Oy, Chak de Phatte! How is it that a language and a culture that, for long, have been the butt of a national culture of jokes have suddenly attained the status of transnational cool?
Over the past 10 years or so, Punjabi language and culture have increasingly become part of a global cultural traffic that includes Bollywood films, rap and dance music, and the ‘‘Bhangra beat’’ phenomenon that attracts fans from across a number of different cultural backgrounds. From Monsoon Wedding to Bride and Prejudice, and from the numerous Mahi vey (and Shava shava) songs of Hindi films to MC Punjabi numbers produced in the United Kingdom, Punjabiyat is in. Indeed, it has become almost become the dominant mode of representing India to the world, as well as to itself. The idea that ‘‘Punjabiness’’ embodies an authentic Indian-ness is an important part of its global popularity. As is well known, from the 1950s onwards, some of the most significant actors in Hindi cinema were of Punjabi background. So, whether it was the Kapoor clan, Dev Anand, Balraj Sahni, Sunil Dutt, Jeetendra, or Rajesh Khanna, Punjabi men were major contributors to the acting pool. Yet, curiously enough, Punjabi culture and music were very rarely portrayed in a positive manner. More often than not, when Punjabi-ness was represented, it was a comical presence. Think, for example, of the Koi mein jhoot boleya number in the 1956 classic Jagte Raho. Here, a bunch of overweight Sikh gentlemen cavorting around the staircases and passageways of an apartment block provide the ‘‘humorous’’ backdrop. During the same period that Indian popular culture was skewed towards representing India as, essentially, of the Gangetic plains region (even though the purveyors of this idea in terms of, say, singers, actors, and film directors were frequently Punjabi), another important process was in train. This was the slow but substantial movement of migrants of Punjabi origin to foreign shores, most notably the UK, Canada, and to a lesser extent, the US. However, it was their children — the UK born Asians — who sought Punjabi culture through a process of cultural assertion. The Punjabi assertion overseas was quickly recognised by Indian film-makers as an important window of opportunity for their products. In any discussion of Punjabi culture and its circulation it is impossible not to mention the global popularity of Bhangra. Of course, there is no one Punjabi-ness that finds play. Whereas Indian cinema has tended to be somewhat conservative in its depictions (the ‘‘good’’ male of Indian origin will invariably marry a ‘‘good’’ Indian woman, and respect his elders), musical production originating among diasporic youth cultures have had greater political edge. For, in the latter instance, they address the politics of ethnicity, family life, multi-culturalism, etc. in ways that are different from the Indian case. And, at the present time, it would appear that mainstream India now considers Punjabi-ness as representative of the new go-getting, consumerist Indian identity, one that can more truly reflect the current phase of economic and cultural liberalisation. In the politics of representation, Gangetic Indian-ness appears to have given way to its perceived antithesis, a quick-witted Punjabi-ness at home in the world. And, oh yes, it helps that some of the music out there is also both innovative and full of foot-tapping rhythms. The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi