The Articulation of Caste in Punjabi Music

The Articulation of Caste in Punjabi Music


The state of Punjab, in Northwestern India, is home to the most significant music industry in the country outside of the various film-music industries. It is an institution that is transnational in nature, a renewed conversation between members of the state proper and those who situate themselves within the vast Punjabi diaspora, and it is largely untethered to any geographical location per se. As an exercise in historicization and re-historicization, however, modern Punjabi music is inextricably linked to essentialist notions of “Punjabiyat” and specific conceptions of Punjabi urban and, most significantly, rural life that are themselves rooted in notions of geographical identification. Both globally and locally, the Jatt community maintains a “spiritual” and tangible control over this pop music industry and promotes an ethos in which an agro-feudalist valorization of Jatt identity, and Jatt masculinity in particular, is stressed. This is reflected in the music of global stalwarts such as the late Sidhu Moose Wala, Diljit Dosanjh and AP Dhillon and is also itself reflective of the institutional power that Jats wield in Punjab and the diaspora. In this paper, I will examine this “militant” stream of Punjabi music and position it against newly emergent Dalit voices in the same scene that seek to challenge the Jatt status quo and instead advance counter-narratives that tell a different story about “Punjabiyat.” Additionally, I will briefly examine the role of diasporic communities in the development of these narratives and their ability to create a space for posthumous examination and reconstruction. To do this, I will look at the creation of this Jatt identity in the Punjabi music space, its ubiquity and power, and place it against a newly emergent stream of subaltern music that positions itself directly against the Jatt monolith. 

First, let us construct a caste and class-conscious view of the prevailing hierarchies in Punjab and how Jatt, and non-Jatt, identity is constructed from within this order. In his paper, “Caste Hierarchy, Dominance, and Change in Punjab,” Paramjit S. Judge draws out this stratification, saying, “there is no dominant caste among the Sikhs; rather, caste hierarchy is a system of domination. The major contribution of Sikh movement is that it ruptured the correspondence between the binary opposition of physical and non-physical labour, which bifurcated the caste hierarchy into ‘dwijjas’ (twice-born) and Shudras, including ‘untouchables.’ The Jats emerged as the topmost caste among the Sikhs, whereas they are one of the dominant castes in Haryana. It should also be noted that the Jats, who have been peasant proprietors essentially, live in villages.”1 Judge presents the “Jatt” as a construction that is unique to the presence of Sikhism in Punjab, and who differentiates himself from other “jatts,” Hindu and Muslim, who exist in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The otherwise lower-caste Jatts within the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy were able to raise themselves both socially and economically in a post-Sikh Punjab, and were able to transform their occupational conditions by becoming hereditary landowners. It is easy, then, to see why a certain conception of dominance in the affairs of the village and agriculture is so central to the construction of Jatt identity in their music. Not only is it largely reflective of the prevailing order in current Punjabi rural social organization, but it is at the root of Jatt pride. It is also perhaps possible to trace back the militarism of Jatt musics to their outsized role in the formation of various Sikh armies and militia groups that emerged in Punjab, as well as the colonial construction of “martial races.” There has been a longstanding relationship and engagement with both the enduring and perpetuation of militaristic force in Jatt communities. 

However, with a steady decline in agricultural revenues since the heyday of the Green Revolution and a general movement towards urbanization, the centrality that the village, as an institution, held in the collective Punjabi psyche, has been lost. For Jatts, who occupy a central position in this village hierarchy, their presence in cities implies occupational change and necessitates a transformation of caste capital into class capital. As Judge notes, for a landowning caste, a transition away from agriculture “may be an indicator of pauperisation or horizontal shift in economic status.”2 So, even though Jats hold control of roughly eight percent of land in the state still,3 stratification has emerged amongst them in terms of proximity to the gifts of modernity. Those of them who have been unable to get a foothold in urban Punjab, either through supplementary employment or otherwise, are often forced to look abroad. Jatt youths, in particular, have latched on to the West as a way out of the stagnancy that is associated with hereditary agriculture. Often due to a lack of educational training, these youths are often forced to “struggle” in jobs that, from a caste hegemony perspective, they would not take up in Punjab itself. This sort of economic strife, and the ethnic discrimination faced by Jatts in these foreign countries, informs the tonality of artists such as Moose Wala, Dhillon and Aujla. What does this tonality exactly entail? It refers both to the lyrical and performative disposition adopted by these artists; the projection not only of some idealised masculinity but also of a certain idealised homeland, and tacitly, their own superior status within it.

