Was Chamkila the voice of Dalits and the working class? Movie vs reality

Chamkila, the superstar of 1980s Punjabi popular music, is being projected as an icon of Dalits and downtrodden sections after the release of his biopic. This article is an attempt to locate his music and art through the historical lens.
Was Amar Singh Chamkila the voice of Dalits and the working class? Movie vs reality
Was Amar Singh Chamkila the voice of Dalits and the working class? Movie vs reality

Ever since the biopic Amar Singh Chamkila, directed by Bollywood filmmaker Imtiaz Ali released last month, the yesteryear singer from Punjab has once again hit headlines across the globe. There is a strong narrative that Chamkila was a Dalit star and the first Dalit to achieve stardom. This is being backed by intellectuals and authors coming from different social backgrounds, ideological spectrums, and from various places across the country. It is indeed a fact that Chamkila came from a Dalit background but this was not uncommon in the Punjabi music industry at that time. This article is an attempt to locate Chamkila’s music and art through the historical lens rather than being focused on the film.

As film critics, academicians, intellectuals, and journalists try to project a gigantic image of Chamkila after the film came out, I would like to situate his overall work within the framework of Punjabi music and cultural sphere and try to touch upon topics that haven’t yet been covered by any other commentator.

Born Dhani Ram, the singer had very humble origins in a Dalit Chamar Sikh family in the village of Dugri near Ludhiana in Punjab. From a young age he would perform in small local gatherings and events in his village, singing mainly popular Punjabi songs of that period alongside some folk songs. He gained the reputation of being a good performer with a pleasant voice. This was a time when many Dalits in Punjab were renouncing the caste-based occupations within their villages, which was either leather work, menial jobs, or strenuous and discriminatory round-the-clock farm labour. Many moved to nearby towns and cities that had somewhat better living conditions and basic employment opportunities.

Dhani Ram moved to Ludhiana, the bustling business capital of Punjab, to gain some sort of employment with a regular income. Ludhiana had also become a prominent cultural centre post Partition. There Dhani Ram joined popular singer Surinder Shinda’s troupe and later became the lead singer himself. Thus, Dhani Ram metamorphosed into Amar Singh ‘Chamkila’ and a new age music star was born.

Chamkila rose very soon to become one of the brightly glittering stars on the sky of the Punjabi music industry and took the whole market by storm. He was considered equal to all the huge stars of Punjabi music like Mohammed Sadiq, Kuldeep Manak, K Deep, and even his own teacher Surinder Shinda. He became both famous and infamous amongst different sections of society for singing songs that were perceived to be problematic, obscene, and objectionable.

This unprecedented star was lost to oblivion when he, his co-star and wife Amarjot, and two fellow musicians were shot dead by Khalistani militants in Mehsampur village near Jalandhar in 1988.

Chamkila: Was he the first Dalit star of Punjabi music?

From its inception during the post-colonial period, Punjabi music was dominated by both performers and stars from either oppressed castes and social backgrounds, and most of them were poor too. A majority of the stars before Chamkila, such as Sadiq, Manak, and others, came from the Mirasi community, as singing, performing, and other artistic work was their caste-based occupation. They have been doing it for centuries as forced upon them by the caste system. Most members of this community trace their lineage to Bhai Mardana ji, who was a lifelong companion of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and composed and sang his verses.

As Mirasis follow both Muslim and Sikh traditions, many eminent community members had to migrate to Pakistan during the Partition. Those who stayed back in India continued the tradition. In the social hierarchy in Punjab, Mirasis are considered even lower than Chamars, the community to which Chamkila belonged. Alongside singers from the Mirasi community, there were others who became stars, such as Yamla Jatt, Ramta, and Asa Singh Mastana, most of who belonged to middle castes or backward castes.

Only a few stars were from the dominant Jatt Sikh caste, such as Didar Sandhu and Harcharan Grewal, but the music industry was full of singers from oppressed communities. The main reason behind this was the barrier of caste and the perception among upper caste people, mainly Jatts, that music and performing was lowly work. It was only during the 1990s that some stars from the Jatt caste emerged and it was at the turn of the century, during the 2000s and 2010s, that Jatt singers started dominating the Punjabi music industry. It would be a grave mistake to compare two different eras without understanding the overall context.

Chamkila: Was he the voice of Dalits and the working class?

Chamkila is being hailed by the same sections as the voice of Dalits, the working class, and the downtrodden. During the last three decades there were no such claims, but just before the release of the biopic this narrative surfaced and became mainstream, and it is being reiterated strongly after the film released. But if someone listens to his songs closely, any such beliefs are shattered immediately.

Throughout his career, which spanned roughly a decade, he released 14 albums and sang hundreds of songs. Apart from this, many of his songs were never recorded as he usually gave live performances. During such a long career and having the agency and resources that come from stardom, he never sang about Dalits or poor people. He chose to remain silent or ignore the lives and struggles of his own brethren. Nowhere can one find any song that he even dedicated to these people.

On the contrary, most of Chamkila’s songs talk about Jatts; he was among the first singers to predominantly use the word Jatt and impose their views through his singing. The organisers of his shows were almost all the time Jatts, especially the wealthy zamindars who were feudal lords and dominated the entire rural society, even overpowering the poorer Jatts. Also, as he was a superstar who was highly paid (charging Rs 4,000 per show, as shown in film), only the rich sections of society could afford to organise his shows.

