Saturday, February 19, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Punjabi pop hits the jackpot!

Quick takes

Indians buy 20 per cent of the cassettes made in the world and the music industry in India is worth more than Rs 1200 crore. A lion’s share of this huge cake has been cornered by Punjabi pop. Nonika Singh reports on the phenomenal growth of sadda music.

HIGH wattage speakers belt out the chartbuster, Dil le gai kudi Gujarat di, at a social get-together. The lyrics, kudi Gujarat di, not only reveal the self-confessed yearnings of the singer who was ‘once upon a time besotted with a Gujarati lass’ but more significantly mirror the metamorphosis which has come about in Punjabi music. Move over Punjabi mutiyaar, Punjabi music is no longer the sole preserve of Punjabis.

  Hans Raj HansWatch closely new singing sensation Harbhajan Mann’s slick video. There are no phulkari-clad demure belles in sight. Instead, the kudi kad ke kalja le gai happens to be a seductress — model Maria of peeti kya coca cola fame— breaking into a jig.

In its new avatar, Punjabi pop has acquired a pan-Indian identity cutting across the conventional stereotype of Punjabiyat and entering international frontiers. With Punjabi music riding high on the popularity charts, singers command a price previously unheard of and album sales have touched an all-time high. As music transcends the man-made barriers of language and religion, one lakh audio cassettes of Daler — the man who redefined the contours of Punjabi music — have been sold in Malayalam-speaking Cochin alone. The all-India sales have crossed the two million-mark.

Harbhajan, a relative newcomer to the pop music world, has already sold 12 lakh cassettes with Oye oye, says Gursevak Mann, the not-so-famous sibling of Harbhajan, who, incidentally, will also be making his musical debut soon. "Add to it the pirated copies and the actual circulation is much higher", he adds.

So what makes Punjabi music tick? The statement of Sukhbir (of the popular Gal ban gai number) that Punjabi music has an infectious exuberance and couldn’t have been contained for too long might sound a trifle exaggerated. But Gurcharan Virk, a lyricist, whose transformation from a simply attired rustic to a flashily-dressed musician is a telling commentary on the boom in this industry. It also offers a more plausible explanation. According to him, unlike other folk dances, like Garba, which call for intricate foot movement, anyone and every one can match step with the Punjabi beat which subscribes to no hard and fast rules. Moreover, with the growing influence of media and its mind-boggling reach, pop icons are made overnight. Furthermore, the opening of discotheques even in small towns has fuelled the obsession for Punjabi music which is rooted in the mostbasic dance movements.

Moreover, the profile of both the singer and the listener have changed. Now you have Jassi’s snazzy outfits, Sukhbir’ pony- tailed image, Harbhajan’s rakish good looks, on the one hand, and the jean-clad hep youngster, on the other. Even singers inclined otherwise have to submit to currents trends. Balvinder Babbal, essentially a folk artiste who possesses an enviable distinction of performing non-stop for six hours accompanied by six traditional instruments, remarks, "Who can dare to swim against the tide? It’s a question of perform or perish."

Small wonder then that even singers trained in the sufiyana tradition like Hans Raaj Hans and Sardool Sikander, whose voice control and command over nuances of music is indisputable, have succumbed to market pressures. These pressures call for fusion music, i.e. mixing folk instruments with modern-day sounds. The net result, crib folk artistes, is a cacophony of sounds.

But Surinder Riyal, a video film director, argues that in the Punjabi way of life rona, hasana aur gaana are always a trifle exaggerated.

Interestingly, the credit for hybridisation of alien cultures goes to a horde of singers based abroad. The Alaap group in London inspired many of their ilk, including

Daler MehndiKenya-born Sukhbir who mixed up his personal favourite reggae with bhangra. Whereas earlier singers like Malkit Singh, whose Tootak Tootak Tootiyan became a national mantra of sorts, never moved to Punjab, singers of today, lured by the lucre, are moving lock, stock and barrel to Punjab bringing with them a whole lot of western influences.

Thus, the Mann siblings hog the credit for bringing acoustic instruments like keyboard and guitar on to the stage. Earlier, their use was confined to recording studios. Gursevak, who plays the keyboard, avers: "At the end of the day, I guess the music is still the same. Only it is sounding better for there is more input from the instruments". Many a critic grudges the presence of NRI singers and composers. They are accused of overshadowing quality voices with their affluent status, which helps them to promote themselves. One particular singer is rumoured to have spent Rs 35 lakh from his pocket on his own promotional video. But Riyal dubs the NRI tribe as migratory birds. "They have fertilised Punjabi music which was lying barren for a long time."