At the same time, with this move towards urbanization, although a lot of the Jatt landlords remain, landless Dalits and other traditionally “artisanal” castes, as Judge documents, have moved away en masse from rural areasto urban spaces and have been replaced by migrant labor largely from states such as UP and Bihar. Many of them have also moved abroad, like their Jatt counterparts, seeking employment that the state of Punjab is unable to generate. This reorganization of Punjabi society has opened up negotiating space for Dalits and other non-dominant classes in the urban space to assert themselves politically, economically, and culturally, because it has meant that the traditional enforcement of caste hierarchy through agricultural production is no longer feasible. In the past decades, Dalit organizations of various caste groups, such as Bazigars, Ravidasis, and Chamars, have come to assert themselves in panchayat elections, religious spaces, and what is most significant for our study: cultural production.

So, with this brief sketch, we arrive at a particular point in Punjabi history and in Punjabi cultural production. In today’s landscape, the Jatt maintain their hegemonic control over land and state institutions. But, with increased economic insecurity and a movement to foreign spaces, they are consciously engaging in a valorization of the past and a retelling of their own myths. Against this, we find a Dalit people that are unshackled from agricultural bondage and, through access to modernity, urbanization, and diasporic exchange, are beginning a retelling of their own. Let us now examine the formation of the latter and compare it to the burgeoning success of the former. 

Jatt hip-hop, in its current form, has emerged as a vision out of the bhangra and post-bhangra scenes that developed in the UK and the USA, which were the first signs of exchange between South Asian youths and African-American music. In its conception of a “gangsta” culture, it borrows heavily from the symbolism of ’90s and 2000’s American hip-hop and from the aesthetics of stalwarts such as Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G and 50 Cent. In general, the sonic palette implemented by these Jatt artists remains closely attuned to the trends that emerge in Western pop music, and through that, it derives its sense of the current “pulse.” Artists such as Moose Wala, Dosanjh, and Dhillon are prescient examples of this, not only with their musical choices but also in their choice of collaborators. In an ever more global market and a streaming landscape that invites exploration (perhaps because it’s free), it is easy to see the appeal of this music. It sounds fresh, aggressive, and matches the “edge” of other gangsta music. Moreover, for a diasporic audience, this Jatt hip-hop is a particularly enticing proposition. It is at once “traditional,” ethnicity-affirming, and “cool”: a potent combination. And it’s now paying off. Jatt hip-hop feels like it’s truly “arrived” in 2023. This year alone, Dosanjh has performed at the prestigious music festival, Coachella, Dhillon performed at the Juno awards in Canada, and the late Sidhu Moose Wala has received tributes from global phenoms such as Drake, Burna Boy, and more. 

