Saturday, July 30

Oye, Chak de Phatte!

How is it that a language and a culture that, for long, have been the butt of a national culture of jokes have suddenly attained the status of transnational cool, Sanjay Srivastava probes.

A recent Indian Express article reported that following the phenomenal commercial success of the television talent-hunt show Indian Idol, a Punjabi version called Awaz Punjab Di was in the offing. Over the past 10 years or so, Punjabi language and culture have increasingly become part of a global cultural traffic that includes Bollywood films, rap and dance music, and the "Bhangra beat" phenomenon that attracts fans from across a number of different cultural backgrounds. From Monsoon Wedding to Bride and Prejudice, and from the numerous Mahi vey (and Shava shava) songs of Hindi films to MC Punjabi numbers produced in the United Kingdom, Punjabiyat is in.
Indeed, it has become almost become the dominant mode of representing India to the world, as well as to itself. How is it that a language and a culture that, for long, have been the butt of a national culture of jokes have suddenly attained the status of transnational cool? Part of the answer lies in something that one of the organisers of the Punjabi version of Indian Idol told the reporter covering the event. "Indian Idol and others have been on a wider platform," Savita Jhingan of the TV channel sponsoring the show told the reporter, "We wanted to do something more focused, for preserving the flavour of Punjabi folk." The idea that "Punjabiness" embodies an authentic Indian-ness is an important part of its global popularity.
As is well known, from the 1950s onwards, some of the most significant actors in Hindi cinema were of Punjabi background. So, whether it was the Kapoor clan, Dev Anand, Balraj Sahni, Sunil Dutt, Jeetendra, or Rajesh Khanna, Punjabi men were major contributors to the acting pool. Yet, curiously enough, Punjabi culture and music were very rarely portrayed in a positive manner. More often than not, when Punjabi-ness was represented, it was a comical presence. Think, for example, of the Koi mein jhoot boleya number in the 1956 classic Jagte Raho. Here, a bunch of overweight Sikh gentlemen cavorting around the staircases and passageways of an apartment block provide the "humorous" backdrop.
During the same period that Indian popular culture was skewed towards representing India as, essentially, of the Gangetic plains region (even though the purveyors of this idea in terms of, say, singers, actors, and film directors were frequently Punjabi), another important process was in train. This was the slow but substantial movement of migrants of Punjabi origin to foreign shores, most notably the UK, Canada, and to a lesser extent, the US. So, the pioneers of mass migration in the post-1947 period were the Punjabis who sought better opportunities than what they found in the small towns and villages of Punjab. For most of these women and men, the early experience of being in a foreign land was one of considerable hardship. Being part of a non-white industrial and agricultural labour force brought with it an entire set of problems.
One of the most significant issues faced by the migrants was one of identity. As far as the host country was concerned, the "good" migrant was one who sought to "respect" the host culture by not making too much of his or her own culture. And, to a great extent, the early migrants obeyed this informal rule.
However, it was their children 'the UK born Asians' who sought to dispute this idea: Punjabi culture increasingly became public through a process of cultural assertion that amounted to a reaction to earlier attempts at "assimilation". The current rise of Punjabi transnationalism owes considerably to this.
The Punjabi assertion overseas was quickly recognised by Indian film-makers as an important window of opportunity for their products. Hence, they began to develop themes that simultaneously dealt with issues of identity concerning the older migrants as well as their younger, more assertive, children. Now it wasn't so much that the film-makers were exploring "Punjabiyat" itself. Rather, it was the unavoidable backdrop to the dramas of identity and inter-generational conflict that animated their films. The mustard-sown fields of Punjab were juxtaposed to the streets and suburbs of London, creating, in turn, new spaces for the articulation of Punjabi-ness. It is in these spaces that Punjabi as the transnational Indian cool has been nurtured. Ironically, in many instances, Punjabi music made overseas is now being exported back to India to become part of the local "authentic" Punjabi culture.
Of course, there is no one Punjabi-ness that finds play. Whereas Indian cinema has tended to be somewhat conservative in its depictions (the ??good?? male of Indian origin will invariably marry a "good" Indian woman, and respect his elders), musical production originating among diasporic youth cultures have had greater political edge. For, in the latter instance, they address the politics of ethnicity, family life, multi-culturalism, etc. in ways that are different from the Indian case. So, quite often, one of the contexts of UK-made Punjabi music has to do with coming to terms both with the discrimination faced by the earlier migrants, as well as the heavy hand of parental (and patriarchal) authority experienced by the younger generation of "Asians."
In any discussion of Punjabi culture and its circulation it is impossible not to mention the global popularity of Bhangra. It is quite fascinating how an essentially rural dance form now finds itself at home in the clubs and bars of the UK, Australia, and other Western countries. From being an item of "ethnic" curiosity on BBC television when the British ?ethnics? were asked to display their culture, Bhangra has moved centre-stage as part of Punjabi transnational cool.
Finally, it is worth reflecting upon the popularity of Punjabi-ness in India. No doubt some of it has been fuelled by the growth of regional language television and music channels. However, there is something more to it. During the 1980s, Punjabi-ness came to the fore in the shape of the brave Sikh soldier defending India against "terrorists" and other enemies. And, at the present time, it would appear that mainstream India now considers Punjabi-ness as representative of the new go-getting, consumerist Indian identity, one that can more truly reflect the current phase of economic and cultural liberalisation. In the politics of representation, Gangetic Indian-ness appears to have given way to its perceived antithesis, a quick-witted Punjabi-ness at home in the world. And, oh yes, it helps that some of the music out there is also both innovative and full of foot-tapping rhythms.

(Sanjay Srivastava is a visiting fellow at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)

No comments: