By Sumati Thusoo and Shivangi Deshwal
This article draws from present-day Punjabi music to understand the overarching and recurring theme of Jat masculinity. The article begins with the non-film Punjabi music industry and the reasons for its meteoric rise in recent years. The glorification of misogyny, caste-based violence, use of arms and ammunition, which are a mainstay in popular Punjabi music today, is framed as a manifestation of a caste-based identity. The article charts the emergence of Chamar pop and the role of caste in Punjab, especially cultural assertion and its roots in the state’s Dalit politics, particularly the Ad-dharmi movement.
The Dalit resistance art and music movement which began years ago, and the sudden rise of Dalit singers like Ginni Mahi and Roop Lal Dhir have taken the modern Ambedkarite assertion of equal rights one step forward is considered the beginning of the reconfiguration of Punjab’s sociopolitical milieu. While the Jat singers and their music get hailed, the Dalit singers are physically attacked, hounded, and threatened to speak out against caste oppression, suggesting that caste realities in Punjab are reflected in artistic expressions.
On 30 June 2020, Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala, after being granted interim bail under the Arms Act, 1959, released a song named “Sanju.” The case was registered against him after his videos went viral in which he was seen firing an AK-47 rifle, assisted by six police officials, who were later suspended following the incident. In his song Sanju, which was trending at the second spot on YouTube soon after its release, Moosewala compared himself to actor Sanjay Dutt, who was convicted under the Arms Act in 2005, in connection to the 1993 Mumbai blasts. Dutt’s father, a political figure, played a pivotal role in facilitating relief work for victims of the Mumbai riots and their families. When Dutt was arrested, he said in his confession statement to Mumbai police, as his father was labelled as pro-Muslim, his family started receiving threats of killing and assaulting his sisters which prompted him to obtain arms. So while Dutt’s possession of AK-47/AK-56 rifles was justified in his confession, Moosewala seems to lack the mitigating circumstances to explain such possession attributed it to his shaunk (hobby). This song’s release resulted in a subsequent first information report (FIR) for promoting violence and gun culture, as the songs’ visuals were ridiculing, mocking, and undermining law and order in Punjab.
This is not the first time that Moosewala has eulogised a controversial figure in his songs. In the past, he has used El Chapo and Saddam Hussain’s names in his lyrics; the former ran the world’s largest crime syndicate, killing thousands of people over the last 20 years and the latter was one of the most brutal tyrants in recent times. Another singer Amrit Maan who collaborated with Moosewala for Bambiha Bole had also sung a song named “Guerrilla War,” in which he refers to himself as desi Pablo Escobar—the most notorious narco-terrorist in recorded history. In light of many sociopolitical and socio-economic issues in Punjab, the drug menace being one of the most glaring ones, such glorification of drugs and violence seems counterproductive.
Most contemporary Punjabi songs have a Jat protagonist who is a landowning, revenge-seeking, hyper-masculine, and proudly violent figure. This is continuously reflected in songs like “Jat Da Muqabala,” where the lyrics are “khule jigre te khuliyan zameena aale aan, tehde te crime’an aale scene’an aale aan” (Jats are people with big hearts and even bigger lands, and they are the ones who are often associated with crime scenes). Karan Aujla, who enjoys a similar fandom as Moosewala, also sings violence-laced songs such as Chitta Kurta. In this song, the protagonist’s partner complains, saying “chitta kurta labedeya tu khoon naal ve,” which means that you have spoiled your new white kurta with blood all over it. In Aujla’s other songs, such as Don’t Look where he can be seen promoting criminality in an orange prison jumpsuit, he sings “sadda ki aa pata kadon jail ho jave, weekend utte banda maar ho gaya” (that I could end up in jail anytime because I might end up killing a man over the weekend), and Alcohol 2 where the singer and his friend are getting an intravenous infusion of Jameson Irish Whiskey, are a testimony of the dangerous trend that Punjabi Jat-centric music is headed towards. While Moosewala and Aujla are not the only Punjabi singers to have glorified guns, violence, and alcohol in their songs, the kind of fandom they enjoy can be credited to the popularity of genres like Punjabi Hip Hop and Gangsta rap.
