you’ and ‘We are farmers, not terrorists’. The voice reaches out to the hundreds of young turbaned men sitting on their tractors, who look up from their phones and newspapers to register what he’s saying.

Only when he feels he’s got their full attention, he gives voice to his song Jawani Zindabad, released last week. It’s an ode to the youth of Punjab who left the comfort of their homes and showed up at the Delhi border in support of farmers protesting against laws that they fear will squeeze their livelihoods.

Ajj jung jado chhedi,

Jehde kehndi si nashedi,

Ajj ohi banda tenu saab saab karda,

Zindabad ni jawani,

Maan tere te saara Punjab karda.

(Now when the battle’s started,

Those who called you addicts salute you

Long live the youth!

All of Punjab is proud of you)

The song was released on YouTube on December 8, and in less than a week has already clocked over 1.8 million views. On stage, when Grewal performs with the song’s lyricist, Harf Cheema, they don’t need the dhol or any backup. Perhaps because there are no barricades between the singers and the audience it is meant for, the voices resonate.

“At Singhu, I feel I’m singing for my people, my Punjab, my desh, my heritage. Elsewhere, I sing because I’m obliged to entertain the audience,” Grewal says. “Yahaan pe gaane ka alag sukoon hai (there is a different sense of solace here),” he tells BLink.

He is among a crop of young Punjabi singers from farmer families to have captured the imagination of the protest, transforming the image of a defamed young Punjab suffering from drug abuse and disillusionment to one where it is filled with purpose and idealism. The Centre’s deadlock with farmer unions protesting over three new laws — Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Farm Services Bill — has given the youth a new voice.

A genre called real

Right here right now: Many of Grewal’s music videos contain footage from the ongoing protests, adding to the urgency of the moment   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KANWAR GREWAL


Grewal, who belongs to a farming family in rural Bathinda, says he was always drawn towards music. He was in primary school when he told his father that he wanted a harmonium and a Hero Ranger cycle, a two-wheeler that nobody in the neighbouring 40 villages possessed. He wanted to ride in style to a bordering village to learn classical music. He was granted both and his musical journey took off.

After an MA in music from Punjabi University, Patiala, he started teaching there, while dabbling in some background music direction. He would sing the songs of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and others.

The script changed when, in December 2010, he was introduced to spiritual preacher and singer Mata Manjeet Kaur at her ashram near Malerkotla in Sangrur, Punjab. It was, he says, as if he’d found his spiritual core. It was there that he embraced the Sufi way of life, a belief that stresses the oneness in all faiths and humanity.

It was only about seven years ago that he began to sing commercially. His initial songs were spiritual; Mastana Jogi, produced five years ago, for instance, speaks of divisiveness and hatred among the people that could only be dispelled by saint Guru Nanak. It has over 7.4 million YouTube views.

“I observed life from close quarters. I had a keen eye on the real life issues whichcould be expressed through my music. I wanted my music to speak volumes,” Grewal says and adds, almost humbly, that he has performed 1,200 shows all over the world in these seven years.

He and his friend Cheema would travel through the villages of Punjab talking to the people. His travels led to the song Akhan Kholor open your eyes, which premièred on YouTube on September 20, a week before the farm laws were passed in Parliament.

Akhan khol Punjab sian tere ghar ch lutere vad gye

(Lions of Punjab, open your eyes, the robbers have entered your house)

The song has nearly 2 million views on YouTube.

Songwriting apart, songs have found their way to Grewal through friends and fans.

Ailan, one of Grewal’s songs that is almost like an anthem to the protesters, was penned by his friend Vari Rai. Grewal says that he merely has to start the chorus and the audience completes it for him.

Tenu Diliye ikath pareshan karuga (Oh Delhi! You are going to be troubled by this gathering!),” he sings and pauses with a smile.

Par faslan de faisle kisaan karuga (But only a farmer will have the final word about his crops),” thousands sing back in chorus.

