Volley of words: Is Punjab’s ban on songs extolling gun culture logical? : The Tribune India

Volley of words: Is Punjab’s ban on songs extolling gun culture logical?

Whether or not Punjab’s ban on songs extolling gun culture is logical or workable, the lyrics and videos reflect a complex socio-cultural reality

Volley of words: Is Punjab’s ban on songs extolling gun culture logical?

The Punjab government’s recent ban on songs promoting gun culture or extolling violence and the public display of firearms is not the first. - iStock



Renu Sud Sinha, Seema Sachdeva, Sarika Sharma

IN 1968, Welsh singer Tom Jones sang ‘Delilah’, the lyrics of which were about cold-blooded murder:

“She stood there laughing,

I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.”

“No one seriously thought the lyrics would inspire a spate of murders across the UK and Tom Jones went on to receive an Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth for service to music,” says Radhika Chopra, former professor of sociology at Delhi School of Economics.

Singers like Sidhu Moosewala may seem to have promoted gun culture, but Punjab’s traditional vaars, ballads and folk songs have references of weapons of those times — takua, gandasa, talwar, besides guns

“The difference between the 1960s and today is that music is heard and seen at once. Music videos display the lyrics. In ‘Gundagardi’, Sippy Gill literally extols guns. Diljit Dosanjh aims a gun directly at viewers in ‘Jatt Fire Karda’. The lyrics and promotional images work together to express the sentiment and the message of the song,” Chopra adds.

Can music turn a society violent? In 2018, an Australian university carried out a study among fans of violent music and those who didn’t like that music at all. They were shown violent images after listening to gruesome sound tracks. It found no difference in the choices of either group

Do guns in music videos actively harm society? “At stake are the rights of individuals to freely express their views, and moral panic about a new generation of songs and singers (something not limited to Punjab of the 21st century) versus the question of whether violence in music or violent music numbs the horror toward violent acts,” says the sociologist.

“Though totally opposite, both viewpoints tap into long histories of suspicion against popular culture — music, painting, novels, poetry, cartoons — and equally long histories of states imposing bans because of the fear that music will incite violence. At the heart of the debate is the very real acknowledgment of music itself — music is expressive, emotive and evocative. That’s what makes military tunes and wartime music so successful — and they are promoted, not banned, by states,” Chopra says.

A 2018 study conducted by Macquarie University’s music lab in Australia among fans of violent music and those who didn’t like that music at all found there was no difference in the choices either group made when shown violent images after listening to gruesome sound tracks. “The conclusion was that music didn’t sway opinion or action,” adds Chopra.

The Punjab government’s recent ban on songs promoting gun culture or extolling violence and the public display of firearms is not the first. Nor is it likely to be the last. “It does, however, encourage debate about whether there are sufficient police personnel available to control law and order, or the number of illegal arms that have been seized, or indeed the number of licences issued in the last 10 years. Or whether the ban is passing the buck instead of addressing the problem,” she wonders.

Dr Nahar Singh, a scholar of Punjabi folklore and former head of the Punjabi department at Chandigarh’s Panjab University, says Punjab has always had a heroic tradition and Sikh history has always glorified sacrifice and heroism.

Satnam Sandhu, who runs the magazine Punjab Heritage, agrees: “From Punjabi vaars or heroic ballads to a love story like Mirza-Sahiban, weapons have been an intrinsic part of Punjabi ethos. We celebrate soormas, our folk heroes are Jeona Morh. What was earlier a teer-kamaan or lance has been replaced by a gun.”

Weapons have been a part of Punjabi culture for centuries. These find a mention in popular songs going back to even the tales of Jagga Daaku, Dulla Bhatti or Mirza-Sahiban, says Punjabi writer Ninder Ghugianvi. “Though singers like Sidhu Moosewala may seem to have promoted gun culture, but songs of singers like Mohd Sadiq, Kuldeep Manak, Surinder Shinda, recorded nearly 40 years back, too, have references of weapons of those times — takua, gandasa, talwar, besides guns. What has changed is the picturisation of songs. While earlier we could only hear songs, the strong visuals and catchy beats have caught the fancy of the younger generation, which has only been too keen to share these,” says Ghugianvi.