Punjabi music has not just evolved in this one direction, though. Against the backdrop of this increasingly global monolith, the state has also seen the development of Dalit musical expression, more and more so in the pop-rap sphere and as a direct counter to the dominance of Jatt music. While Dalit musical expression has always been vibrant in Punjab, there is a sense in which it has been exaggerated since 2009, when two leaders of the lower-caste Dera Sachkhand were murdered in Vienna, Austria, by extremist elements. “The Vienna Incident, in some sense, turned out to be a watershed in the history of the region with far-reaching implications for the identity politics of Dalits,” says Santosh K. Singh.4 He further mentions there was a crystallization of a split from Sikh maryada (protocol) both locally and globally, with the formal creation of the Ravidassia dharma in Govardhanpur, UP, in January 2010 (the birthplace of Guru Ravidas). As per Singh, “the emergence of Dalit singers or ‘mission singers,’ as they are popularly called in the region, especially post the Vienna attack, are reflective of the growing chasm between the Jatt Sikhs and the Ravidassia community…(Their) songs and videos are extremely provocative and, more often than not, contain lyrics and visuals challenging the Jatt Sikh hegemony. It is to be noted that so far, the Dalits had been playing ‘Jatt pop’ music in their vehicles, for weddings, parties, and other such occasions.”5 With a distancing from Jatt music, has also come a new valorization of their own heroes. For instance, Singh brings up “Ziddi Chamar,” a song by artist Pamma Sunar that invokes the martyrdom of Chamar icon Jai Singh Khalkhat, who was hanged to death by the Mughals after a refusal to renounce Sikhism. Interestingly, Singh mentions how “Many of the songs and videos have violent, masculinist content where young boys are shown armed with weapons, riding sports utility vehicles and bashing their opponents. These videos are extremely popular among the youth as they perhaps match, and even outscore, the perceived macho image of the Jatts.”6

Journalist Chitleen Sethi, in an article for the Indian Express from 2013, provides further details while also using the genre title “Chamar pop.” She says: 

Despite its effort to counter Jatt pop, Chamar pop took to aping it, by glorifying carrying weapons, driving big cars and going to Chandigarh to study. [The aforementioned] Pamma Sunar’s hit song from his first album The Fighter Chamar (2011): ‘Hath leke hathiyar, jad nikle Chamar, pher vekheyo pataka kiven pao mitro, aj dekhde pana keda lao mitro (When Chamars walk out with weapons in their hands, watch the fireworks, friends, we’ll see who can cross our path then).’ Some 20,000 copies of the album were sold, despite being available only at small music shops in towns in Jalandhar district. “The whole point is to show that we are equal to them in every way. If they can flaunt biceps, so can we. The Chamar is not the poor, lowly man anymore. He is educated and doing well economically,” says Sunarh.7

Sethi, however, asserts that Chamar pop is not just a mirror image of Jatt pop. She mentions howunlike several Jatt songs that extol boys going to Chandigarh to check out girls and not study, the Gabru chamar munda video in Hummer 2 shows a young boy studying in Chandigarh while a girl tries to divert his attention. The Chamar boy says, ‘Padh likh ke main banunga SP ya DC ya phir kisi university da VC (I will study and become a DC or SP or the VC of a university).'”8 This is an interesting interpolation of the wider Ambedkarian/Dalit politics around education and self-actualization. 

Furthermore, Sethi introduces a sort of teleology to the progression of this music, saying “If the reaction to Jatt music could be called the first phase of Chamar pop and revisiting Dalit heroes the second phase, then the emergence of a new generation of women singers might as well be its third milestone.”9 This evolution is underscored by the rise of singers such as Miss Pooja, Rajni Thakarwal and Ginni Mahi, the latter of whom has received great attention in the past few years. As Singh notes, this “younger generation of Dalit singers, including Ginni Mahi, represent a new wave, a coming of age moment as it were, for the Dalits in Punjab. Some of Mahi’s most popular songs, such as ‘Haqq,’ ‘Danger Chamar,’ and ‘Fan Baba Sahib Di’ have Ambedkar, Sant Ravidas, and their teachings as contributions to the dominant theme.”10 By moving away from the aesthetics of Jatt macho-ness and instead valourising these figures, singers like Mahi have sent signals to Dalit youths that centre around education, self-empowerment and an embrace of their unique history.