Punjabi Music – India’s Biggest Non-film Music Industry
Punjabi music is one of the most popular genres of music, the success of which can be partly attributed to the 130 million native Punjabi speakers around the world. This industry grew from classical folk Punjabi songs to Punjabi artists in other countries merging the folk sounds of tumbi and dhol with genres like hip hop/gangsta rap and disco. In addition to that, the industry comprises music labels that are open to investing in new artists, giving them an edge to spend more on making catchy videos for their upbeat songs. The industry’s non-dependency on the movie business has empowered artists to have absolute creative freedom (Arora 2020).
This significant rise of Punjabi music can be attributed to a myriad of factors, one of which is the long-standing tradition of music and live performances. It is through music that poets have narrated love ballads like Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal, Mirza-Sahiba, and Sassi-Punhoon. The state also has a rich history of musical instruments such as tumbi, algoze, dhadd, and chimta. There are folk songs for every occasion. People sang suhag to express the bittersweet feelings associated with a wedding, tappe to celebrate Lohri and Baisakhi, and boliyan to sing while doing gidda, a Punjabi dance form (Bhatt 2018).
Bollywood has also played a major role in populating the culture of Punjabi songs. Hindi films have been instrumental in popularising the Punjabi influence in their dance and song routine. This is largely because the two big production houses, Yash Raj Films, and Dharma Productions, were both run by Punjabi families—the Chopras and the Johars. It made the mainstream audience in the rest of India dance to Punjabi songs (Bhatt 2018).
Another reason for such a substantial growth of the Punjabi industry is the active participation of the Punjabi diaspora, both as producers and consumers of music. Many Punjabi artists have excelled in the indie genre and created an international fan base for this industry. Some of the most popular examples of such artists are Panjabi MC, a British rapper, producer, and DJ of Punjabi music who made his mark with the popular song Mundian Toh Bach Ke in 1997; Malkit Singh, a British bhangra singer, known for many popular songs such as Gur Nal Ishq Mitha, Tootak Tootak Tootiyan, and Jind Mahi, all of which have been recreated in recent times by newer Punjabi singers (Arora 2020).
Social Identity Theory and the Formation of Caste Identity and Masculinities
Tajfel and Turner (1979) have defined social identity as the knowledge that the individual belongs to a particular group (or to specific groups). Apart from personal identity, which is based on one’s self-knowledge of “me” as a unique individual, social identity is characterised by the membership-based knowledge of one’s membership group, which in this case is the Jat caste group. It is pertinent to discuss Jatt masculinity against the backdrop of the caste conundrum in Punjab and use the social identity framework to understand the role of the dominant Jatt caste and how it influences interpersonal dynamics within and outside this caste group. The Social Identity Theory (SIT) is also used to discuss the intergroup nature of masculinity performances. Along with the historical context of Punjab, it is the amalgamation of both caste and masculinity performances that can then be seen and heard in the audiovisual mediums of entertainment in Punjab.
The institution of caste has been perceived as absent from Punjab due to the state’s association with an alternative religion—Sikhism. This religion envisioned an egalitarian society and was founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the 15th century. Sikhism emerged as a critique of the Brahminical Hindu tradition of caste hierarchy, the concept of purity-pollution, superstition, ritualism, and other orthodoxies, emphasising worldly aspects and the household, contrary to the other-worldly orientation of Hinduism. Also, Sikhism introduced a tradition of Gurudom that lasted until the 10th Guru, Guru Govind Singh, in 1708. The egalitarian vision of Sikhism attracted those at the margins of the Hindu social order. This trend of conversions of people at the margins of the society was a phenomenon similar to those followed by the proselytising wings of almost all mainstream religious traditions, including the Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha, Christian missionaries, Islamic organisations, etc (Singh 2017).
Despite the caste history of the region unfolding over more than five centuries, the Jatt Sikhs remain the dominant caste and have monopolised both religious and temporal matters in the state. The dominant caste status of Jatt Sikhs results from their numerical strength (one-third of the state’s total population) and ownership of land (more than 80% of the available agricultural land is owned by them). The Dalits in the state, on the contrary, are not only marginalised in terms of their share in land ownership, but a large proportion of them work as landless agricultural labourers on the lands of the Jatt Sikhs. The unequal treatment of Dalits and their lack of representation can also be seen in most Sikh organisations, including gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship), Sikh deras, and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)—the central governing body of Sikhs (Singh 2017).
The contemporary discourse on caste should go beyond viewing caste as a ‘traditional remnant’ and position it as a permeating factor that continues to shape social interactions. While caste originates from ancient religious texts, its features in shaping social interactions have changed over time and require analysis. The invisibilisation of the lower castes by the upper castes and identifying it as a ‘cultural’ difference over a social one ignores their negative impact on everyday life (Gorringe et al 2017). The distinct feature of Punjab’s caste structure is that it is not as rigid as other states (Judge and Bal 2008). However, to understand the role of caste in Punjab, especially the cultural assertion, we must take a closer look at its roots in the state’s Dalit politics, particularly the Ad-dharmi movement started by Mangu Ram Mugowalia. The Chamars of Doaba, a subcategory among the Scheduled Castes (SC), gained significantly from the British cantonment’s arrival in Jalandhar. This led to an increased demand for leather goods, and the Chamars, who worked with raw animal skins, made good use of the opportunity, with some of them migrating to the West (Jodhka 2004).
Jodhka (2004) states that it is crucial to analyse Chamar Pop—a subgenre of Punjabi music— in the context of caste as subject to local historical specificities and material conditions. The Chamars of Doaba were highly urbanised, upwardly mobile, and already had a sense of a specific identity, even within the SC community. They were also able to lay claims on commercial resources in their villages and were supported by a large Chamar diaspora in the West. This kind of solidarity and support gave them the confidence to assert themselves. This is why Chamar Pop is not a subversion, but a statement of arrival, and somewhat exclusionary in that, as it has a specific appeal only for the Chamars and not others in the SC community.
While the story of Dalit resistance art and music resistance began years ago, the rise of Dalit singers like Ginni Mahi and Roop Lal Dhir has taken the modern Ambedkarite assertion of equal rights one step forward. As opposed to Jat-centric songs, Dhir’s biggest hit Hummer shows a young man coming to college in a Hummer but is a serious student, and a follower of B R Ambedkar, with no interest in the affections of women, including the one smitten by him in the video. The lyrics of the song, “jadon da liya une Chandigarh dakhla, rakhda bana ke hun saade kolon faasla, Hummer gadi vich aunda ni putt Chamaran da, hun nahin ankh milaanda putt Chamaran da,” translates into a girl singing about a Chamar boy who comes to college in a Hummer (the car signifies that he is from an upwardly mobile class) but refuses to look into her eyes. This Chamar protagonist is devoted to his studies and is shown to be studying for the entire duration of the song, as he aspires to become a deputy commissioner. Such representations are embedded in Ambedkarite belief that empowerment for Dalits can only be achieved through education to pursue political action for social reform. Similar to Dhir, Ginni Mahi, a 23-years-old girl, sings about pride in her anti-caste heritage and the revolutionary social power of Ambedkarism. She sings about anti-caste icons of the country such as Sant Ravidas and Ambedkar and the teachings of the gurus of Sikhism. In her songs, she takes a hard stance, physically postures assertion, and her voice swells deeply. These are characteristic of Ginni’s songs as she represents dissent, assertion, and resistance that saturate her history (Kumar and André 2018).
Jats: The Martial Caste
The formation of the Jat identity, just like Chamar/Dalit identity, has also been influenced by various historical events such as the British rule in India, as Prem Chowdhry (2013) discussed in her paper militarised masculinities in colonial south-east Punjab. She states that the British Indian army facilitated their army recruitments under the caveat of martial caste status, land ownership, dominant caste syndrome, and good bodily physique or physical strength that ideologically came to represent dominant masculinity in colonial Punjab. They promoted the concept of ‘loyalists’ to new heights by equating it with izzat—honour, and prestige—a widely accepted and acclaimed distinguishing attribute in the rural society of northern India. The recruitment process was based on the idea that some people were inherently more suitable for military service than others, conforming to the historical theory of Aryan conquest, which led to the formation of the virile Hindu male identity based on valorised heroic deeds.