Dr Sucha Singh Gill, director-general of CRRID, says in earlier times the weapons were for self-defence. “It was during militancy that the gun became a symbol of power. Even after normalisation, there was an increase in the number of licences issued, particularly in the first decade of the new millenium. It was during this time that one finds a number of songs on weapons. They express the connect between the political and cultural reality in Punjab. The two emerging realities of unemployment and drug menace soon made guns a tool of assertion.”

Jatinder Singh, Assistant Professor, Punjabi, Government College, Chandigarh, feels that to understand Punjab’s fascination for weapons, one needs to go back a few centuries when historical threats from marauders made it essential to keep weapons for protection. “The British patronage to Sikh regiments led to guns becoming an essential part of Punjab’s culture. It was, however, not until after 15 years of militancy that an interest in guns and weapons was revived. This generation born after 1995 had not seen the dark times of militancy. Gun on shoulder, riding a horse or jeep soon became images of assertion for this generation, which had no other folk hero or role model but a revolutionary like Bhagat Singh to idolise.”

Lyricist Shamsher Sandhu’s ‘Dupatta Tera Sat Rang Daa’ and ‘Tu Ni Boldi’ sung in Surjeet Bindrakhiya’s mellifluous voice are still popular among those who appreciate decent Punjabi songs.

Sandhu, whose association with the Punjabi music industry goes back over 40 years, says, “The impressions is that violence, gun culture and vulgarity have overshadowed the Punjabi music industry. But it has always been there. Earlier there were not many channels or platforms, hence its reach was limited.”

He is quick to defend Punjab’s heritage though. “It is not just Punjabi music that shows such extreme violence. South Indian films, Bhojpuri songs, Hindi movies, even a recent Pakistani film, ‘Legend of Maula Jatt’, project extreme violence,” says the lyricist.

The criticism of Punjabi songs, he feels, is due to the glorification of gangsters. “The educated and aware listeners want to shun violence and vulgarity,” he says, his voice echoing hope. “More than the violence in songs, it is drugs that have created problems among the youth in the state.” Drugs have killed more youth than gun violence, argues Sandhu.

The recent ban, he says, is no solution. “The last five governments have raised this issue. Navjot Sidhu had even proposed setting up a cultural commission to oversee this. But till now the governments have only held meetings and submitted proposals, no one ever does anything practical. Bhagwant Mann is himself an artiste. He knows better and should check this bad influence on society,” says the outspoken lyricist.

Gunbir Sidhu, managing director of White Hill Music, among the top Punjabi song producers in the region, feels the music industry is an easy target due to its visibility. “Songs don’t influence society. They merely reflect the trends in society. There is a demand for all kinds of music and banning such songs will not help curb gangwars or gun culture. People don’t buy weapons after watching songs but more out of concern for personal safety. Rather than an embargo on entertainment industry and a ban on creativity, the state needs to address the issue of multiple gun licences being issued,” says Sidhu.

Punjabi films haven’t gone overboard with the theme of violence, but have not remained untouched either, says film historian Bhim Raj Garg. “The era of militancy in the 1980s claimed its leading actor, Virender, brother of Dharmendra. He was shot on the sets of ‘Jatt te Zameen’. Coming close on the heels of Pakistani blockbuster ‘Maula Jatt’ (1979), this was a time when Jatt and his pride were the themes on this side of the border too, with film titles like ‘Jeona Jatt’, ‘Jagga Daaku’ and ‘Jatt Da Gandasa’ headlining the industry, and actors Gugu Gill and Yograj Singh its main stars.” This phase, adds Garg, did not last long, however, and soon came films with themes such as NRIs’ homecoming, romance and now, comedy.

