Popular not just in Punjab but also North India and beyond, the Dalit singers of Amritsar’s Valmiki Colony tackle issues of concern to their community – illiteracy, superstition, drugs and reservations.
Amritsar: In a tidy room with pink walls and silk curtains in Amritsar’s Valmiki Colony, I sat perched on a sofa in one corner, facing a 40-inch flatscreen TV. On the screen two men rode motorcycles, leading an envoy of young men also on bikes. These two men were also sitting on either side of me on the sofa, sipping cola.
On the screen, the two men moved to jaunty background music even while on their motorcycles – sometimes walking towards the camera (apparently disembarking from their bikes) with their hands raised – while the others seemed pleased to just be in the frame, riding behind their leaders approvingly.
Travelling across Punjab, it is not unusual to come across singers in towns and cities whose names you may never have heard, but who enjoy a level of popularity thanks to a “cut CD” or “music video” they have made. After all, the reputation of the state’s contemporary music scene is not for nothing.
But Pawan Dravid and his neighbour Rakesh Rahi of Valmiki Colony turned out to be unique – because of what they sing and for whom they sing.
The music video playing on TV had the rhythm and cadence of the contemporary Punjabi music that is popular all over the country, but the lyrics sung in Hindi were a distinguishing factor. The song, titled Arakshan, goes like this:
Pehle chale hain, ab na chalenge, mil ke larenge hum
Bhim Rao ka har ek bachcha ab na kisi se kam
Kam dham dand bhed ka chakkar tor ke saksham
Ab na arakshan ko jane denge, koi bhi laga le dam
Khara rahe andolan apna, sabko yehi batana re
Arakshan ko bachana re….”
[It used to be so, but not anymore, we shall fight together
Every child of Bhim Rao is no longer less than any other
Capable of breaking the cycles of labour and untouchability,
We shall never let our reservations be taken away,
may anyone enforce their might against us
Spread the message, our crusade shall continue
Save our reservations…]
“We have been professional singers for years,” Dravid told me, “Though we sing other songs as well, we are mostly known for our Valmiki bhajans and our songs about Dalit rights and what our community should do to better its state.”
My conversation with Dravid and Rahi, after I watched their music video, revealed a world that exists parallel to that of popular Punjabi music, a world that is largely unknown but is as vibrant as the latter – that of Dalit rights and Dalit expressions of assertion.
It turned out that Dravid and Rahi, along with their neighbours Shashi Gill and Kumar Darshan, are the prime movers of a musical network that extends not only across Punjab, but also North India and beyond.
That all of them live in Valmiki Colony is thanks to the many top-rate Dalit songwriters and Valmiki bhajan singers who have been their neighbours and who helped hone their voices and repertoire as they were growing up.
“All four of us have been singing on stage since childhood,” Rahi told me, “We began by singing Valmiki bhajans. I was initiated into the art by my father Tarachand Qawwal and my uncle Deshraj Safar. My father used to sing bhajans on stage and my uncle wrote some of the most famous Valmiki bhajans in Punjab. We are very privileged to have been born in a neighbourhood that has produced so many good bhajan singers and writers. These singer-songwriters later began writing samajik (social) songs too – that’s how we were inspired to expand our repertoire in that direction as well.”
Rahi is the songwriter of Arakshan. When asked what motivated him to write the song, he reflected, “For some time now, there has been a lot of talk on whether reservations in jobs and educational institutions for Dalits should still exist. Other communities that are comparatively much better-off than us have begun demanding reservations as well. I thought of writing a song that deals with why Dalits still need reservations. Through the song, I wanted to tell people that the aim behind reservations for our particular community has not yet been fulfilled and therefore we still need them.”
The duo said that songs like Arakshan give the people of their community not only music that they can “call their own” but also “a lot of confidence about who they are [and] why they should have certain rights.”
“Take our song Khabardar Ravan Hai Pehredar,” Rahi said, “It is very popular and has lines [about Babasaheb Ambedkar and our community] like ‘Babasaheb jab aye chhaye, hak chine unhone wapas/ ab rakshak hai kaum ke Ravan, rahi kyu jiye ghabrakar…” [‘When Babasaheb arrived and spread his influence, he snatched our rights back…’]
For these reasons, they also sing samajik or social songs. “Dalit society suffers from the problems of superstition, illiteracy and lack of education for women and also, in Punjab, drug abuse. We sing songs to spread awareness about these problems. We push our listeners to fight these ills and improve the state of our community. We use contemporary music in our songs, which makes them an instant hit, particularly among younger listeners,” said Dravid.
Before the Arakshan music video was released in 2015 with a CD, Dravid and Rahi’s group – known locally as simply ‘Dravid and Rahi’ – had released 15 other CDs. Dravid had also sung duets with the well-known Punjabi singer Jaspinder Narula.
Dravid and Rahi have been performing on stage too. “We perform not just in the northern cities but in Mumbai and Kolkata too. On April 14 this year, we were invited to perform at the government’s function at the Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi to mark the 125th anniversary of B. R. Ambedkar,” Rahi told me.
A few doors away from Dravid’s house is singer Gill’s house. When we visited him, he had just returned from a stage performance in Himachal Pradesh. Sipping a cup of tea, Gill sat down with us to reminisce on his musical journey: “As a child, I used to sing bhajans about Valmiki and Babasaheb on stages across Punjab with my father Pyarelal Arjan. He is a Valmiki bhajan writer, well-known even outside Punjab. On growing up, I started singing samajik songs as well, on issues that affect our community like dowry and education for girls, as I perceived a need to spread awareness among my community about the various ills that have historically held us back. All the songs that I sing were written by my father.”
Tapping the table before him, Gill hummed a few lines of a song his father wrote on girls’ education and that he set to music:
Banke haseen kaum ka sringar karegi
Dal dal ke sagar ko par karegi
Achhi soch ma pita ki zahir karegi
Larki parhaoge toh sudhar karegi…”
[She will bejwel the community with her beauty
She will cross a sea of hurdles
She will emulate the teachings of her parents
Educate her, and she will bring betterment…]
Recalling his days growing up in Valmiki Colony, 30-year-old Gill said that it was common to hear singing practice coming from one house or the other in the early mornings. “In the evenings, we used to assemble in one of the houses with the elders and sing bhajans. Someone would play the harmonium, someone else would bring his tabla, yet another would open a song book – and the session would go on for hours. We do this often even now but at the colony’s Valmiki temple.”
Triggered by the popularity of the genre, quite a few musicians in Punjab have emerged who sing on issues that concern the Dalit community, Gill told me. “But no one apart from the four of us go out of the state to perform. We are booked months ahead for big annual events like Babasaheb’s birthday,” he said. Such stage performances, he told me, “can earn Rs. 50,000 a night.”
Dalit rights activist Subhas Dawesar accompanied me to Dravid’s house. “Bollywood music is popular everywhere,” he said, “It is popular among our people also. But these these four men’s songs are usually what you hear at our functions. They have earned a lot of respect among youth, particularly in north India.”
Rahi added, however, “Singing and songwriting alone can’t run the kitchen. Compared to what is available to other singers, there are few platforms for us. The country’s politics are not on our side. So we are not called everywhere to sing our songs, not even our bhajans. Only Valmiki satsangs [group devotional singing sessions] invite us for bhajan performances. How many of those can one do in a month?”
To supplement their earnings, Rahi and Dravid work as safai karamcharis (cleaning staff) in a local polytechnic college, while Gill sings Bollywood numbers in weddings.