From Pind to Pan-India: The Undying Global Appeal of Punjabi Music

Pop Culture

From Pind to Pan-India: The Undying Global Appeal of Punjabi Music

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Ispent the better part of the month of May this year in Delhi. Apart from the scorching summer sun, I also experienced the makings of a Big Fat North Indian Wedding first hand. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly opulent decor, indulgent food, and enough alcohol abuse to justify bringing back Prohibition.) I came back convinced that Mumbaikars will never quite be able to party as hard as North Indians. Zest for alcohol aside, the biggest advantage our friends up North have going for them is that their party-hard ways are usually chronicled by their homegrown brand of foot-stomping Punjabi music.  

Some of my most cherished Delhi memories had Punjabi songs playing in the background. Like my first gol gappa at the seedier end of Vasant Kunj’s Mahipalpur. The fiery tinge I felt in the back of my throat went hand in hand with Mankirt Aulakh’s peppy “Munda Badnam Ho Gaya” playing at a nearby Agarwal Sweets. Or how at 4am in Connaught Place’s Kitty Su, Parmish Varma’s “Gaal Ni Kadni” coupled with four LIITs made me gyrate maniacally on the dance floor. In fact, even the wedding ceremonies were rife with choreographed performances by the bride and groom’s aunts and uncles who seemed totally at ease shaking a leg on Badshah’s “Wakhra Swag” and Jassi Gill’s “Nakhre” among others.

But the cherry on the cake was the sangeet, which was capped off by a special one-hour performance by international Punjabi music superstar, RDB. The guy even asked me to do a little bhangra routine for him on stage. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being on Boogie Woogie. Say what you will about Delhi folk, but they sure do know how to throw a party.

By the end of my two-week stint in the Capital, my phone’s storage was blessed with about 500mb of Punjabi music and I was mouthing Diljit Dosanjh’s “Raat Di Gedhi” in my sleep. My Saavn playlist felt more like a high-roller auto-enthusiast’s garage graced with tunes like “Laembadgini” and “Jaguar”. I found myself convinced that Punjabi music is transcendental. I even told my lonely male friends in Mumbai that the trick to snagging chicks is blasting Punjabi songs while speeding through Western Express Highway, #GedhiGetsYouLadiesYo.

In my euphoria, I also went ahead and did some research on the history of this fantastic genre. A few google searches later, I was left spelbound at just how vast the cultural impact of Punjabi music spreads. For decades, Punjabi artistes in other countries have been successfully merging the folk sounds of tumbi and dhol with genres like hip hop/gangsta rap and disco. For artists in the UK and the US, their access to great production studios resulted transformational sounds that gave us time-tested acts like Sukhshinder Shinda, Panjabi MC (Remember Boom’s “Mundeya Toh Bach Ke”?), Juggy D and Gippy Grewal.

Another integral point is that just like Bollywood, the bygone-era stalwarts of the Punjabi music industry understood full well that they needed to evolve with the times.

As my drive-to-work playlist saw Motley Crüe’s Greatest Hits lose their spots to tear-jerkers such as Neha Bhasin’s rendition of “Madhaniya”, I suddenly understood the secret behind Punjabi music’s popularity: As a people, Punjabis truly understand what works globally. In the UK in the 70s, Punjabi music became intertwined with British Pop. By the 1980s, Punjabi music, many types of which were now being referred to as “bhangra,” started to be played in discos in the UK and US.  During my time there, I can attest to having heard Punjabi MC in many an LA club. A lot of times, even my white friends were singing along!

Another integral point is that just like Bollywood, the bygone-era stalwarts of the Punjabi music industry understood full well that they needed to evolve with the times. Which is why Jay Sean’s “Dance With You” from 2004, Gippy Grewal’s “Angrezi Weed” from 2011, and Guru Randhawa’s “Suit Suit Karda” aren’t just timeless hits, they each represent the unique industry culture of that era. One look at Jay Sean’s boy-band mannerisms from 2004 or Randhawa’s hair do in 2018 and you understand just how well Punjabi artists have done when it comes to having their finger on global fashion and music trends of the time. Not to mention, it doesn’t take a cinematographer to gauge that Diljit Dosanjh and Badshah’s music videos are more tastefully shot than most Bollywood blockbusters.

While the scantily clad gori mems, insinuations of violating consent and toxic masculinity have certainly given the industry a bad rap in recent years, the numbers aren’t seeing a dip because of this. The sounds from the Pind continue to enjoy the largest share in the independent music industry of India and with approximately Rs 700 crore (including revenue from songs and live-events), the Punjabi music industry is almost five times the size of the Telugu music industry, the second-largest market in the category.

While some may partly attribute this success to the 130 million native Punjabi speakers in the world, I believe there’s more to it than mere numbers. For nearly half a century, Punjabi artists have earned a global reputation of creating catchy, party-rocking numbers that appeal to both frat boys in Jersey as well as Gedhi Boys in Jalandhar; ensuring that ample whiskey-shishkey and soni kudis aside, the sound of the Tumba and a crooning Punjabi is still the most addictive drug at any party.

This article is sponsored by Times Music.