While growing up in Punjab, I was reminded by many not to listen to ‘Chamkila’. I could never understand the reasons behind those advices at that time and never cared to ask anyone as I was not a song loving person. Hence, those advices didn’t matter to me. After moving to England 2 years ago, Chamkila’s songs started buzzing in my ears at strange places, songs being played loudly in the cars on the roads of London and nearby areas. For me, it was indeed a strange introduction to some hidden treasure. Over the last one year or so, I have listened to most of Chamkila’s songs (available on YouTube) ‘uncounted number of times’!
Born on July 21st, 1960, in a Dalit family (Chamar caste) in the village of Dugri near Ludhiana, Punjab, Amar Singh Chamkila’s original name was Dunni Ram. ‘Chamkila’ in Punjabi means one that glitters and the name fits him very well. He is the most influential Punjabi songwriter, musician and singer of all times. He sang for less than a decade, before he was killed, but his name is regarded as one of the greatest Punjabi folk performers – at live stage and open-air concerts (known as Akhade in Punjabi). He worked in different jobs, such as in a cloth mill before turning to songwriting, but a few people say even after becoming a songwriter for high profile singers (Surinder Shinda) he was not able to feed his family, so he turned to singing. He had a natural appetite for music so he reached the top instantly. His appeal grew not only in Punjab but also abroad and he conducted live concerts in the Middle East and other countries.
On 8 March 1988, at the age of 26, Chamkila was shot along with his partner, but no arrests were ever made in connection with the killings. In Punjab, there are some theories on why he was killed. I will try to go through a few of them for the purpose of starting a discussion on whether caste played any role in his death?
People, his detractors, say some of his songs were ‘offensive’ and one couldn’t listen to those ‘with the family’, but does that give anyone a right to kill? Chamkila’s supporters regard his songs as a truthful commentary on Punjabi culture and society. His songs portrayed the village life, extra-marital relationships, old age, women’s bad situation at home, wife beating, kids without food and clothes, drinking habits, fighting without reasons and drug use etc. Don’t you think this is the reality of Punjab or India? Wasn’t he speaking what is written in scriptures and practiced in day to day life in India? After listening to him, I couldn’t find anything but realities of our society in his songs. People would look and treat you differently if you listen to Chamkila in Punjab, but I couldn’t find anything offensive. Chamkila, coming from a village and a lower caste, knew the realities of society and hence he penned down those in his songs. He also sung many religious songs such as ‘Baba Tera Nankana’ and ‘Talwar Main Kalgidhar Di Haan’ etc.
If he was killed for his ‘offensive’ songs, then why are singers not punished today for the same? Or, why were others not killed? There were and there still are many singers who depict violence against women in songs such as ‘Bhenchod’, ‘Balatkaari’ and ‘Choot’ etc., and still are the top singers of India! I am not saying they should be killed, the point I want to make here is that the ‘objectionable songs logic’ to explain Chamkila’s murder is ‘fake logic’ given by the so-called upper castes to cover up the cold-blooded murder of a great Dalit singer. If it is not ‘fake logic’ then why haven’t other singers met the same fate, or at least faced some kind of punishment? Caste privileges matter.
Many of the songs written by Chamkila were sung by Surinder Shinda (famous singer in Punjab). The credit for making Surinder Shinda famous goes to Chamkila but this is never recognised by anyone. At that time, he was considered more popular than many legends such as Gurdas Mann, Surinder Shinda and Kuldeep Manak. Some people believe that due to the public’s declining interest in other Punjabi singers in favour of Chamkila, one or more of these artists may have planned his killing. Can you smell anything related to caste discrimination? Doesn’t it prove what Dr. Ambedkar said in his speech ‘What Path to Salvation’ right, once again?
“Why then do the caste Hindus get irritated? The reason for their anger is very simple. Your behavior with them on a par insults them. Your status is low. You are impure, you must remain at the lowest rung; then alone they will allow you to live happily. The moment you cross your level, the struggle starts.” (What Path to Salvation? – Speech delivered by Dr. Ambedkar to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, 31st May 1936, Bombay)
Chamkila married his partner in singing, Amarjot Kaur (Jat, upper caste), and some believe that Chamkila being from a lower caste and marrying an upper caste woman infuriated the so-called upper castes. So, disgraced by Amarjot’s involvement with Chamkila, her family was led to arrange the honour killing.
Even today, singers steal not only lyrics from Chamkila’s songs but whole songs, to get into limelight. These include Nasha, Mere Yaar Ne (Gippy Grewal) and Shad De Vairne Yaari (Jazzy B). Title of ‘Lallu Kare Kawaliya’ comedy album by Bhagwant Mann (MP of Aam Aadmi Party) was inspired from one of the songs of Chamkila. According to one report, in Punjab, even after more than 25 years of his death, HMV Music Company sells more Chamkila’s songs than any other singer’s. Such is the persona and popularity of the Dalit singer, Chamkila.
Chamkila, King of Tumbi (a traditional musical instrument from Punjab)
According to Gurinder Azad, “Such was his popularity that his biographer found during his research that he conducted 366 live shows in 365 days. Till today, I don’t see any marriage in Punjab where Chamkila is not remembered through his songs.” Many accept that he was a legend, the Elvis of Punjab. There was no singer like him, there is none and there will be none like him. He was truly a legend in the music industry. I will leave here for you to decide whether caste played a role in the death of Elvis of Punjab.
Pardeep Attri blogs at http://drambedkarbooks.com/ and tweets at @AmbedkarCaravan