Monday, March 27, 2017

Research on Dalit Assertion in Punjabi Music

Research on Dalit Assertion in Punjabi Music

Following my blogs on Bootan Mandi, dalit assertion and related subjects, one of the researchers, Prof. Peter Manuel of the Music Department of the City University of New York, contacted me a couple of weeks ago and informed me about his interest and asked
Peter Manuel and Ginni Mahi
for more information with regard to his research project on the subject. Prof. Manuel visited Punjab a couple of years ago for the purpose and gathered some material but still he was working on his project. He has already done a meaningful study and research on Hindustani music including Thumri, Gazal, Braj and Bhojpuri. Peter speaks Hindi and is well versed with the Indian musical traditions and culture. Though I am no authority on the subject and I told Peter of this fact, yet I agreed to do my bit as a novice oral history narrator. I requested Peter Manuel that it will be better, instead of talking on phone, if he could send me a couple of questions which I could answer in writing. He agreed to the suggestion and sent me his queries.

I have divided his questions in two parts. The write-up produced below is to answer one of his interests in Bootan Mandi and the Gurpurab of Ravidass which has turned into a big mela in the region as an annual ritual with particular reference to the ‘Chamar Identity’  which the renowned singers of Punjab have tended to praise and mention in their albums and stage performances. The second part of the query is about the increasing dalit assertion in the Punjabi folk lore in the contemporary times to establish “Chamar Identity” to counter the often bragged and flouted ‘Jatt Superiority”. I will answer the latter part separately.

I thought of sharing this with my blog followers.

Resurgence Of Dalit Identity and Bootan Mandi Jalandhar

Bootan Mandi is a non-descript resident locality situated on Nakodar Road (now named as Ambedkar Marg) in the outskirts of Jalandhar city. Even before India’s independence in 1947, Bootan Mandi was a famous place for leather tanning, trading of raw and tanned leather not only by the Chamars (untouchables in the Hindu caste hierarchy) of the area but also by the Muslims who had to leave for Pakistan in the wake of partition of India. Bootan Mandi as such was a prosperous place mainly inhabitated by Chamars engaged in leather business. Out of them, some of the more enterprising even spread out to other leather business centers like Kanpur, Calcutta etc.

Chamars are the followers of Guru Ravidass, a great Saint of the Bhakti Movement in the 15th century. Forty one hymns (shabads/bani) of Guru Ravidass are enshrined in the religious and holy Guru Granth Sahib, scripture of the Sikhs. Guru Ravidass was an exponent of casteless society and equality. Obviously, his mission and philosophy became the main stay of dalits who were the sufferers and victims of the Manuwadi (ancient Hindu Law maker Manu) caste divide of the society. The Chamars and other dalit communities started asserting themselves under the influence of India’s Independence struggle against the British rule. The after effects of the First World War in which some dalits got the chance to go abroad coupled with the Ghadar movement, advent of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Babu Manguram Muggowalia on the political firmament of the country and society at large added further impetus to the process.  The chamars of Bootan Mandi, with their economic well being, came to the fore and spearheaded the Ad-dharm Movement of Babu Manguram Muggowalia in the late 1920s. They also supported and followed Dr. Ambedkar’s struggle for the emancipation of dalits in 1930s. Bootan Mandi became the nerve centre of dalit politics and social empowerment from mid 1930s. Under the leadership of two leading lights of the time, Seth Sunder Dass and Seth Kishan Dass (all well to do leather businessmen were called Seth as a mark of respect even today this practice is prevalent), Bootan Mandi hosted the offices of Ad-dharm Mandal, Schedule Caste Federation and celebrated and observed the birthday anniversary (Gurpurab) of Guru Ravidass with √©lan and gaiety every year. The festivities, including illumination of buildings, fireworks, religious discourses, poetic symposium, musical shows, dance and drama slowly became a common and regular feature in successive years. The Bootan Mandi Seths supported and encouraged the symbols of dalit assertion in recognition of the roles of Ad-dharm Mandal at Kishanpura, Dera Sachkhand Balan, and Dera Chak Hakim near Phagwara. Seth Kishan Dass of Bootan Mandi, an ardent follower of Guru Ravidass and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar became a Member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly even before India’s independence. Literary
people like Gurdass Ram Alam, Bhagmal Pagal, Narinder Khedi on invitation and reception by the son of the soil of Bootan Mandi, Pritam Ramdasspuri, set the tone of folklore to recognize and appreciate the festivities at Bootan Mandi. Gurdass Ram Alam recited his composition “ Bada Shor Painda Gariba De Dere; Ajj Kaun Aya Savere Savere”  at a public function at Bootan Mandi in honour of Dr. Ambedkar during his visit in 1951. Pritam Ramdasspuri asserted with pride “Guru Ravidass Di Jins Han Te Bhim Di Aulad Han”