While the martial status represented the masculine and heroic man, the manly man’s opposite was associated with cowardice and femininity. This theory is credited to Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, the commander-in-chief of the British Forces, until 1900. According to him, it was not a question of efficiency but courage and physique—those from the south of India were dismissed as effeminate, along with the Bengali babus in contrast to the martial race and superior caste groups in the north. Thus, in Punjab’s agrarian milieu, upper-caste groups were commonly known and identified as zamindars—the land-owning classes in particular. The army men possessed guns, owned land, and were the dominant caste fighting to save honour. This created a community of men that displayed power and dominance over others in the village (Chowdhry 2013).
Construction of Caste Identity through Audiovisual Mediums
The construction of the Jats as a martial caste identity through the visual-sound medium can be seen across India. Similar to the portrayal of Jats of Punjabi music, a dominant non-Brahmin caste, Thevars carry the self-image of being the martial community in Tamil cinema. Their dominance in rural areas can be seen manifesting in the cultural sphere as well. The symbiotic relationship between caste politics and cinema and other audiovisual modes naturalises intermediate caste markers and narratives through various elements such as images, screenplay, costumes, dialects, and songs. This leads to constructing a specific normative form against which a deviant ‘other’ is created. Similar to Jats, the description of Thevars as martial classes in colonial and precolonial narratives and their engagement in agriculture has resulted in their self-characterisation as rulers of the land. The twin concepts of honour and valour, which refer to the standing and status of castes entwined with the enforcement of a culture of chastity, have become increasingly significant in both Punjabi and Tamil audiovisual mediums (Damodaran and Gorringe 2017).
The cinematic representations of valour and dominance come at the cost of belittling lower castes who are dependent on the former. The accounts of violence perpetrated against lower caste men by the upper-caste men are carried to a wider audience through the medium of cinema, justify their dominance over ‘lesser’ castes. The axis of caste antagonism between the Thevars and Pallars can also be compared with that between Jats and Chamars as there are glaring similarities. Like the Chamars of Punjab, the Pallars also migrated to other countries to escape their agrarian dependency on higher castes. Pallars and Chamars have become increasingly assertive and rejected markers of dependence or inferiority. The way Pallars have emulated the caste-based celebrations by laying claim to the past is similar to the celebration of Ambedkar in Chamar pop. Such representations in the cultural realm have become politically consequential for these communities (Damodaran and Gorringe 2017).
The formation of Jat-centric Hegemonic Masculinity
The term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ was first used in 1982 by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell wherein she discussed the hierarchies of masculinity in a school setting. Connell’s (1985) concept is an analytical instrument to identify those attitudes and practices among men that perpetuate gender inequality, involving both men’s domination over women and the power of some men over other (often minority groups of) men. Adding to Connell’s earlier conceptualisation, Donaldson (1993) states that hegemonic masculinity is culturally idealised and is both a personal and a collective project that includes a set of values established by men in power that includes and excludes and organises society in gender unequal ways. It combines several features: a hierarchy of masculinities, differential access among men to power (over women and other men), and the interplay between men’s identity, men’s ideals, interactions, power, and patriarchy.
Representation of Jat Masculinity in Punjabi Music
The representations of Jat identity and masculinity go beyond borders and can be seen in Pakistani Punjabi films. Sevea (2014), in his paper, talks about the character of Maula Jat, a rebellious and violent figure in rural-based Punjabi vendetta films in Pakistan. This particular male cultural type’s masculinity is established by demonstrating his superiority over women and other men, especially those from subordinated social groups, including younger men, “unmanly” men, and those from subordinated ethnic and social groups. This trend resonates with the kind of music that is being written and produced in Punjab. In several Punjabi songs, the Jat protagonist is characterised by the ability to protect one’s izzat vested in women’s body and chastity, an overt display of arms and ammunition, exacting revenge, and his resistance to the state’s law and order machinery. Just like Sevea’s Maula, the Jat protagonist sees being apprehended as an opportunity to reassert his masculinity against the state’s law and order machinery. He does not take legal recourse but deals with his enemies himself, as shown in Diljit Dosanjh’s Kharku and Jat Fire Karda. The code of his masculinity is encapsulated by qualities such as the ability to bear and use weapons, outdo one’s enemy in loud oratorical exchanges and, most importantly, take revenge.
