January 20, 2020
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Punjabi Passions

Salwar kameez, tandoori, Bolo Ta Ra Ra Ra: the Punjabi-fication of urban India is here

Punjabi Passions

FLOATING down the Mandovi on a "Santa Monica" cruise, Panjim blinks in the twilight and passengers lend an idle ear to the obligatory Surangini. But suddenly as the anthem of Indi-pop, Bolo Ta Ra Ra Ra, strikes up, the cruisers leap to their feet. Hands in the air, they pirouette and the legendary gusto of the Land of Five Rivers bounces off Konkani waters. At a hotel dance in north Goa, a wedding reception is drawing to a close. But as Baba Sehgal begins to pump down from the stage, the gown-clad guests scamper back and skip; bhangra beat at a Catholic wedding, and why not?

Calcutta—once the city of Big Band jazz where in the '70s Louis Banks played to the genteel descendants of the first Brown Sahibs of the Bengal Presidency, where anglicised rock-and rollers be-bopped at Mags and Trinca's—is becoming a little "changa". Daler Mehndi reigns where Pam Craine once crooned.In city discos like Incognito and Someplace Else, it's Punjabi pop, till you drop. Indian Mcmodernity has a new sound: "Balle! Balle!" is the dictum of middle class good living.

Not just music, 'Punjab-ification' of the consuming class exists in dress as well. On the streets of Guwahati, the traditional mekhla chador is hardly visible. Ramesh Jain, who owns a boutique in a fashionable sector of the city, says among a number of young Assamese women, the salwar kameez is tres chic. "Today I get orders for salwar kameezes of the latest fashion and cut. If they like it, they wear it, whatever the cost." Even on the streets of Bhopal, the salwar kameez has replaced the burqa. In Assam, social analysts say, large amounts of new money has built a high-spending "Punjabi" culture, lots of tinsel ostentation and a live-for-the-moment-attitude.

Kundan Vyas, Bombay-based editor of Janma-bhoomi, says "Gujarati bhangra" is becoming popular. In Gandhinagar on an assignment, Vyas searched in vain for a Gujarati thali. He found only tandoori chicken and matar paneer. A Bhopal poet recalls how the famous Hindi writer Manohar Shyam Joshi had wept on being offered butter chicken instead of local delicacies. And Asha Bagchi, proud Calcuttan, says the cuisine-conscious Bengali homemaker nowadays even experiments with dal, that pillar of the Bengali palate. Sometimes lobhia and rajma replace traditional moong and masoor. "The types of dal that you used to always see in Bengali homes are changing a little," Bagchi smiles. From music to food, conspicuous consumption and even language—adman Sumit Dutt says he was delighted to hear that evocative phrase "ki farak painda" at a coffee house in Mumbai—the Punjabi-fication of middle class India co-exists happily with local customs. Says Bagchi: "The idea is to be what you are but with a Punjabi veneer." Although all pervasive, 'Punjabi-fication' is skin deep and exists in the realm of pop culture.

A new Indian modernity is emerging: the modernity of Indi-pop and television-driven hipness, born of the interaction of traditional identities and the global free market. And this modernity relies on some of the more ephemeral aspects of the ethos of Punjab, because the Punjabi has been a pioneer of change and experimentation, one of the first communities to emigrate to the West, to commercialise agriculture and embrace the free market. No wonder that "tandoori modernity" yields the sounds and tastes of the '90s urban Indian.

Earlier, the East and West encounter was different. A few decades ago, in order to be considered "westernised", the Indian had to imbibe western High Culture: Mozart and Shakespeare, Austen and Sibelius. Today the westernised Indian need not know about the classical works of Dead White European Males. Instead, the East-West encounter is about a dynamic swap of Pop Culture, between the green card holder and the First World aspirant or the Birmingham Punjabi and his family back in Amritsar, between exporters and buyers or Internet colleagues.

It is an encounter that occurs not between colonial groups of gin-drinkers-on-the-verandah but between the first generation migrant and his consumerist dream, between a citizen of India Inc. and his business contact abroad.

Thus, the modern Indian is no longer just the Byron-reading bhadralok but also the Bally Sagoo-listening party animal. This interaction with the West is one in which the Punjabi has taken the lead. This is because the Punjabi spirit, says Prakash Tandon, author of the acclaimed Punjabi Century, is uniquely confident of itself when faced with a foreigner. His is a dynamic contact with the West, in contrast with the more introspective interactions that other communities may have forged with western liberal philosophies.

