Chak de phatte!

This article was first published in Tehelka.

Chak de phatte!!! It’s a virtual “let’s have a blast” slogan that you’ll hear ever so often in the ‘bhangra-with-the beat’ music that steadfastly refuses to be defeated by the gloomy depths of despair from which the Indian music industry is currently hoping to emerge. Following the phenomenal success of Daler Mehndi’s “Bolo Ta Ra Ra” in 1995, the Indian music industry saw a steady undying stream of Punjabi pop albums symbolizing the often loud and flashy, but nevertheless indomitable Punjabi spirit. Till just a few years ago, music companies were chasing the bhangra stars and pouring lakhs, even crores into promoting Punjabi albums with glitzy music videos featuring kudis galore. The dholbhangrakudi formula was considered so unbeatable by many that even the most severely challenged of nymphet-singers found their short lived moments of glory in the annals of Indipop by warbling and wiggling their way through hip-hop versions of Punjabi folk songs. Occasionally, even singers of considerable acclaim who proclaimed allegiance to the sufi tradition of the Punjab dropped their black robes, donned sequined shirts and tossed their locks to join the bhangra pop brigade. But not for long! Those who had decided to forsake the Sufis are now back in their fold, and the nymphets really don’t need to warble any longer because the music companies don’t put their money into albums any longer. Now that the remix formula is in, they’d much rather pay for the wiggle than the warble.

But that hasn’t stifled the indomitable Punjabi spirit at all. Irrespective of the ups and downs and vagaries of the music market, Punjabi pop and bhangra mix rides high on the charts and not just in the country but on the international charts as well. Even as music companies hit rock bottom, acts like Punjabi MC, Josh and Rishi Rich hit the jackpot defiantly. So what’s the success mantra? The legendary indomitable spirit of the Punjab, or the sheer vigour of the music that makes it enjoyable the world over? I would say it’s a bit of both and more.

For one, the Punjabi singing star has remained strongly connected with his mother tongue. Resident Indian or NRI artiste come home to sing, Daler Mendi, Jasbeer Jassi and even the younger Mika and Stereo Nation, or Harbhajan Mann, all sing with the unmistakable twang of someone who knows his “theth” Punjabi really well. Oh yes, they mix the music and sample it, and put it through vocalizers and every gizmo under the sun, but nothing ever camouflages the true blue Punjabiyat of their utterance. Unlike Indipop stars from other parts of the country, some of whom are hard put to understand a word of Hindi or Hindustani, the Punjabi musician remains Punjabi of both spirit and tongue. Perhaps it is this ethnic peculiarity that is part of the success mantra.

Then there is this indefatigable will to survive. With music companies closing their doors to budding talent and refusing to commission new or old acts, most singers face a struggle that could break their backs any moment. Not so the bhangra star. As music companies run helter skelter trying to make ends meet by launching compilation after recompilation, Punjabi music channels and music companies release album after album, with accompanying music videos and promos to boost sales. I’ve often wondered if the artistes are funding themselves, and if they are why not? They are in fact doing a Chak de Phatte on the music companies!

The downside of course is, that while bhangra remixes and Punjabi pop reign supreme, some of the finest voices from the musically rich Punjab, the traditional musicians and balladeers who sing the kissas, the sifts and vaars languish and face extinction. And, for some inexplicable reason, it is the male of species that has always hogged the bhangra limelight. How come we haven’t seen the same success stories with female artistes? Undoubtedly there are some very fine women’s voices from the Punjab such as Jaspinder Narula and Richa Sharma. Both found the limelight more through doing playback successfully for films rather than from non-film albums of Punjabi music. Are the Punjabis then a macho lot who would rather have their men sing “Chak lyo revolver” (pronounced rivaalvar) rather than see the women of the Punjab reach pop star status?

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

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