While discussing the popular representation of masculinity in Punjabi cinema, Gill (2012) emphasises that the transition of the Jat protagonist from regional to transnational is another contributing factor to such masculinity. The protagonist in the Punjabi films, much like the music videos, often belongs to the landowning Jat caste, whose masculinity is performed by his ability to move between different rural, urban, and transnational spaces. Unlike a Bollywood hero, the Jat protagonist goes through the process of glocalisation — under which a highly localised representation is further accentuated and projected into transnational geographical and cultural spaces. This can also be seen in most of the popular Punjabi songs, wherein the Jat protagonist can be seen wearing a Tehmat/Tamba or a Kurta Pyjama (the traditional dress of Punjab) operating from a village setting accessorised with a tractor in the background in one shot, and then dressed in an oversized hip-hop jersey with multiple gold chains outside India (typically Canada or the United Kingdom) in the subsequent shot. As Jats constitute the largest group in the Punjabi diaspora, the celebration of Jat identity through rural imagery constructed through dance and music is a response to the deterritorialisation of urban and transnational migrations. This imagery reinforces the sense of being Jat through strategies of autophony, laying claims to land and landscapes, and social value attached to land ownership.
The article starts by analysing the gun and glory and the violence-laced songs in popular Punjabi culture that has catapulted many to instant stardom and their role in constructing the present-day Jat masculinity. The inquiry into the formation of Jat identity and, subsequently, Jat masculinity cannot be undertaken without understanding the caste conundrum in Punjab and the role of the emergence of Sikhism to form an egalitarian society. With the end of living gurudom, the promises that this new religion brought of an alternative social arrangement also came to an end, and the monopoly of Jats in the state continued. The position of Jats as the dominant caste was further magnified during the British domination that superimposed ideas of martial class, advent into the army, ownership of land, dominance, and power over other castes on the battlefield and otherwise in the community. Followed by this, the green revolution magnified this idea with a sudden inflow of cash and newfound material wealth. Therefore, the glorification of hegemonic Jat masculinity accessorised by land, arms, and machinery and the propagation of rampant violence that we see in today’s popular Punjabi music is culturally intertwined with the deeper social conditioning that finds its roots in the history of the state. This flamboyance was furthered with the intervention of the Punjabi diaspora in the late 1990s which brought exposure to international studios and soundscapes, thus modernising Punjabi music for the years to come.
The discussion on popular Punjabi music that is primarily Jat-centric is incomplete without discussing Chamar pop. The recent phenomenon of ‘mission singing’ has gained prominence with the rising popularity of a 23-year-old singer Ginni Mahi, hailing from the lower-caste Jatav community in Punjab. This has marked the beginning of the reconfiguration of the sociopolitical milieu of Punjab. The Chamar pop that has emerged as the counter-narrative to the Jat popular music has become an instrument of caste assertion, a movement for respect, songs speaking of Ambedkar’s equality in the Punjab music industry. The proud Chamar identity juxtaposed with the Jat hypermasculine identity highlights caste differences and marginalisation. While the Jat singers and their music get hailed, Dalit singers are physically attacked, hounded, and threatened to speak out against caste oppression. Thus, music as a medium for expressing one’s identity, feelings, and justice also suffers from caste hierarchy and violence.
The authors are grateful to Jashanpreet Singh and Seerat Boparai for sharing their insider knowledge about Punjabi music with us. They are also grateful to Shivani Chunekar for helping them with the review of literature on caste in Punjab.
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Sumati Thusoo is an incoming PhD student at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University. She is currently a Research Author at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala and Founder of NyayaSarathy Foundation.
Shivangi Deshwal is a PhD student/Graduate research assistant at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, University of Maryland, Baltimore, USA.
This article was first published as “Exploring the Formation of Jat Masculinity in Contemporary Punjabi Music,” in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 57, Issue No. 16, 16 April 2022.
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