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Indian 'Chamar pop' singer challenges caste with music

Ginni Mahi is the newest voice of a musical genre that speaks for India's Dalit castes. With inspiration from activists and a growing fan base, she uses pop flair and social media to spread her message.

Ginni Mahi, a 17-year-old pop singer from India's northern state of Punjab, emerged this summer as a youthful advocate for the rights of the "lower" Chamar caste and her music and message is growing in popularity across India. Mahi's voice is confident, her melodies are catchy and her videos on YouTube have gone viral. In September, she had her first performance in India's capital New Delhi.

"I want my community to grow in prestige so that it is known all over the world," Mahi recently told the audience at a spacious auditorium in central Delhi. The performance was part of a cultural program held in advance of a major rally organized to advocate the rights of the Dalit community, the lowest group in the Hindu caste hierarchy, under which the Chamars are also categorized. Despite laws in India against discrimination of Dalits, there are frequently reported cases of violence and abuse against them.

Many people in the audience had never heard of Mahi and they were invited by an organization that had put together a performance of several Dalit artists. Dressed in a traditional blue salwar-kameez, a combination of wide trousers and long shirt, Mahi sang in her mother tongue, Punjabi, while addressing the audience in Hindi. By the end of the show, she had won over the crowd, and they enthusiastically joined her in shouting her favorite slogan, Jai Bhim, which celebrates her idol Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a lawyer and prominent advocate for Dalit rights. 

Mahi's source of inspiration

Mahi's reputation did not grow overnight, despite what seemed to be her sudden appearance in the English-language press and on social media earlier this year. The living room of her house in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar, about six hours drive from Delhi, is full of awards from singing competitions. Other than awards, pictures of Ambedkar adorn the room.

When we visited on a Sunday afternoon, Mahi was just getting up after performing late into the night for residents of a nearby neighborhood. Mahi said that though the song Danger Chamar made her popular with young people, it was the song called Fan Baba Sahib Di (I am a Fan of Baba Sahib) that gave her "an identity" as a singer of Ambedkarite songs, which advocate the message of the late social activist.

"In this song we try to talk about the struggles Baba Sahib faced in his life," said Mahi, using the name given to Ambedkar by his followers. "And I talk about myself and how I want to follow in Dr. Ambedkar's footsteps and become like his daughter," she said. She added that Ambedkar had stressed greatly on the importance of education for women.

Mahi has refused several offers to perform abroad as she feels it would hamper her studies. She is enrolled at a city college where she is pursuing courses in music and dance. "I would like to study as far as I can," she said.

Her father, Rakesh Mahi, has fully supported her decision. He used to work in a travel agency but as his daughter became successful, he quit his job to manage her career. "I make sure she does not do more than three to four shows a month," he said. A male cousin of hers also helps in coordinating with members of her band. She has three members and alternates between them based on their availability. She has released two albums so far.

The emergence of Chamar pop 

Almost one-third of Punjab's population consists of Dalits - the highest percentage for any of India's 29 states. Kanshi Ram, the founder of India's only major Dalit political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), came from Punjab. Chamar pop comes from this socio-political milieu of the state.

B.R.Ambedkar (public domain)

Dalit social rights activist B.R. Ambedkar delivering a speech in 1935

According to Roop Lal Dhir, an early exponent of the Chamar pop genre, it was Kanshi Ram's movement for Dalit assertion in Punjab that greatly influenced the genre in its initial days. Dhir has released more than 20 albums to date and he thinks that Chamar Pop has come into its own. He also has a lot of praise for Mahi as a singer.

Until a few years ago, Dhir used to sing commercial songs that were aimed at a more general audience. He has now dedicated himself fully to Chamar pop and this has caused him some trouble. "I regularly receive threatening phone calls and messages," he said. 

However, he has also received a very positive response from his target audience. He said he is "proud" of Mahi's success and wants the genre to continue. "I hope more such singers will come up in the future," he added.

Ambition that is larger than tradition

Although Mahi said she has not faced any discrimination directly, she is well-aware of the atrocities that her Chamar caste and Dalits in general, often face and wants to see it end. "Every community wants respect," she said.

Despite her attachment to her caste, Mahi's ambition is wider in its scope. "I would like to be a versatile singer," she declared. One of Mahi's other inspirations is Lata Mangeshkar, India's most well-known playback singer, whose songs are pre-recorded for films. Like Mangeshkar, Mahi would like to make it big in Bollywood, India's Mumbai-based film industry.

Her ambition is not far-fetched. Mahi already has offers from the Punjabi film industry and talks are in progress, said her father. When Mahi was in Delhi for her performance, she was featured and interviewed by Ravish Kumar, one of India's most famous TV personalities, on his popular and widely broadcast prime time show.

Mahi also shared the stage with Bollywood's biggest star Amitabh Bachchan at an event organized by India's top-selling magazine, India Today. Mahi is currently getting a lot of attention and more success certainly seems well within her reach.

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