 Yet, says sociologist Ashis Nandy, it's important to differentiate between the aristocratic Punjabi culture of old Lahore and the contemporary culture of Delhi. "This is a floating refugee consciousness, instinctive, with little respect for the law, a mentality which replaces Pavarotti with Madonna," Nandy believes. Kamal Tiwari, deputy manager in the Bhopal-based film organisation, Madhyam, agrees. "The mystic traditions of Sufism and Guru Nanak and poetry of Bule Shah and Sheikh Farid defines true Punjabi culture which has been lost in the prevailing superficiality," he says.

It is this version of Punjabi culture, which has, post-Partition, captured Delhi and has been legitimised as a sort of national culture, says sociologist Patricia Uberoi. She believes that the process of the north's dominance over the south has proceeded apace over time; Punjabi-fication is one of the manifestations of this process. Another reason why Punjabi-ness is so popular is because it is highly assimilative. In any cross-community marriage, the Punjabi tends to drop his culture first; he emigrates easily, seems to have less parochial attachments to his own identity. "Of all the three communities in the forefront of Indian globali-sation—Tamil Brahmins, Gujarati Patels and Punjabis, the Punjabis assimilate fast," Uberoi says; so Punjabi mores may be adopted without threatening other identities. Salwar kameez sits easily in Chennai, tandoori is not incompatible with Bengali festivals.

Tandon points out that all the great adventurers who rode into India passed through Punjab. The province was a "no-man's land", and the Punjabi developed a unique capacity to change and adapt but still remain true to himself. "He has always led an uncertain life and because his life was unpredictable and subject to invasions, he worked hard and lived for the moment, the Freudian compensation for defeats was the motto 'let's enjoy life today'," Tandon says.

Similarly, the Indian middle class, operating increasingly amidst Hollywood and McDonald's, for whom the uncertainties of change mark every future decision, has, 50 years after being set free from the West, now adopted the Punjabi way of dealing with former imperial masters. Get ahead, show enterprise, look good flaunt your wealth, enjoy life, and to hell with existential dilemmas.And at a time when ethnic authenticity is fast becoming integral to the pop music industry, bhangra is India's best musical export.

"Today there is great international exposure but also pride in being an Indian," says composer Jawahar Wattal, "and Punjabi rhythms promote this style of living, the vibrance and happiness of Punjabi life finds a large audience, no less because of Daler's own talents." Gopesh Singh, producer at Times FM, points out that Punjabi singers such as Baba Sehgal, Daler, Stereo Nation, Sukhbir tend to dominate the top ten charts. "Dance is in and bhangra rhythms are danceable all over the world," he explains.

At the turn of the century, says Nandy, there were five social icons to be emulated: the Calcutta babu, the Bombay Parsi, the Lahori aristocrat, the urbane Lakhnavi and the scholarly Tam-Brahm. Today the "hip Punjabi" has replaced all these other social stereotypes as the social identity to be emulated. "Here is a less encumbered social creature," says Nandy. "To be a good Bombay parsi you have to attend the opera, to be a good Bengali babu, you need to know your Shakespeare, but to be a neo-Punjabi, you need not be burdened with the classics." At a recent function at Ashoka Lake View Hotel at Bhopal while Hariharan sang on stage, the audience was busy getting autographs of Navjot Singh Sidhu and Rajesh Chauhan. Classical music's okay, but only when it's an accompaniment to cricket.

The Punjabi, says economist Rajesh Malhotra, is the warmest Indian, his sense of 'biradari', 'sangathan' and a syncretic religious tradition make him generous. But bookishness? Please look elsewhere. In the urban areas, Malhotra says, there is excessive consumption, a certain angst and rootlessness, and hectic accumulation and showing off to compensate in a sense for the great loss of 1947. "It is a mark of the decadence of our society that the more superficial aspects of Punjabi culture are being emulated," Malhotra says.

K.P.K. Krishnan Kutty, convenor of the Delhi Malayalam Association, says there is a great deal of admiration on the part of some Keralites for the enterprise and business sense of the Punjabi. "Punjabi business sense is held in high regard," Kutty remarks. Tandon points out with pride that the Partition refugees created economically viable businesses in three-four years and today Punjab enjoys the highest per capita income in the country. During the high noon of Nehruvian elitism culture, commerce was perhaps considered a teensy weensy bit infra dig, now Punjabi-style enterprise is the ticket to free market Shangri-la.