Darshan Aulakh has been part of the Punjabi entertainment industry for over 36 years, initially as a producer and director of music videos and later, Punjabi movies. He agrees about the historical context but feels the rise of gangs in Punjab in the past 10-15 years has led to such songs. “Weapons have always been a part of our culture. But with the rise of gangsters, songs promoting gun culture have become popular. There have been rumours of gangsters funding singers/lyricists to write songs promoting gun culture and also to create an atmosphere of fear so their terror reign remains. Our governments may impose all sorts of bans but when VIPs roam around with a posse of securitymen brandishing weapons, what message is being sent? Banning songs/videos is curtailing creative liberty. It’s the deteriorating law and order situation due to which there’s easy availability of illegal weapons. Then there’s the indifference of the police to tackle crime. The recent murders in Punjab were not committed with licensed weapons. There is also no law that bans licensed weapons as law permits weapons for self-defence,” argues Aulakh.

Songs and music videos showing guns, fancy cars, etc, garner millions of views on social media, he says. “For new singers/lyricists, in quest of instant popularity, such songs are the obvious choice,” adds the producer-director.

“After Moosewala’s murder, top Punjabi stars and singers are not shooting or working in Punjab because of the fear psychosis. There are threats and extortion is being paid quietly. Most shoots for movies and songs are happening in Canada or UK. Only new singers who may not have that kind of budget are shooting in Punjab,” claims Aulakh.

“The Punjabi film industry is facing business losses. Haryana and UP governments provide 40 per cent subsidy to filmakers who shoot in these states. Punjab provides no such subsidy and even taking permission for shootings or getting security for movie stars remains a huge hassle. What to talk of a film city, the government has not been able to provide even a single-window facility. The prevailing atmosphere of fear as well as these hassles are the reason why big stars prefer shooting abroad. Also, it is easy to release songs shot abroad on social media sites, however violent their content,” says Aulakh.

Prof Paramjit Singh Judge, former professor of sociology, GNDU, Amritsar, too, is of the opinion that the ban is no solution. “We must understand that it’s not possible to remove references to weapons altogether because these are endemic to Punjabi culture. Be it any of our religious texts, or even love stories, weapons and violence remain an integral part of Punjabi culture.”

Revolutionary poetry dots our literature, he points out. “A singer-lyricist like Sidhu Moosewala gained popularity because he combined in his songs the religious traditions of kavishers and dhaadis with our cultural tradition of violence and militancy. They are a part of our socio-cultural reality, just like the reference to caste and caste pride in our songs. One may object to the usage of word ‘Jatt’ in our songs but this word has been used in our folk tradition going back at least 500 years.”

Waris Shah’s Heer is referred to as Jatti while in Pilu’s Mirza-Sahiban, there are references to Jatt Mirza. “Even Surinder Kaur’s song, ‘Do Jattiyan Majaj Diyan Pattiyan’, referes to ‘Jattis’. The word ‘Jatt’ is a culturally accepted current usage though more than caste, it has now come to refer to a farming community, in general. One also finds reference to Dalit pride in songs, which have a huge market and are mostly financed by NRIs,” says Prof Judge.

A politically degenerated state, with no development or means of employment and infested with the drugs menace, can only appreciate such music, says Nahar Singh. “The Green Revolution was a watershed moment as it hugely impacted progress. There wasn’t much technological advancement or change in the education system after that. As a results, no skill upgradation became possible among the youth. The much-needed societal evolution stopped and people remained stuck in a time warp, sticking to old value systems, traditions and attitudes of the times gone by. Militancy only hastened this degeneration. Had Punjab transformed or developed its agro industry or there was economic development, the state would not have been choking in the grip of unemployment and drug menace, resulting in this huge youth migration. A ban on songs is no solution, what’s needed is a solution to these deeply-infested problems,” says the scholar. An impossible dream?

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