Punjabi social media went in to overdrive yesterday following the release of a new music video by legendary Punjabi singer and lyricist Gurdas Maan. ‘Punjab’ as the track is titled is the first release from Maan’s upcoming album, also titled ‘Punjab’, and surprised many with its stark depiction of a present-day dystopian Punjab and bluntly implied political commentary. There have been a few voices of dissent, but on the whole it has received rave reviews. So what’s my problem?
The song and extended music video to ‘Punjab’ (embedded further below) follows Gurdas Maan in the guise of a time-lord who visits the Punjabi martyr Bhagat Singh, then in his childhood days. The boy-Bhagat has made his way out into secluded fields to practice dying at the hangman’s noose, before being engaged in conversation by Maan who playfully asks him to explain what he is doing. Impressed by his resolve to die for the freedom of his nation, Maan’s time-lord stops just short of revealing that all is not well in the Punjab decades after it is freed from the British, but pushed by Bhagat Singh, the two strike a deal that the time lord will show Bhagat Singh what becomes of his beloved Punjab in the future, on the provision that he does not deviate from his own path towards martyrdom.
Cue four verses of song showcasing varying degrees of malaise that presently afflict the Punjab. It’s easy to see even on first viewing why the song and video have proven so popular both in the Punjab and outside of it – the music production is excellent, Maan’s vocals and lyrics are hauntingly pertinent, and the visuals tap in to that melodramatic style that is the calling card of South Asian cinema. Pulling at the heart-strings of the viewer, the song is an emotionally provocational work that holds a mirror up for the everyday Punjabi wherever they reside. And for that I would congratulate Gurdas Maan and the team that has created this song. But my problem lies less in what is being showcased for the most part, rather in what is missing, that is to say the cause and instigators of the problems that are destroying Punjab.
The opening scenes that accompany the song proper highlight a myriad of crimes in one setting including the recent notorious case where a female dancer was shot dead on stage at a wedding function by a drunk guest. We also see the abduction of a young female, acid being thrown into another’s eyes, a young man violently ripped from a travelling motorcycle, vapid twenty-somethings glued to their phones taking selfies, chunky men tucking into mass-produced burgers… all sat in an open-air square in front of a modern shopping complex, complete with a KFC and Dominos as the camera pans in. One takes away from this scene that the Punjab has lot all sense of itself and traditional values, looking no different than any other part of the World where chain stores and rampant consumerism have filled the void, and where violent crime is rife mostly focused on females. This is not an untruthful depiction of the Punjab, but is an incomplete one not just in terms of the causes of these problems, but in the way that they are manifested. Organised crime syndicates and a corrupt Police force account for more and sometimes graver crimes than these, but they are conveniently overlooked.
The female-centred theme continues into the first verse where the song tackles a Punjaban mother who is seen in the video smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol at a house-party, whilst her obese child is dismissively handed a digital tablet to occupy his time. The accompanying lyrics to the song accuse the woman of not knowing how to care for her child – a fair comment most would argue. But is it? Where is the father of the boy? Is he on the other side of the (lavish) pool enjoying a stronger drink which male Punjabis continue to feel entitled to do, whilst hypocritically lambasting females for doing the same. This is the same Gurdas Maan who sang “ਘਰ ਦੀ ਸ਼ਰਾਬ ਹੋਵੇ” on the 1995 hit ‘Apna Punjab’ at a time when Punjab’s drinking culture was beginning to spiral out of control just as it’s employment opportunities were near-disintegrated, begging the question, is it only inappropriate for women of affluence with children to drink alcohol, or can that be extended to men who have few future prospects? I felt an overwhelming sense of patriarchy had inspired these opening visuals and lyrics, with clearly little thought by Maan of the hypocrisy in criticising smokers when his own spiritual guide, the infamous chain-smoking Laddi Shah, constantly puffs away whilst showering the singer with notes on live stages. A poorly thought-out verse of the song or evidence of a double standard?
But the song really comes into its own in the second and third verses, highlighting first the poison that now grows in the fields of Punjab and the injections that are necessary to procure milk from dairy cattle, before going on to ask where the athletic sportsmen of the Punjab have gone, incapacitated by a range of drugs no doubt. These were the specific visuals that forced me to write this piece, for Maan makes these observations but proffers not even a hint at how this point was reached. Because the answer is the nation state. The Green Revolution that has decimated the Punjab, the State monopoly over crop purchases, the promotion of powerful pesticides into the food chain, the enforced disappearances of Punjabi youth – these all originated in Delhi and were a direct action of what some academics term the ‘Indian project’, the homogenisation of the wide-ranging cultures and people of the sub-continent into the unitary nation state of India. [This is the point where some readers click-away, thanks if you’re staying!] What Maan does not even remotely hint at is how the Punjab has been discarded and used, propped up for decades with corrupt statesmen who answer to the capital in the South.
It would be fair of you to ask how Maan is expected to incorporate reasoning as detailed as this into the song and similarly fair to ask isn’t it enough that he is bringing awareness of these occurences at all? Yes, if this were any other singer than Gurdas Maan; the reason he is held to a different standard is because he is no stranger to making politically motivated music going as far as taking digs at an entire community in the not too recent past, as well as associating with nefarious individuals who are responsible for some of the very ills that he sings of including most infamously the Butcher of Punjab, former Punjab Police Director General KP S Gill. Maan is not the first artist to be seen with criminals and politically sensitive characters, nor will he be the last, but unlike most other artists his body of work blurs the lines between sycophancy and propaganda (distinugished from Babbu Maan who does the same but is an open book when it comes to his political leanings). It is no coincidence that the song was released just days after polling closed on the most open Punjab State Assembly elections in recent times leading at least one artist to creatively query in response why this work was released “ਵੋਟਾਂ ਤੋਂ ਮਗਰੋਂ“.