Moving with the time, the community of Bootan Mandi and also of villages in and around achieved further economic success and political awareness. The festivities on Guru Ravidass Gurpurab and also the birthday anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar got more organized and pronounced. These activities were more spiritual and solemn
to begin with. My own uncle, brother of my father, Jai Ram Parwana was an artist of his own reckoning. He performed Prabhat Pheris (singing f devotional songs and bani of Guru Ravidass in the mornings in the streets of the colony), wrote poems and songs which were rendered by famous singers and poets on the stages of Gurpurab celebration. By mid 1960s, taking over from my educated seniors namely Om Parkash Mahey, Dharam Chand Mahey, Durga Dass, Bishambar Dass, Bhagwan Dass and others, myself, as a young student and a humble native of Bootan Mandi, got engaged increasingly with these social and spiritual aspects of community living. We, along with my colleagues like Hardial Banger, Manohar Mahey, Darshan Kaler, Sat Paul Mahey, Swaran Dass Duggal, and Prem Shant among others, changed gears and started giving further
Ramesh Chander beating the Drum on Gurpurab at Bootan Mandi
impetus to the celebrations from literary and intellectual aspects. The musical and spiritual sessions gave way to intellectual poetic symposiums (Kavi Darbars) in which Punjabi poets and singers of repute, namely Vidhata Singh Teer, Hazara Singh Mushtak, Charan Singh Safri, Gurdass Ram Alam, Chanan Manak, Bhagmal Pagal, inter alia, were invited. I was the General Secretary of the then Guru Ravidass Youth Club for a couple of years in the late 1960s. I vividly remember that poets and singers tended to invoke the glory of Bootan Mandi and dalit pride in their renditions in one way or the other. Charan Singh Safri’s formulation “Tera Chamm Na Lahman Ta Ki Lahman” to motivate Chamars against the tyranny of Brahminwad is still alive in my mind. Singers of fame like Narinder Biba, Surinder Shinda, Amar Noorie and Sardool Sikander performed at Bootan Mandi in 1980s. As Punjabi music flourished not only in India but also abroad in the 1980s, Bootan Mandi was no exception. The empowered economic and social status of the community in and around involved the money bags of the Seths of Bootan Mandi.  The venue of functions, to cater to larger audiences, were divided into two – Guru Ravidass Dham led by Seth Sat Paul Mall and Mayor Surinder Mahey with others and Nimm Company and Guru Ravidass Mandir led by Seth Mool Raj, Avinash Chander, Shaddi Lal, Darshan Bodhi and others. They tended to invite costly performers to their functions and celebrations. The celebrations were slowly getting ostentatious and commercial. The likes of Hans Raj Hans, Kaler Kanth, K.S. Makhan, Durga Rangila, Master Saleem, Diljaan, Boota Mohammad, Sabar Koti, Rajni Thakkarwal, Firoz Khan and Ginni Mahi among others were falling on each other to be invited to Bootan Mandi and perform. The high-ups of all parties and the successive governments tended to come and greet the audiences, their potential vote bank. By 1990s, the Gurpurab at Bootan Mandi took the shape of a big Mela for a week every year in the month of February or so. My younger brother, Paramjit Mahey remained the General Secretary of Guru Ravidass Welfare Society and its successor outfit Guru Ravidass Educational and Charitable Trust for almost 10 years and earned considerable appreciation and recognition in running these organizations and their activities.  With this pomp and show, the things have come a full circle. Bootan Mandi earned the status of an undeclared Mecca of dalits which contributed immensely to the insurgence of dalit pride and identity in the region. Rightly so, the message trickled down to the music and poetry too. Bootan Mandi found mention in many of the songs meant to instill a sense of pride and identity in the dalit masses. Though the Seths of Bootan Mandi slowly are losing their status in the leather business yet the Guru Ravidass Gurpurab has acquired the status of a big event in the calendar of the region. It will remain so in the years to come.

I conclude with the hit number of Master Saleem son of legendary Ustad Puran Shah Koti, both sons of soil of Bootan Mandi:

“Bootan Mandi Aajo Jihne Dekhna Nazaara Ae”


  1. Nice read. Would you mind submitting some of your articles on Punjabi Dalits at our website ? We will publish those.

    1. thanks. i will be happy. there are a few on the subject already on my blog. you are free to pick up to host on your blog. you may give me your details to me on my e-mail ID:
      i will keep you posted with updates. meanwhile, i will see your website too. regards