Art & Entertainment

Punjab’s Music: An Enquiry Into The Validation Of Male Gaze

Who is to blame for the sexist Punjabi music scene today, a far cry from defiant women protagonists in golden kissas/love legends?

Punjab’s Music: An Enquiry Into The Validation Of Male Gaze
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Punjabi society for long has been suffering from not only schizophrenia but also self-induced amnesia. We try to erase experiences that create dark shadows and traumas in our lives and make a world where we can pretend that these delusions never unfolded. To hobble along by cauterising memory, expunging histories became a survival tool. Years of a brutalised Punjab have left scars and bruises that bleed through the land.

In this devastated state lives a culture that is robust and joyous, that lends itself to a mythmaking industry that dressed its reality in a way where the ‘copy’ became more real than the ‘original’. A reproduction is usually a blurred image of the real; a simulacrum where fact and fiction get spiced and sweetened by a deadly poison. A liquid reality where the false becomes real, the image, the shadow; to pick and choose, accept or reject, from this whirring carousel.

While growing up in Amritsar, I made frequent visits to the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) to listen to the gurubani (guru’s divine word). At family weddings, ghodiyan sithniyan  and tappe (traditional wedding songs, mostly sung by women) with risqué lyrics, and sexual innuendoes made us sway and clap with giddy abandonment. From the melodious kirtan to Sufi music to jagoo (women during weddings dress like men and imitate them) saw the temporal and the spiritual kneaded together without any contradiction. Travelling minstrels were part of the Punjab landscape, and could be found in the city square, Jallianwala Bagh and company gardens, strolling with their ektara, singing songs of love and longing, loss and departures. Their magical music strikes a soothing note over the hustle and bustle of hawkers and furious commerce.

Popular culture is made to entertain, but somehow it also becomes an ideological construct, representing and reinforcing gender disparity as well as male hegemony. Even when the woman asserted herself, the man as the stalker, not taking no for an answer, was valourised in a manner that exposed the fault lines in a patriarchal society.

The poetry of Bulleh Shah, the kissas (Sufi love stories) of Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal and Sassi-Punnu sung by kavishers (storytellers/singers), dhadhis (a balladeer who sings with a sarangi and an hourglass instrument,  with a metallic disc), naqqals (traditional performers), and the women protagonists were viewed as baaghis (rebels). They were brave, courageous and defied the moribund attitudes rampaging around them. These love legends, over time, were sanitised and sanctified by popular memory. Who wanted to deal with women who had the gumption to defiantly tell the kazi (priest)—who is trying to persuade Heer to give up her love for Ranjha for the sake of the family honour—hun na murha mai Ranjha toh, pavha bhap de bhap de bhap aha jaya (I will not turn my back on Ranjha, even if my father’s father and all ancestors, dead or alive try to persuade me)? The text that challenged the establishment in both the oral and the written tradition of these kissas was replaced by passages that were safe and chaste.

Punjabi storytellers are diminishing like the water levels in the state. But nothing is forgotten. It lies dormant in the fields, in the trees, in the beat of the dhol, waiting for resurgence.

Women were either seen as goddesses or vamps, devoid of complexity. Today their representation does not go beyond them being ‘fancy’, ‘pretty’ ‘sexy’ and ‘objectified’. Equated with an expensive car or a cherished weapon, more eye candy then real, leeching her of individuality and personal agency. The women fabricated for performance become hyper feminine, and gender becomes a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment, where the audience, including the players, participates in this make-believe masquerade. The market-dictated preferences and the intentions were crystal clear. A music video or film with sexist lyrics titillates, indulges the male gaze, and keeps the coffers flowing.

In cinema and theatre, we see them (the female) in various categories, as mothers, lovers, married couples, apsaras and ogresses. The silos are tightly latched and no spillages are in evidence. The suffering mother, the harassed wife, the beauteous beloved, the conniving mother-in-law are stereotyped in ways that they become grotesque and caricaturised. These ‘imagined’ women became ‘real’ and the ‘real’ became surreal. Contradictions and contraries coalesce seamlessly.

However, we need to pause here. Can we just blame men for this ‘image’? There are women singers whose songs, videos and advertisements are no different—alcohol, jeeps, superficial content. Well, are we all in it together? Do we become what is expected of us, or do we have the freedom to titillate because it gives us pleasure? To throw the baby out with the bathwater would be counterproductive and not reveal the entire story. Some brilliant creative directors from Punjab have upped the antenna and set high artistic standards. Outstanding examples are Anup Singh, Gurvinder Singh, Rajeev Kumar, Jatinder Mauhar, Ivan Ayr and Kabir Chowdhary (my son) who remain true to their vision, content and sensibility. Their films are cutting edge with unexpected content and filled with creative surprises. Traversing fresh terrains, without resorting to compromises, made them miss the jackpot commercially, but their work has expanded the vocabulary of cinema and created a new grammar of viewing. The women in their films are real, palpable and not fetishised.

Brazenly sexist and lewd songs will continue to be written, played and consumed. There is a song called Gold Digger by Bohemia and Deep Jandu, where in the video the man is sincere but the woman is avaricious and is pressurising this sweet man to buy her a house and a car! The man comes across as innocent and lovesick, while the woman is villainised. Honey Singh and his misogyny are very much in the public domain, but the cult status that the singers enjoy makes their songs very dangerous, besides adding confusion to what is acceptable or must be cancelled in this #MeToo era.

To reclaim music from the image of the riff-raff, insurgents and provocateurs, and relook at them as the real drivers of change and innovation was evident in the music of Sidhu Moosewala. He was no preacher. Yes, he did valourise guns and tractors along with eulogising motherhood and land. Yet, women and drugs were never promoted or lauded in his songs. But alternative voices are emerging. Today ‘dirty singing’ is an aberration, and singers are becoming alert to this new signal of change. Personally, I love Punjabi music, from folk to Punjabi hip-hop and rap. I have a special place in my heart for Diljit Dosanjh and can listen to Sidhu Moosewala all the time. Rabbi Shergill crept into every Punjabi heart with his debut album, Bullah Ki Jaana. His musical composition does not fit into any prescribed genre. Is it rock, blues, sufi or bani? Also, perhaps we are a society that is forever in search of idols. We live by and in legends. Post Moosewala’s murder, stickers and T-shirts that read ‘Legends Never Die’ flooded the markets. Perhaps, this constant need to look up to characters from popular culture also needs some deliberation.

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My mother-tongue is Punjabi, which I learnt late in life, but now I dream, think and do my theatre work in Punjabi. Punjab has grappled with complex problems that were both economic and social. Punjabi poets, Surjit Patar, Pash, and Shiv Kumar Batalvi, resonate in my mind and heart, as do Waris Shah and Baba Farid.

Punjabi storytellers are diminishing like the water levels in the state. But nothing is forgotten. It lies dormant in the fields, in the trees, in the beat of the dhol, waiting for resurgence. Memories, experiences, images are submerged in the subconsciousness, waiting to splash out and claim that which is subterrain. But does this mean we should stop challenging/ examining our present proximity to a popular Punjabi culture that validates the male eye at the expense of the female form? If there are aspects of our history that constantly question our validity for both genders, surely it’s that cry of the dhol that we must pay attention to.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "An Enquiry Into The Validation of Male Gaze")

(Views expressed are personal)

Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry is a Padma Shri awardee, founder of theatre group The Company and professor emeritus, Panjab university

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