Punjab: Food, Music and Resistance
A Vittles Series. Words by Amandeep Sandhu, Daniyal Ahmed, Aiman Rizvi, Sangeet Toor and Sharanya Deepak. Illustrations by Samia Singh.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts. A reminder of the season theme can be found here (though we are no longer accepting pitches.) All contributors to Vittles are paid: the base rate this season is £600 for writers (or 40p per word for smaller contributions) and £300 for illustrators. This is all made possible through user donations, either through Patreon or Substack.
A Vittles subscription costs £5/month or £45/year ─ if you’ve been enjoying the writing then please consider subscribing to keep it running and keep contributors paid. This will also give you access to the past two years of paywalled articles, including the latest Christmas gift guide.
If you wish to receive the Monday newsletter for free weekly, or subscribe for £5 a month, please click below.
Editors note: Many of today’s essays involve music embedded into the text. We recommend taking note of this and turning up your volume.
In December 2020, I watched a group of young Punjabi farmers argue with their elders about which song they wanted to play at the Singhu Border protest site outside Delhi, where farmers had assembled in a year long agitation against the exploitative agricultural legislations passed by the ruling BJP government. The casual argument revolved around a small, familial conundrum. The boys wanted to listen to the song Brown Munde, by the singers A.P Dhillon, Gurinder Gill and Shinda Kahlon; their elders wanted a bit of quiet. I was asked to mediate. Even though I was eager to please the uncles, I had to side with the boys — Brown Munde was my favourite song that year, and like most in north and north-west India, it was all I listened to, grinning at other drivers in Delhi as we were cramped together in traffic and the song played in chorus on our stereos, nodding along when Lambo truck vich gedi sutti hollywood emerged from everyone’s phones in the Delhi metro.
And yet, even in popular Punjabi tracks like Brown Munde, you can hear the presence of land and food. That day at Singhu, as we watched the video for the song that would escalate A.P into fame, we talked about how despite this being an inflated hit song, there were multiple references to agricultural protest; the video shows farmers patrolling their lands on their tractors, forging affinity for those fighting for the right to determine the future of their land. It also depicts the singers as builders, mechanics and in a take-away, working hospitality jobs that Punjabi migrants are often employed in when they arrive in the West. BBC producer Bobby Friction pointed out this out in an interview about Brown Munde — “Every bhangra video has guys going ‘Yo, I’m so rich you can’t even get through the gates to my house’; and these guys (Dhillon, Gill, Kahlon) are working in a peri peri chicken place,” he said.
None of this is surprising at all. In Punjab, the land of five rivers, life and depictions of it across media, and genres are deeply connected to land, and the food that comes from it. Take the sunflower crops of Dilwaala Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Bollywood’s most popular motif for the meeting of lovers, which is, on closer look, an eerie vision of abundance in (Indian) Punjab now starved and barren from the influx of the Green Revolution. Or consider the songs of Bant Singh, the Dalit Sikh activist and singer who sings for the rights of the oppressed-caste labouring classes in (Indian) Punjab, becoming a permanent figure of resistance in a region creviced by inequalities. When I first spoke to the writer Sangeet Toor, she told me about a traditional boli called “Gur Naalon Ishq Mitha”, which uses gur (jaggery) from the fields to invoke the sweetness of love and desire. And Gur Naalon Ishq Mitha is, of course, the basis for the Bally Sagoo 90s’ party anthem that I had listened to all my life. As I drove around listening to Brown Munde, I started to develop the idea of a series based around food, land and agrarian themes in Punjabi music, that could move between genres, and themes, from tradition to modernity.
When I reached out to the writers that make up today’s package of essays, a variety of thoughts emerged. Food sprouts up in the music of Punjab, either in imagery or lyric in a variety of ways, and each essay in this series takes a distinct theme, invoked by a different song, genre or tradition that is connected to the region’s food, language and land. In his essay about Pecha by Kanwar Grewal and Harf Cheema, Amandeep Sandhu examines the 2020 farmers’ protests’ anthems, and the history of music and revolt in Punjab. In his article, musician and anthropologist Daniyal Ahmed collects oral histories and anecdotes through conversations with classical musicians in Pakistani Punjab, and investigates how the karela, or bitter-gourd, is unexpectedly a favourite feature on the table of the ustads (maestros). Meanwhile, in her piece about Meesha Shafi’s 2021 single Hot Mango Chutney Sauce, Aiman Rizvi examines, through the song, the challenges faced by the contemporary feminism movement in Pakistan. And when Sangeet Toor writes about boliyan and giddha, the lyrical songs that are part of Punjab’s oral cultures, she digs up what they tell us about domestic rebellion and the multiple ways women assert their freedom in a world ruled by men.
For centuries, Punjab’s land has gone through intense upheaval — annexed by the British Empire to grow cash crops for empire, and then partitioned into the quivering borders of the Indian and Pakistani nation-state. Food and music in Punjab have absorbed these changes, telling stories of displacement and frictions that subsequent regimes and histories have imposed on it. These essays indicate that it is possible to tell stories of the region through both, and also that there are countless others to tell. SD
Please click on the links below to read all essays:
Throughout time, music and poetry have been the crux of Panjab and land struggle. In 1907, when farmers in Panjab revolted against the British government’s similarly oppressive laws, the protest was named Pagdi Sambhal Jatta, after a poem by Banke Dayal: ‘Care for your turban, your dignity, o farmer!’ As the British feared rebellion within the armed forces of the colony, they retreated. Resolute in their resistance, the farmers prevailed.
When they were released, songs like ‘Pecha’, and others like ‘Ailaan’, marked a radical shift from the kind of dancefloor, beats-dominated music Panjab is known for the world over. While much of the music made by young Panjabis in the recent past reflects rampant unemployment and deep angst – plus, often, misogynistic, feudal rage – the tone of protest songs is persuasive and inspiring.
Food in boliyan is also used to express desire. In Punjab, like in many parts of South Asia, sexual desire is a man’s world in which women are secondary participants. But in boliyan and giddha, women upturn that polarity, decentralising access to desire and taking charge. There is a boli I heard in a teej (wedding giddha), in which a young woman expresses desire for a partner. In it, the woman compares herself to ripe crops, almost ready to be harvested. Urle khet vich kanak baajra, parle khet vich ganne, ve mai nacha baalma khetan de banne banne, she sings: ‘This side is the wheat-millet field, that side is sugarcane, O my man, I am dancing on the edge of these fields’.
While women are prevented from doing so in their real lives, in the boli we see desire and sexual agency being expressed by a young woman herself. Even ‘Mirchan kurkurian’ demonstrates this: the spicy chholeyan di daal can be interpreted as the husband desiring more sex. But the woman stands her ground, and in doing so she levels the playing field between them. In this boli, male dominance is shattered by a single assertion of female will.
Most of Shafi’s original music since 2018, like ‘Amrit’, ‘Mein’ and ‘Leela’, has been soulful and angry – a space for solidarity among survivors of sexual harassment across Pakistan. But ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ marks a tonal shift in her work. With it, Shafi takes on her critics with humour and clever satire, turning their assertion on its head, asking: What makes their claim to culture stronger than hers? Who are they, she seems to ask, to declare her less deserving of her identity? Food becomes the turf upon which this question is settled. Shafi uses it to illustrate the many betrayals to this very “culture” that its gatekeepers make to consolidate class power.
Amidst this commentary, the music video for ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ maps the ‘vibe’ of Pakistani feminism, a guide to what being a desi feminist can look, sound and taste like. In the video, some of Pakistan’s top models dance at the back of a truck, dressed in crop top blouses and shalwars. They wear denim jackets adorned with patchwork of desi fabrics, matched with a wrist full of yellow, glass bangles; with parrandas in their hair, they eat mangoes and drink chai. The guide suggests a vibe “desi enough” to signpost authenticity but “with an edge”. It embodies the aspirational cultural in-betweenness increasingly giving shape to the aesthetic of desi, feminist swagger – one that is easy fodder for market forces intent on transforming political movements into marketable commodities.
As I thought about its presence in the home of these musicians, I wondered if it had a reputation as being nurturing for the voice. Do musicians believe it improves the sense of listening, or enhances one’s musicality?, I thought. When asked, no one hesitated to express their love for the vegetable, but I couldn’t get a straight answer to this more specific question. Instead, people were quick to tell stories, recipes and metaphors that detailed the preparation of the dish.
Lahori vocalist Faheem Mazhar, for example, narrated me a joke about its popularity – ‘Once, a Miraasi (hereditary musician) was walking through the market and saw a karela drop to the floor from a vegetable cart. He quickly ran to pick it up, kissed it, and put it safely back onto the cart. When the vegetable seller asked him why he would do such an absurd thing, he quickly replied Bewakoof, tennu patta nahin? Ae sabziyan da paighambar hai! – ‘You fool! Don’t you know? This is the prophet of vegetables!’ Meanwhile, Ustad Akmal Qadri, the bansuri player from Lahore, told me that musicians go and buy karela the first day that it arrives on the market: ‘This is not a vegetable we bargain for. We buy it at whatever rate the seller asks for, no matter how expensive it is.’
Credits for Punjab: Food, Music and Resistance
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB Journeys Through Fault Lines
Sangeet Toor is a cybersecurity analyst and writer based in Chandigarh. She writes on political undercurrents of culture, social movements and technology.
Samosas and Mimosas: Authenticity and Feminism in Hot Mango Chutney Sauce, by Aiman Rizvi
Aiman Rizvi is a writer and community organizer with an interest in gender politics, visual cultures and climate justice. She has organized for Aurat March and Karachi Bachao Tehreek in the past, and is currently working as an Editor for Qatar Museums and Archive Books.
Daniyal Ahmed is a musician and anthropologist from Pakistan. He works on South Asian folk and classical music and teaches at the Habib University in Karachi. His music research and publishing project is called honiunhoni.
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.