India Dances to the Tunes of the ‘Jatland’
Though the folk music was always an important part of the state’s culture, caste threw up few performers. Young Jats — motivated by the hunt for fame — are making India dance to their tunes
For centuries, Haryana was a footnote. Its barren wastes noted by the rulers of Delhi and Lahore when banditry necessitated military reprisal
The music of those bandit wastelands has somehow become part of the weave of Indian life as a new generation rejects deference
Haryanvi and Khadiboli, spoken in western Uttar Pradesh, existed at the margins of Bollywood film music and dialogue for decades
Hatjya tau pachche ne
Nachan ne ji kar reha se
(Get out of my way old man,
Right now I feel like dancing).
“Ten thousand of the infidels were slain,” recorded the Persian historian Sharaf ad-Din Ali Yazdi, in his epic 15th century biography of Timur the Lame. “The houses were set on fire and the whole place was destroyed. There was nothing left but ashes." Then, the conqueror’s army moved west from the ravaged fort-city of Bhatnir, pillaging Ahruni, Fatehabad, Sirsa and Tohana, marching relentlessly towards the real prize: the great city of Delhi, followed by trains of plundered gold, silver, grain and slaves who were spared the slaughter.
As Timur passed through what is now Haryana, Yazdi noted that the conqueror’s army encountered the Jats, “who had made themselves masters of this neighbourhood”. “They had”, he lamented, “cast aside all the restraints of religion, plundered the caravans and merchants with murder and violence.”
Punishment was sought to be meted out to the Jats but in a time-honoured fashion their bands dissolved into the forests and sugarcane fields, vanishing ahead of a force they could not defeat.
For centuries, Haryana was a footnote. Its barren wastes noted by the rulers of Delhi and Lahore when banditry directed at trade caravans necessitated military reprisal. In adjoining Punjab, the great network of canals built by Imperial Britain laid the foundations for lasting prosperity.
When it was created in 1966, Haryana was made up of Punjab’s most backward regions. It took revenge on history: in 2017, Haryana ranked among top three Indian states on four key fiscal indices; Punjab was in the bottom three.
Now, Jatland is also becoming cool. Hat Ja Tau, a popular Harynavi song re-sung by Sunidhi Chauhan and set to raucous beat for the 2018 film Veere Di Wedding, has been a runaway hit.
Haryanvi music, irredeemably déclassé even half a decade ago, is suddenly everywhere: in Bollywood, at weddings and parties.
The music of those bandit wastelands has somehow become part of the weave of Indian life as a new generation rejects deference — a great pillar of our social order.
Indians from outside the state often imagine Haryana to be the Jatland. Caste has, historically, dominated the state’s politics and social life. But, it is also interesting that the music and the language of the community are being mainstreamed at a time when its dominance is in question.
Hard-hit by shrinking landholdings, the Jats unsuccessfully battled on the streets to be designated a backward caste in 2015 that would have got them reservation in education and government jobs.
“Conflicts between rural and urban Haryana are growing, which affects the Jats most, since their base is agrarian. Also Jat women, who have gained a degree of education for the first time, are also resisting Jat male domination,” says YS Alone, who teaches art and aesthetics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Yet, Bollywood has picked up on the idea of the Jat as a rebel: turbaned, gun-toting, rough-talking, the archetype proudly rejects social norms.
“When you want to show aggression in a film scene then Haryanvi sounds right. That’s why it is popular,” says Rahul Dahiya, who directed the 2016 Haryanvi film G Kutta Se (G — A wanton heart), based on a true story of an honour killing.
Dahiya, who is from Haryana, says the adoption of Haryanvi dialect in other regions also speaks of wider insecurities. “Perhaps they feel that appearing to know Haryanvi will make them look strong or bold,” he says. “But instead it signals the growing insecurity among people, even in other parts of the country. The more people are afraid, the more aggressively they want to react — hence the Haryanvi fad.”
The folklorist Satish Sharma suggests Haryanvi is also attractive because of its rejection of deference. “Haryana wasn’t ruled by kings, lords or jagirdars,” he says. “Hence the language of this region doesn’t have submission-conveying terms like sahib, janaab, malik, mai-baap, huzoor or their equivalent.”
In the state, the same archetype is defining the self-image of a generation of young men. The lyrics of one recent hit proclaim: Haryana ke desi chore, desi mhari thath/ Badmashi na hamey dikhaiyo, hum se sabke baap. (We are Haryana boys, we have a special swagger/ No one can beat us at being ruffians, we’re the biggest of them all)'. The video features all the branding elements associated with Jat-hood: bulked-up men driving around the badlands in SUVs, occasionally firing shots.
JNU’s Alone suggests that the clichés about Jat machismo are also linked to political and cultural aspirations. The music videos invariably feature über-males, flaunting weapons and engaging in violence. “These videos represent liberty — the kind of liberty that only the feudal classes could once take for granted. It’s a very dangerous trend,” he says.
SK Panchal, a Panipat-based rap singer who featured in Haryana Ke Chore, is up and coming Haryanvi rapper. He says the genre is getting traction because its audience is keen on just two themes: “either badmashi or romance”. Like every other generation, this one, too, is drawn to sex and violence but isn’t shy of writing anthems celebrating it.