The somewhat rapid development of this musical form has had major implications, not only in terms of creating space for Dalit self-assertion and a sense of “peoplehood,” but also in terms of a clapback from the mainstream powers that be. Let us first examine the former. In his paper, the aforementioned Singh draws out the centrality of the Dera as a seat of subaltern protest and identity articulation by Ravidassias and lower castes in general. The Dera itself, and the cultural production that has come from it, has been spurred largely by Dalit migration abroad. In his paper, “The Ravi dasis of Punjab: Global contours of Caste and Religious Strife,” Surinder Jodhka echoes the centrality of the Dera as a sociocultural institution. He further establishes its growth to the economic mobility acquired by diasporic Dalits, saying, “by the early 1990s, diaspora Dalits had also experienced considerable economic mobility, which made it easier for them to travel back home and they began to do so more frequently. When they came, they also brought with them money for the religious deras, and this new money and energy played a very important role in the further growth of the movement.”11 The consolidation of a diaspora and a general urban emancipation of Dalits has led to the formation of a more crystalline sense of “self” for Dalits in Punjab over the past thirty or so years, and there is no better testament to this than the state of their musical production, both in terms of its prolificity and tone. Singh mentions how “the generous use of the word Chamar along with Ravidassia, in the musical albums also resonates with the mood of the community which clearly wants to own its past, reassemble the disjointed and fragmented pieces of their community history and heroes, including the social labels, oftentimes used as insult and abuse.” He further mentions that reassertion is demonstrative of the “Dalits’ rising self-confidence in their own ‘selves’ and the will to resolutely exhibit it publicly.”12 In the Dera, this Dalit self-expression finds a tangible home that offers resources, access to international capital, and a spiritual equilibrium through which to mediate their expressed politics. This link is further evidenced by the kind of celebrations that are seen around Ravidas Jayanti. Singh mentions how on one such occasion, “thousands of Ravidassia, accompanied by the dera sants and thousands of Ravidassia, Jalandhar railway station in Punjab virtually comes under the siege of the deluge of the Ravidassia, with young men and women frenetically dancing to Ginni Mahi’s Chamar pop songs, only interrupted by the equally thunderous war-cries of ‘Jo bole so nirbhai, Guru Ravidas Maharaj ki jai’ and ‘Jai Bhim.’”13 This instance is particularly effective, because it highlights both the deep entrenchment of this new pop music among Dalits, to the point where it is playing at their primary festivals, and simultaneously the political awareness and nascency that informs it at its core. 

So, if the music has merged with Dalit politics at large in the state, then what has the pushback been like from the aforementioned Jatt-adjacent music monolith? Chamar vs Jatt battles have raged online in the past, with many singers finding themselves targeted by hate videos from embittered Jatts. Apart from direct hate, there has also been a tacit embargo imposed on the production of Dalit music, at least from established labels and production houses. Unlike Jatt pop, which has been able to export itself as a product beyond Punjab and the country itself, Dalit pop music attracts its own community, not just in terms of audience but also in terms of producers and engineers involved. Sethi, in her article, posits that “no music company is willing to produce their albums, and no music channel airs their videos. And it’s not because they are Dalits, but because they sing about Dalits. Their branding as mission singers has ensured that they are no longer invited to perform at sabhyacharak melas, rural fairs that give local talent an opportunity to perform, generally at the expense of the singer.”14 Singer Roop Lal Dhir, in an interview with Sethi, details how he “had to open my own company to launch my CD. But we are not going to give up. We are not doing these songs to earn money.”15 Dhir also mentions how the internet has acted as an alternative space where Dalit music can thrive, saying, “We are in the market because of the internet, where our songs are a superhit.”16 Moreover, the diaspora itself, and therefore the Dera, has provided full funding for the production of music, purchase of CDs and even in terms of foreign touring opportunities.

Is the fact that Dalit pop, “Chamar Pop,” and other sub-genres that may be assimilated under this umbrella, remain in the purview of Dalits only a direct result of the embargo imposed on them? Is that the reason that, despite the exponential growth of Jatt pop, Dalit pop music from Punjab has not stepped out of its insularity? The answer is a complex one, and it is tough to drive out an empirical answer. It does, perhaps, reveal something about the core notions of “Punjabiyat” and about who gets to display it and to whom. On a regional and international level, Jatt Sikhs also maintain a monopoly on notions of ‘Punjabi’, be that in the sphere of music, film or internet culture. Certainly, amongst Indian and diasporic youth, Jatt hip-hop is ubiquitous. This is likely the case regardless of their regionality. When one thinks of hegemony, it unfolds over several levels: the political, the economic, and the cultural. The cultural control that Jatts maintain on both internal popular culture and external perceptions is vast and essentially ensures that, based on your degree of separation from Punjabi culture, you may easily misconstrue Punjabi cultural production to be synonymous with Jatt cultural production. Despite the great strides made by the Punjabi Dalit diaspora, this is the case abroad too. 