Two weeks ago, Grewal and Cheema released Pecha and the song has already crossed 5.5 million views on YouTube. We’re in a thought tussle, sparring over what’s written in the Constitution. But if you hit a bullet, we’ll take it, it says. Penned by Cheema, the chorus goes:

Hit song: Grewal (right) and Cheema’s most popular song ‘Pecha’, about the farmer’s tussle with the Centre, has already crossed 5.5 million views on YouTube   -  IMAGE COURTESY: HARF CHEEMA


Khich le jutta, khich tyaari

Pecha pe gya centre naal

(Pull up Jaat people, prepare yourself,

You are now entangled with the Centre)

It is the very first song Grewal and Cheema are asked to perform when they show up in Delhi because it resonates with the pulse of the farmers who have rolled up on their tractors to make their demands heard.

The song was written before the farmers reached Delhi. How could they have predicted the future?

“These are songs that stem from the storm we saw brewing months ago. We knew that so many people would come here that the government would be forced to talk to us sitting across the table,” Grewal replies.

The music videos for these songs are shot in rural Punjab. Grewal and Cheema are seen singing in the fields or at the protesting venues with the farmers. Many of the videos even have recent footage from Singhu and Tikri, adding to the urgency of the moment.

Wave in the making

We the people: Galav Wareich, a folk and pop singer from rural Sangrur, holds up a placard in Punjabi that translates to ‘We are farmers, not terrorists’   -  IMAGE COURTESY: GALAV WAREICH

Grewal and Cheema apart, singers such as Bir Singh and Galav Vareich are also penning and voicing compositions on the farmers’ protest.

“We are from the village and farming is in our blood. That can’t escape us. So all their suffering is ours,” says Bir Singh, 29. The Punjabi singer and lyricist, who was born and raised in rural Tarn Taran and studied in Amritsar, has been trained in folk, kirtan and classical music. Singh, whose recent songs Raah and Paigambar (a Gurupurab special) were sung by Punjabi singer-stars Amrinder Gill and Diljit Dosanjh respectively, has lent his voice to the protest movement.

In his composition Mitti de puttro ve, which was released last month, he sings:

Mitti de puttro ve

Aklan nu taar laga ve

(Sharpen your minds, sons of soil.)”

He strongly believes that Punjab has lost every time it has responded to unfavourable policy decisions with violence. To protest against a law, cast aside force and rely on your sharp mind, his song says.

Singh arrived at Singhu with thousands of farmers on November 26, the first day of the protest. “It’s like a dream, this emotional vibe,” he says, referring to the sense of unity that seems to bind the protestors.

“I want my songs to make the youth so empowered and strong from within that they don’t wait for a messiah to save them. They should be so aware of their rights that whenever they see injustice they learn to stand up in the face of it,” he says.

Singh adds that his focus is not to perform music at the site, but to be on the ground to ensure that nobody tries to discredit the movement by instigating violence. “We will interrogate any individual we spot trying to instigate violence,” he says.

Vareich, a Punjabi folk and pop singer who belongs to a farming family in rural Sangrur, also performs with Grewal and Cheema. “Earlier only old men would be a part of these protests. Today it’s the naujavan (youth) who refused drugs, chose not to go abroad and made it here to strengthen the movement. These songs are to boost their morale,” he says.

Cheema’s next song — which he sings along with Grewal — is set to be released any day now. The song deals with how generations of farmers are coming together to the protest, with fathers, sons and grandsons bridging the generation gap. Finally, it says, the youth understands the struggles of the old.

“People our age listen to music more; they read less. We wanted to use music as a medium to distil social messages,” says Cheema, 30, who belongs to a farming family in rural Sangrur.

But what comes first? Music or the changes they’re seeing and hope for?

“Art transforms society,” he says in English.

After sundown, at Singhu border, many of these songs blare out from tractors fitted with bass speakers and disco lights. “We Punjabis have this habit of turning any gathering into shor sharaba, into a party. It’s my responsibility to remind them to get serious,” Grewal says.

There is an undeniable wave, the musicians agree, reflecting on how their public image has soared in the past month. “Love songs aren’t everything. When we sing for our society, our country, our rights, we’ve seen that people love us back even more. There’s now more value in songs that deal with real issues,” Grewal says.

Published on December 15, 2020

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