Indeed, less than a decade ago, Punjabi music had become synonymous with lachar (double meaning) songs as the rural audiences — the ever loyal fans of Punjabi music — begged for chaudna chaunda songs. The arrival of the king of Punjabi music Gurdas Mann erased the distinction between the singer and the performer. Enjoying a massive fan following even today, it was he who put Punjabi music on the national map. His assertion that he is overwhelmed more by the love and appreciation of non-Punjabis—Bengalis and Gujaratis in particular—than his Punjabi brethren, therefore, comes as no surprise. But after the Gurdas Mann wave, except for an occasional Malkit, there was a lull.

It was only in 1995, when Daler was busy singing Dardi rab rab kardi in a Magnasound studio, drumming the hard-top table to get his beats, that the history of Punjabi music was rewritten. Since his first album Ta ra ra, his recording fees — insiders place it around Rs 3 crore—has registered a 500 per cent jump. His resplendent robes and colourful turbans became a national rage. Even comedy king Jaspal Bhatti apportions a large part of his acceptance by Bollywood to Daler, who garnered nation-wide endorsement for the Sikh image. Daler’s stupendous success was bound to attract more singers to Punjabi pop. But cloning, insist critics, hasn’t paid any dividends.

Bhupinder Bhupi, who has sung the chartbuster Jogia Khalli Balli, has been accused of aping by his detractors. Only singers with their own stamp of individuality have made their mark. Perhaps realising this, Mika — the younger brother of Daler — not only opted for a different image, a clean shaven visage, but decided to test Indipop waters before jumping into the Punjabi pop sea.

Nevertheless, the singers are bound by a common thread. Almost all singers rely upon catchy peppy phrases. So Balle Balle, Oye Oye, Oh Oh, Ta Ra and similar sounding catchwords, which listeners can hum along, are interspersed in simplified lyrics. Punjab might possess a rich repertoire of lyrical gems like those of Baba Farid, Waris Shah, Shiv Kumar Batalavi and Surjit Patra, but those basking in the glory of limelight have no room for rumination or introspection. For that matter even the audience would rather shake a leg than dwell over life and its philosophy.

Gurdas MaanIn this shor sharaba, how important is the voice quality of the singer? Kunal Sarin, zonal manager, Magnasound, claims that before signing a singer his vocal performance is thoroughly tested. But the voice (or rather lack of it) is not finally the determining factor. Image-building, admits Mika, is top-most on the agenda. In sync with changing trends, there is rechristening. So Jassver Jassi Gurdaspria becomes Jassi, and Harnam Singh Mika prefers the short and sweet Mika.

Ironically, the female crop of singers have been left behind in this race and they have to be content with singing at social gatherings. Neelam Sharma, a veteran who has been singing for over two decades, is clueless as to why no audio companies are coming forward to promote them.

Manpreet Akhtar, a well-known crooner, feels that the reserved demeanour of female singers as against the no-holds barred attitude of male performers could be one of the reasons for the anomaly, though there is a lot of untapped potential and a ready market for it.

So, a voice— Komal Rizvi— from across the border filters down and creates ripples with Bhangra pao bauji. Plus, it cajoles greenhorns like Raageshwari to suddenly become conscious of their Punjabi roots and flirt with Punjabi pop. There is also Jaspinder Narula. Her ascending graph too is indicative of her successful tryst with Bollywood playback singing.

Now the moot question — will the trend sustain or will it burst like a bubble? Kunal’s optimistic assertion that it is just the beginning might because of business compulsions as the company is all set to launch four new artistes. Similarly, the purists’ stance that by its very nature pop is ephemeral,is also not the last word on the musical storm whipped up by Punjabi pop.

Flushed with the intoxicating combination of fame and money, the party has just begun for the music hounds. The din of dhol dhamaka won’t die down in a hurry. Not as long as the hip swinging V generation is rooting for more and more.


Quick takes

Gurdas Maan

This Badshah of bhangra was given an award by Canadian Indians recently which pronounced him the most outstanding Punjabi star of the millennium. He is a singer, lyricist, composer, choreographer and film-maker, all rolled into one.

Hailing from Gidderbaha village, Gurdas Maan is the original ambassador of Punjabi pop music who revived Punjabi folk tunes. Having spent his childhood singing Sufiana kalaam, he switched to pop and was an instant hit with the public. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you decide to switch over to pop?

Moving to pop from traditional folk songs does not mean that I’ll stick to pop numbers alone. It means that I’ll lend western beats to my songs. After all, music is a reflection of the prevailing lifestyle and trends.

Are you satisfied with what you have achieved so far? What are your future plans?

I have spent many years in this profession and my experience with various music companies has been good. The music companies helped to bring out the best in me. There are more exciting things to look forward to in life. Your future is carved by your present. So I look forward to a great future. I have 28 albums with a record sale of 30 lakh cassettes. In addition to the albums, I have done some playback singing in films and have also made the award-winning film Shaheed-e-Mohabbat.

With a galaxy of Punjabi pop stars on the horizon, how do you hold your own?