Ultimately, a Jatt hegemony over cultural production indicates a certain truncation of Dalit music itself. While Jatt music, because of its ubiquity and foothold, can often shed the title of “caste music” (despite overt indications in the music towards caste and casteism), Dalit music is seen, and allowed to be, only as caste music for “caste people.” In some ways, the power of Jatt music is directly indicative of the ability of upper castes to disguise overt assertions of descent-based identity behind the veil of “castelessness” or some other ethnic identity that is not the “caste of yore,” although it very evidently is. This kind of posturing may explain why there is little cross-pollination between consumers of these two genres. Upper caste folks are introduced to Jatt pop as Punjabi pop, but they have no point of contact with any of the Dalit pop artists, except maybe industry stalwarts such as Miss Pooja, who have themselves collaborated with Jatt artists. 

In the state of Punjab, which has a Schedule Caste population of roughly 31.9 percent, an OBC population of 31.3 percent,, and a General Caste population of about 33 percent, of which Jats are about 21 percent,17 this sort of inequitable distribution of cultural power seems especially egregious. Music, as a form of expression that is vital to Punjabi articulation regardless of caste/class, loses its potency as a tool for social cohesion if Jatt is truncated to mean Punjabi. Instead, it becomes a space for specific kinds of self-aggrandization, and, then, subsequently, for the responses that spring up to it. 

Now that Punjabi music is being opened up to a global audience, it is imperative that nuance is brought to discussions around “Punjabiyat” and the vastly unequal nature of its cultural representation. It is time to acknowledge the vast strides that Dalit artists and diasporic organizations have managed to make, despite the odds and bad-faith actors in powerful positions. It is time to acknowledge that, regardless of their popular representation, these folks have come to embody the true essence of what most consider to be “Punjabiyat,” perhaps even more so than their upper caste counterparts. Only with such a reconciliation can the Punjabi music industry become a space for social mobility and action, and reckon with the very real fears around class strife, brain drain, and shifting employment opportunities that plague the state. Until then, it remains a highly aestheticized, but ultimately, performative space that falls short of the very ideals it claims to embody.  

In this paper, I have attempted to draw out the emergence of Dalit pop music in Punjab and position it against the Jatt pop industry, which maintains total hegemony over musical production in the state. Through this, I have also attempted to raise questions about the notion of “Punjabiyat” as cultural performance and of who gets ownership of it. A much more thorough investigation of both genres is needed in terms of detailed ethnographic work to draw out conclusive judgments, but this has been an attempt at laying the foundation for this discourse, and for the emergent battle between two different notions of ‘Punjabiyat’, especially in a day and age where a global Punjabi diaspora, and its newly globalized consciousness, has begun to ask some of these very questions.

  1. Judge, Paramjit S. “Caste Hierarchy, Dominance, and Change in Punjab.” Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 1 (January – April 2015), 57.
  2. Judge, 57.
  3. Singh, Santosh K. “The Caste Question and Songs of Protest in Punjab.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, No. 34 (August 26, 2017), 33.
  4. Singh, 34.
  5. Singh, 35.
  6. Singh, 34.
  7.  Sethi, Chitleen K. “Fighter Chamars in Beghampura.” Indian Express, March 2013.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Singh, 36.
  11. Jodhka, Surinder S. “The Ravi Dasis of Punjab: Global Contours of Caste and Religious Strife.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 24 (Jun. 13 – 19, 2009), 84.
  12. Singh, 36.
  13. Singh, 36.
  14. Sethi, Chitleen K.“Fighter Chamars in Beghampura.” Indian Express, March 2013.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Express News Service, SCs, “STs form 25% of population, says Census 2011 data”, 2013.
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