Unsurprisingly, any cynicism directed towards this song from quarters such as mine is met with the accusation that a grudge is borne for Maan because of his distance from Sikhi. That is categorically false, although my assertion will fall on deaf ears. What is interesting though is that if anyone is bringing Sikhi into this work one need look no further than Gurdas Maan himself. The song is replete with cultural references for a Sikh audience such as the fourth and final verse in which he touches on recent prominent cases of beadbi of the Guru Granth Sahib, or in closing the song as a whole where he cites the opening words of the last hymn of the Ardas. Elsewhere he sings “ਦਸ ਕਿਹੜਾ ਨੱਚੇਗਾ ਖੰਡੇ ਦੇ ਤਾਰ ‘ਤੇ” and “ਸੁਣ ਲੈ ਤੂੰ ਬੇਣਤੀ ਗੁਰਾਂ-ਦੇ-ਦਾਸ ਦੀ” that enhance the emotive connection felt by a Sikh audience when listening to the song. As an artist he is entirely free to implement these elements into his work, but surely with it comes the responsibility not to appropriate selective parts of the Sikh narrative? Ask yourself why Bhagat Singh is the main focus of the story and not Kartar Singh Sarabha; ask why they both feature but no place is given in this (or other works) to Rani Jindan, Bhai Maharaj Singh or Sohan Singh Bhakna? Is it because these are the platable faces of Punjabi freedom fighting, as endorsed by Delhi?
I didn’t write this article because Gurdas Maan is pro-Indian as opposed to being pro-Punjabi. I am indeed thankful that he created this work if it instigates dicourse and contemplation as authentic art does and I would hope that if he came across my opinion he would accept the criticism just as he welcomes the plaudits. My ire is not with Gurdas Maan the individual or the professional artist or in any other capacity – it is with us, the people, who are responsible for the state of the Punjab today. It is on our watch that the community has denigrated so much that it takes a song for us to refrain from the commonly misplaced rhetoric of having ‘Punjabi pride’ for once and openly say that Punjab is now a cesspit and has been for decades. But worse still, that is where this will close. Few of the masses who shared the video, downloaded the song, and shamed others for bringing Maan’s motives into question, will now go forward and try to bring about change in Punjab. They just won’t. They will return to saying ਸਾਨੂੰ ਮਾਣ ਪੰਜਾਬੀ ਹੋਣ ਦਾ probably by the time single number two is released from this album. How am I so sure? Because if they wanted to bring about change in the Punjab, every person sharing this video and song would have been plugging documentaries ‘Final Assault‘ and ‘Outjusticed 2‘ for example, and moreover, would step up to volunteer with bodies that are trying to change the face of Punjab today. At some lesser level, simply changing the way we act and speak when it comes to Punjab isn’t going to happen as bringing change in the Punjab is beyond what most of us want to think about with any depth because we inherently know the painful truth that change will require sacrifice. Ironic then that the video centred around Bhagat Singh and his ideological hero Kartar Singh Sarabha, both of whom made ultimate sacrifices for the Punjab, when we can’t even spend a week in Punjab without chain restaurants serving us processed ingredients or driving around in automobiles that 95% of the population will never be able to afford.
I was considerably surprised to see that the song was being lauded by people who are otherwise vocal feminists, activists and political thinkers, showing just how powerful the cult of personality is; it is difficult to think deeper about art when it is created by someone who is considered a national treasure. I expected musical artists to fall over one another in applauding the video, but was shocked to read some opine that finally an artist had released music unafraid to tell the truth – an insult to Ammy Virk, Ranjit Bawa, Satinder Sartaj, Babbu Maan, Specialist and Tru-Skool, and Jaz Dhami to name just some of the major artists who have attempted to tackle the social ills of the Punjab through music. Gurdas Maan can hold no blame for this reaction; he is simply doing what he does, make music, and it is up to people how we engage with it. Sadly, this is a community so disoriented that the conversation will be over in a matter of days (if it isn’t already) moving on to the next cause-du-jour. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but realistically how many Punjabis who shared the video will now take a stand against the State that has led Punjab towards ecological annihilation and social dystopia from the confines of Delhi?
Gurdas Maan’s ‘Punjab’ is yet another piece of ‘awareness’ in disguise that fosters our collective comfortability in doing little to nothing to bring about change. Musicians carry great influence, but that is all that it is – influence. If we want to alter the course of Punjab’s direction that takes work which starts with learning, reading, debating, organising and activating ourselves into change-makers that understand the context of the struggles involved in Punjab. The music video extends beyond the song with Gurdas Maan asking viewers directly in closing, “ਭਗਤ ਸਿੰਘ ਨੇ ਤਾ ਆਪਣਾ ਫਰਜ ੧੯੩੧ ਵਿਚ ਪੂਰਾ ਕਰਤਾ, ਪਰ ਤੁਸੀਂ ਉਸਦੇ ਫਰਜ ਦੇ ਕਰਜ ਨੂੰ ਕਦੋਂ ਉਤਾਰੋਂਗੇ?” Good question – when will we take responsibility for the state of Punjab? Unwittingly in my mind, Maan answers the question at the very beginning of the video when he replies to Bhagat Singh’s questioning of whether the Punjab will attain sovereignty, free from the yoke of Imperial slavery, saying, “ਗੋਰਿਆਂ ਤੋਂ ਤਾ ਤੇਰੇ ਮੁਲਕ ਨੂੰ ਆਜ਼ਾਦੀ ਮਿਲ ਜਾਂਦੀ ਹੈ, ਪਰ…”