Iqbal Singh Sidhu
Conservative estimates put the total population of Punjabis across the world at 130 million, out of which only 2 million live in the West. Yet the preponderance of songs and films based on or out of the West is surprisingly high. There are about as many famous Punjabi singers based out of North America as out of Chandigarh or Mohali! Punjabi psyche’s obsession with the West — especially Canada and Australia — has grown significantly over the past two decades; as a result, the Punjabi entertainment industry has become increasingly saturated with the ideas and themes pertaining to the Punjabis living, or wanting to live, in the West.
However, most of the work that has been done is superficial or downright farcical. These ‘artistic ventures’ look and sound hollow to the Punjabis living in the West, what with the lives of most of them being deviod of the luxuries of multi-million dollar villas and ostentatiously decked out expensive cars shown in the music videos. The videos feature singers pretending to be atrociously-dressed gangsters driving super cars and brandishing poorly made out replicas of expensive weaponry or some singer playing a truck driver, dressed in the traditional kurta-pajama, singing along as he drives with one hand and juggles a thick wad of purportedly real currency dollar notes in the other. These videos are watched sometimes in astonishment, and sometimes with wry, twisted amusement. It has been widely observed that the idea of preservation of one’s culture becomes stronger in alien surroundings. Therefore, the Punjabis in the West are, in some ways, more predisposed to preserving their culture and language than their cousins in South Asia.
Sunday classes are held at local gurdwaras where children learn Punjabi and their native values. In many households, it is an unwritten rule that the kids should only be talked to in Punjabi so they learn it as their first language. One would expect there will also be an emphasis that children listen to Punjabi music but that is not the case. In fact most parents advise against it, thanks to the modern generation of Punjabi singers! But it becomes impossible to ignore such ignoramuses when they make your towns their base and emanate to the world their brand of crass, violent and crude blabbers disguised as songs with beats that sometimes sound surprisingly similar to older English/Spanish songs — plagiarism perhaps? And yet, that is the least of the worries of the diaspora, since there are more pressing concerns associated with the boom of these singers and the accompanying social scrutiny that it invites from the mainstream. Society’s attitude to such singers is not different in Punjab, but at least there, Punjabis are not a visible minority that feels falsely represented.
Violent and superficial songs
“A new singer studies the market and makes the decision about what to sing based on what is currently trending. The trends come and go, sometimes it can be about vilayat and sometimes it can be plain old machismo,” says Tahira Bhasin, who has been observing the Punjabi entertainment industry for the past five years. She adds: “It’s nigh impossible to get famous by singing just one type of songs, be it romantic, violent or dance songs. The singers, therefore, try and do a bit of everything to balance their boats but they always keep a genre as their specialty; growing number of singers now specialise in the ‘gun and Canada’ genre.”
Industry observers agree that Punjabi music is headed towards more violent and superficial songs. This does not bode well for the diaspora, with many Punjabis bringing up their kids in the West. They want them to stay connected with their roots in India but don’t have much to show in terms of contemporary culture.
“We only want to invite singers who sing family-oriented or at least not-so-violent songs but they just don’t pull the kind of crowds that these gun-toting singers do. It’s a worrying trend and we try and do our best to keep the wannabe gangsters at bay but when we organise a mela, we invite at least a couple of such singers, just so that we can cover the entire market,” says a veteran mela (a cultural fair) organiser from Vancouver.
A lot of well-known Punjabi singers over the past decades have come in the crosshairs of activists, commentators and general public because their ‘art’ was adjudged offensive, obscene or just plain uncultured. “We banned a Punjabi singer from performing at a local mela because he released a music video showing a local adolescent Punjabi boy turning into ‘Scarface’ (the murderous drug dealer in the eponymous film, played by Al Pacino), and we told him he had no business or right using our stage to mouth his vile views,” says the mela organiser. Apparently, this ban did not do much to deter the singer and other like him, for there’s still a market for violence and its celebration. And it should be a cause of concern for not just the Punjabis in Punjab but also those who call the West their home.