In the barren Rann of Kutch, the village Noora has been taken over by a Sikh community. To the surprise of the older Gujarati inhabitants, Noora has blossomed into lush fields, grows wheat and groundnuts and has a Sikh sarpanch. "The surrounding areas are very admiring of the Punjabi spirit of taming the land and making it productive," says Vyas, "and are trying similar experiments with their own holdings." Now "baisakhi" comes regularly to Kutch and turban and tractor wind their way along newly built canals.

ACCORDING to Kutty, you see more salwar kameez now in the streets of Kerala than you ever did. "The culture of good living and of ostentatious wealth is very much there in Kerala, even imitating certain north Indian customs including Punjabi customs like dancing at weddings," Kutty says. In parts of Tiruvella, in Kerala, even roti and parantha are sometimes eaten rather than rice.Indeed, the 'parantha'—that invincible conqueror of subcontinental tastebuds—is one of the main vehicles of Punjabi-fication. S. Goswami, owner of The Dhaba in Guwahati, says that although the Assamese prefer to eat rice and fish curry at home, when it comes to eating out the typical choice is naan or parantha and chicken cooked in the Punjabi style. Agrees Soudhindra Datta Choudhury, co-owner of Hotel Belle Vue in Guwahati: "Although we have a multi-cuisine restaurant, most of our customers are not adventurous eaters. They would rather stick to butter chicken and parantha/kulcha rather than experiment."

 Not just food, the Punjabi look is widely approved of as well. "It's considered a great compliment in Kerala," says a Malayali writer, "to say you have a complexion like a Punjabi." The Indian partiality to fair skin is matched by an admiration for the well-built 'khatri'.The Punjabi man—traditionally associated with a warrior persona, a fighter who had to stand up to the medieval armies of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali—is, according to Uberoi, all over India considered more virile than most. And in an environment where machismo and physical power are important aspirations, Punjabi masculinity is probably our last claim on repressed Kshatriya valour! "The kurta-clad Bengali intellectual is no longer a fashion statement," says Bagchi. "Instead you often see men wearing tight-fitting jeans with big-buckled belts and engaging in an aggressive demonstration of romance with their girlfriends, more like Punjabis than the typical Bengalis!"

From the banks of the Jhelum has come the '90s fusion of the new and the old. Bengalis, says Bagchi, generally never bothered about interior design; the ubiquitous bed and showcase were the presiding deities of bhadralok living space. Now interiors are in, wall-to- wall carpeting, chandeliers and expensive objects are seen as essential ingredients of the new Indian personality, one patented by Punjabis years ago.

"Flashy cars, huge sofas and brocade curtains," says interior designer Anita Gupta, "were always referred to as 'Punjabi taste', but it's becoming a fairly uniform Indian taste now." At the Raichak resort outside Calcutta, Marwari matriarchs abandon conventional restraint and burst into a celebration of Gal Ban Gayee; shopping at Chittaranjan Park market, New Delhi, sari-clad Indrani Roy was once asked, "Why don't you become more fashionable and switch to salwar kameez?" The Punjabi, says Uberoi, has never been overly attached to his traditions, and this liberation from too much and often debilitating custom is now being emulated by other Indians as well.

Uberoi, who has written extensively on Hindi films, also points out that Bollywood spurs 'Punjabi-fication' because the films tend to reflect north Indian society. The jooti-hiding sequences in HAHK or the shots of the mustard fields in DDLJ, names such as Simran and Raj, or the overt Punjabi culture in films like Des Pardes are probably a result of the fact that the film industry has been dominated by 'sadde' dynasties like the Kapoors, Chopras and Anands. "Characters in these films are rich as well as Punjabi thus leading to an unconscious association of the two, which then becomes an aspiration," says Uberoi. The experience of the Indian diaspora is crucially important, the popularity of Punjabi rap music is a direct result of desis adopting the "alternative" culture of the Leeds immigrant.

So as Daler's ratings climb and more tandoori is added to menus, the heart of urban Indian pop culture seems to lie anywhere north of Haryana and south of Kashmir.

With Nitin Gokhale, Soutik Biswas and Raajkumar Keswani

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