Haryanvi and Khadiboli, spoken in western Uttar Pradesh, existed at the margins of Bollywood film music and dialogue for decades — think Amitabh Bachchan’s cringe-worthy conversations in Khadi with “Daddu” in Namak Halaal. Now, the idiom is celebrated, and not mocked. Even Ragni, a folk style unique to the Jat-belt, is finding a place in popular Hindi cinema.
“Films like Dangal and Sultan have mainstreamed the Haryanvi or Jat accent that is now quite popular in Bollywood,” says Vikas Kumar, a Mumbai-based actor best known for playing a policeman in a TV drama Khotey Sikkey. The makers of Badhaai Ho went for a ‘Jat’ rather than Punjabi accent, he says.
The runaway hit Hat Ja Tau was sung seven years ago by another Vikas Kumar, who was all of 16 then.
The number catapulted him to stardom, first in Haryana then across its long porous border in Delhi and Rajasthan and finally it got him work in Mumbai. “Now in 2018 Bollywood has picked up my old song and it’s being played everywhere." In February, he sued the Veere Di… producers for not giving him credit for Hat Ja Tau, a claim he says they “accepted and settled”.
It isn't that everyone is happy with the representation Jats have found in popular imagination. Even the attempted realism of Dangal and Tanu Weds Manu has detractors.
“Mumbai’s film industry uses Haryanvi dialects only to express crudity,” says Raghvinder Malik, the former vice-president of Haryana’s film association. “They cast Haryanvi-speakers as thaneydaars. Had it gone beyond stereotyping, Bollywood’s dominance of the Haryanvi culture may have been worth it.”
The identity war
The story goes back to the mid-1970s, when newly formed Haryana was struggling for an identity. To promote folk traditions, Ragni competitions were organised in villages. Today, Bollywood music producers throng these competitions, scouting for raw rural voices.
Rajbir, who sang Tu Raja Ki Raj Dulari (You’re Daughter of a King, a ballady tribute to the Shiv-Parvati lore) in the 2008 Dibakar Banerjee film Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, was 11 when he was picked up from a Ragni competition. In the film, Tu Raja Ki Rajdulari sticks to the original words by Pandit Lakhmichand, a mid-20th century Haryanvi poet, but it is set to a Punjabi pop rhythm and music.
The Jat-dominated Deswal belt boasts of the most musicians. “This being the centre of language, culture and tradition, it managed to create within the others a sense of inferiority,” says Ramphal Chahal, who started archiving Haryanvi music and arts after he retired from All India Radio two decades ago.
With Gurugram emerging as one of India’s wealthy urban hubs, that folk effort has transformed itself into an assertion of linguistic and regional pride. The music is a marker of identity in a globalising world; an assertion that communities seen as lacking cultural capital can also compete with tradition élites.
Umesh Punia, a young techie, started an online Haryanvi music radio channel — Radio Haryanvi — last year to promote the language. He is tone agnostic: the ‘softer’ Kaurvi of Kurukshetra and Karnal, the incantation-like Khadri of Sonepat and Panipat, the Punjabified Ambalvi of Ambala and Yamunanagar, the guttural Ahirwali of Bhiwadi and Rewari, all are welcome.
“Haryanvi is popular today because it’s showing up in films and because we now have people in New Zealand, Australia, America and Italy,” says Punia, referring to the growing diaspora which has been tuning in. “Though without Jats Haryanvi music will not trend, performers popular on our channel include Banias, Brahmins, Sainis, Jats too,” he says.
To his surprise, along with the Haryanvis in Australia and the US, droves of Pakistanis flock to his channel and its WhatsApp group, launched last year.
“Earlier, people felt Haryana was all farmer and soldier—and it was,” says Rajbeer Rathee, director, youth and culture, Mahrishi Dayanand University, Rohtak. The jawan-kisan duo represented the self-sufficiency, even self-satisfaction, of Haryanvis. “Dialects and traditions are being changed by the internet, by Bollywood but you will find that Haryanvis are still preserving their language.”
Today Randeep Hooda, Rajkummar Rao and Mallika Sherawat are from Haryana. Bajirao Mastani’s music composer Sanchit Balhara is from Rajasthan (and a Jat), Vishal Bhardwaj is from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh (he produced the music for Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola) and so on. The Khadiboli and Haryanvi they bring to Mumbai often strives for a more realistic lilt and punch.
Interestingly, the Jat turn to music is new. Though the folk music was always an important part of the state’s culture, the caste threw up few performers. Young Jats, motivated by the hunt for fame and the booming interest in music, are joining in now, often after overcoming strong family resistance. “Fundamentally, Jats are making music and videos because the Punjabis did it,” says Ragni singer Gulab Singh.
As the Bollywood marches in like Timur, ripples of other incomplete conquests are forming. School might erase the local language, "but the ear remembers", says Tanuj Solanki, a fiction writer from Muzaffarnagar.
All his youth, Solanki heard the Khadi on TV, in songs and among people. The conversation at home was limited to Hindi. "Only now, when I have extricated myself from Muzaffarnagar and live in Mumbai, can I be integrated again with my native tongue," he says. Today, his mother and he banter in Khadi, now that atavism isn’t a possibility.
Similarly, 'Jat tunes' have cut through the celluloid but not Jat lives. Their language makes film characters set around Delhi more authentic while a critical mass of native-speakers telling their stories is yet to come.
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