For me the lyrics of a song are important. There should be no vulgarity. To an artiste, each work is important. You may put in your best in everything you do but there is always scope for improvement. Your best does not come so easily.

Bhupinder Chawla 'Bhupi'

Bhupi, another protege of Jawahar Wattal, is a Delhi-based Punjabi singer whose debut album Jogia Khalli Balli sold over 3 lakh copies in India. He is coming up with another high powered album very soon. A well-groomed Sikh, Bhupi impresses as someone you have known for years. He is among the best-known Bhupinder Chawla "Bhupi"Punjabi pop singers, and touches the roots of Punjabi folk making it more vibrant to suit the requirements of the younger generation.

Jogia Khalli Balli is your largest selling album. What do you think makes an album a success?

I feel a super-duper song should be decent and simple. It should have a 'hook line'. The problem with the new breed of singers is that even a little success goes to their heads.

What goes into the making of a successful singer?

The main things that make an artiste a hit in the market are his voice, his training, and, of course, his perseverance.

You are often compared to Daler Mehndi. What do you say to that?

I have a typical Punjabi voice with a rustic touch. People can draw their own conclusions.

Who is your target audience?

Anyone and everyone who loves good music!

Hans Raj Hans

Hans Raj Hans, the tall bearded singer, was born in Shafipur village near Jalandhar. His name has become synonymous with Punjabi folk, pop music and Sufiana kalaam.

With 16 albums already to his credit and with a record sale of more than six lakh copies of Jhanjhar alone , Hans is keen not to be typecast. He wants to continue singing folk numbers, Sufiana kalaam and also pop.

Will it be possible for you to retain your Sufiana identity?

I will definitely retain my Sufiana identity. I have established myself as a singer of Sufiana kalaam. My style is anchored in the Sufiana tradition. Whenever there have been offers from films, I have sung decent lyrics.

The release of Tips’ Kachche Dhaage seems to have given you a foothold in films. How do you feel?

Tips gave me a chance to sing for Kachche Dhaage and I got an opportunity to work under the famous music director, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I am also singing in Guddu Dhanoa's forthcoming film Bichchoo.

Daler Mehndi

Daler Mehndi, a protege of music director Jawahar Wattal who creates stars, has indefatigable stamina. Daler ventured into the world of bhangra pop in 1990 at the age of 23. Now even after a decade, Daler continues to mesmerise Punjabis all over the world with his electrifying stage presence. His four albums have sold over 1 crore units and are still in demand.

With three multiplatinum-selling albums to his credit, the king of bhangra pop confesses that never in the wildest of his dreams had he imagined that he would become the Pasha of pop.

What do you have to say about the large number of singers jumping onto the pop bandwagon?

It is wonderful. The younger generation of singers is getting an opportunity to try different things. Their survival in the highly competitive world of music will depend on their talent, opportunities, hard work and, above all, luck. In the end, it will be the survival of the fittest.

Comment on your style of music

In terms of my style of music, I have moved miles ahead of my previous albums. I signed my fourth album with Magnasound for a record sum of Rs 2.5 crore. I always mix the earthy goodness of bhangra with a dash of rap and reggae, blending the sophistication of classical music with the raw energy of dance. My power-packed stage performances are a rage.

Malkit Singh

The London-based singer, Malkit Singh, who took the world by storm with 'Tootak tootak tootiyan...' ,is a short and trim Sikh who looks like the boy next door.

Already an international star, his music is heard wherever there is Indian population. His album Sajna O Sajna has sold over seven million copies and he has come up with a series of hits such as Shahad di Makhi and Bhangra Paon Nu Ji Karda.

What has made Punjabi pop spread like wild fire?

Punjabi pop has always been around, but it is only now that it has got a lot of exposure through TV channels.

Is there a woman behind your success?

Yes, the woman who has supported me all along is my wife.

What is the response to your music abroad?

The biggest problem I’ve faced is to attract the audience of mainstream western-pop. Now things are changing and people are becoming appreciative of Punjabi pop in India as well as abroad. My hit numbers include Jugni and Gur Nalo Ishq Mitha. My next venture is with Virgin Records.


They say nothing succeeds like success. And that is what one can say about Punjabi munda Sukhbir who has three albums of bhangra pop to his credit. This Dubai-based NRI singer has stormed the world with his high voltage stage performances. A regular performer in the USA, Canada, England and Dubai, Sukhbir acknowledges that Punjabi pop has a good market at present, especially in India, the West Asian countries and the Far East.

Please describe your albums?

My three albums sold over seven lakh units in India. You can dance with them, you can cry with them and you can fall in love with them

What is your next step?

To be the biggest pop star! To be known for my singing talent, to be loved and adored by the masses who matter the most to me.

What message would you like to give to your fans?

Keep living, loving and laughing. Life is too short to hate.

— Interviewed by Dharam Pal