He mentions poor people only in one song – ‘ki zor gariban da’. An academician has pointed to this as a song about the poor, but in reality the track just mentions the word poor and is in fact focused on a relationship in which the male partner gets married to someone else. Chamkila had a song dedicated to Guru Ravidas Ji but that was a religious song and focused mainly on religious aspects rather than social discrimination.

The film also portrays Chamkila as being hated by the rich and loved by the poor, but this was not the case. The investigating officer in the film is shown to be unaware about his singing, but this is again incorrect. It might be that the urban elite didn’t like Chamkila’s music much, but his main consumers were the rural elite. What is missing completely from the film, and so from the whole narrative around it, is the feudal sections that used to organise his shows rather than the rural poor.

Chamkila: The Elvis Presley of Punjab?

Jihne laal pari na piti, rann kutt ke sidhi na kiti,

Naale nasha pani na peena, us bhadue da dass ki jeena

Oho velly kahda, kohdi hai jahan da…

[One who doesn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t beat women to discipline them

And doesn’t do any kind of drugs, what a life does that b**tard have

He can’t be considered a dude, he is just as bad as a leper in this world]

It is a fact that Chamkila was a superstar and very famous all around during his time. But can everything that is famous be considered rational and acceptable? It is also a fact that the morality of any society changes as it progresses and such moral aspects can be a matter of debate.

A lot of people took issue with the lyrics he used like the one above, but beyond the wording is the message he conveyed through his songs. All his songs were inherently feudal in content apart from being extremely patriarchal, with Punjabi abuses and curses thrown in. It was a time when women from rural areas of Punjab were getting educated and becoming independent, thus breaking the shackles of age-old feudal cultures which had always caged them. It was during this period that he came with this reiteration of dominating the women and making a narrative against their basic independence.

‘Everyone was singing similar songs’

Throughout the film it is pointed out that Chamkila sang the same kind of songs as his contemporaries, with regard to the use of double entendre. This is being repeated by many commentators. It is a fact that cannot be dismissed that many singers employed double entendre. Even prior to Chamkila there were singers like Ramta who used phrases with sexual innuendo in some of their songs, and amongst his contemporaries, K Deep, Manak, and Sadiq also used such phrases at times. But they used it in some songs only, most of the time sticking mainly to the folk form.

In the pursuit of making unique content to stay in the market, Chamkila went on to focus only on songs with quite a lot of obscene phraseology. This was what made him sell so well – his songs had the required masala, as it was referred to in those times.

Once he became extremely famous, there were also sections who were against such music. That same decade saw the rise of the Khalistan movement in Punjab, which had grown at an unprecedented rate after Operation Bluestar on Sri Darbar Sahib in 1984. As this movement had roots in Sikh religious ideas, there was a wave of religiosity alongside the political movement. The movement’s leaders had warned all artistes about singing anything deemed problematic by them. While most of the singers fell in line, the leaders had a special eye on Chamkila. As shown in the film, Chamkila met the five topmost leaders of the Khalistan movement in Amritsar in 1985 and agreed to their terms. It was after this that he shifted from offensive songs to diametrically opposite religious songs.

Chamkila: The religious bard

After his meeting with Baba Gurbachan Singh Manochahal and other leaders of the Khalistan movement, Chamkila released four albums, all of them religious, and also sang only religious content in his stage shows. This shows a kind of pendulum movement from one extreme to another.

Punjab has a wide range of folk forms such as lokgeet, kissey, and others. These include songs about various aspects of life, birth, death, festivities, occasions, fairs, struggles, romance, and others. Most of Chamkila’s contemporaries used to sing lokgeet alongside new songs and compositions of their own. Manak gained eminence after he sang and recorded many historical kissas, which included both romantic and heroic tales as well as a form of music called Kaliyan. Other singers like Sadiq, K Deep, and Didar Sandhu had their own methods of combining elements from lokgeet with their creativity.

Chamkila had the opportunity to include lokgeet and other forms of Punjabi folk music alongside religious songs but he never did.

Chamkila: Entertainment for hard times?

In one of the scenes in the film, the person associated with the recording company encourages Chamkila by saying that in these troubled times everyone needs entertainment, through which director Imtiaz Ali has tried to portray that the inherent nature of business is solely to earn more profits. But in reality, there are many more undertones to the above scene.

Post-1984 was a turbulent period for Punjab. While there was an upsurge in the Khalistan movement, there was also police repression in the form of fake encounters and other prohibitions on civilians. According to some sources, Chamkila had shows before his assassination in 1988 where he performed under tight security provided by the CRPF. On one hand, CRPF forces were regularly doing encounters, and on the other hand enabling Chamkila’s performances. In one such show, he had waved his personal gun and said that he doesn’t fear anyone and will continue to sing whatever may be.

It is clearly evident from the projection of Chamkila in the film and the whole narrative around his stardom, art, and personality that he is being amplified by Bollywood and certain forces as an icon of Punjabi Dalits or Dalits as a whole. Such a projection must be dealt with wit and critical thinking and it must be left to the Dalit community to decide whom they consider their icon or leader.

Dr Shubhkaramdeep Singh is a Dalit Ambedkarite activist and artist based in Mumbai and works with Begumpura Productions. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute