Punjab has been numbed by the gruesome murder of Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, better known by his stage name Sidhu Moosewala. The globally popular rapper and actor had decided to live in his hometown even after experiencing the much-vaunted glamour, as well as the underrated solitude, in posh North American locales. Tragedy struck at a time when her parents were anxiously awaiting the wedding of their only child. It was heartbreaking to watch her parents decorate the lifeless body with a bridal headpiece for her final journey. He was shot dead on the outskirts of Jawaharke village which adjoins his home village Moosa of Mansa district in Punjab on May 29. The folk hero of Punjab would have turned 29 today, June 11, 2022.
Sidhu Moosewala returned to his roots at a time when the overwhelming majority of his peer group aspired to emigrate, especially to Western Europe and North America. It was also a time when Punjab was in deep unease. The state was on the verge of becoming a graveyard for hopes and aspirations amid an explosive crisis fueled by agricultural distress, rising unemployment, the threat of drugs and dwindling public education.
Through his new genre of rap music (a motley mix of hip-hop, rap and Punjabi folk), Moosewala portrayed the truth of his time, urging young people to realize that the solution to their hond (existence) lay only not in leaving their villages. . It was a much-needed message of hope in a largely barren landscape, offering the vision of a healthy life with love for one’s parents and one’s ancestral lands. Like the rap of Tupac Shakur, Drake and Burna Boy, Sidhu Moosewala introduced a new musical genre, which instantly touched the hearts of young people not only across the rural-urban divide, but also across traditional caste class boundaries. In his hostile style, he imparted to the young Punjabi to never be afraid of adverse circumstances and to keep their heads held high come what may! To convey his idea of facing adverse circumstances, Moosewala used the Punjabi popular culture idiom jatt instead of praising his caste angle. Enough evidence can be found on social media that his references to Jatt’s lifestyle have nothing to do with caste prejudice. In Punjabi agrarian culture, the term ‘Jatt’ is more than a caste title, being an all-encompassing exposition of the rural way of life, woven into a village-centric, simple, direct and fearless ethic.
In some of his most famous tracks – Dear Mama (My Dear Mother), Baapu (My Father), Panjab (My Motherland), Tibeyan Da Putt (Son of the Sand Dunes) and Selfmade – the simplicity and straightforwardness of culture Punjabi agrarian were charted. In her track Dear Mama, Moosewala says “Maan mainu lagda main jamma tere varga aan” (Mom, I think I’m like you).” And to Baapu, he says “Father, you have done for me all my life…now it is time to give me this burden.” He took his parents with him on his Akharas (concerts) – a filial feeling rarely seen among young people today. Despite his worldwide fame, he was easily accessible to everyone, and the unwary might even mistake him for an ordinary villager. When asked why he kept his eyes downcast while interacting with interviewers as he thundered onstage, his response was, “Well, in my personal and social life, I’m like that, whereas at the stage, I had to play for the gallery professionally”. It is for these ingrained traits that Moosewala has become a legend across castes, class, creed and regional boundaries. BBC News Punjabi recently reported how young , even in West Punjab, celebrate Moosewala for his simplicity, straightforwardness, and courage to call a spade a spade.
The global reach of his rap genre is based on his fearless lyrical discourse against the rat race of the corporate world and consumerist lifestyles. There is a stark difference between Sidhu Moosewala’s real life and his life on the rap turf. He did not sing weapon songs for his own glory, but for popular market logic. In one of his interviews, he pointed out that simple folk rap tracks he also sang didn’t get much traction in the hard music market. Very often, he is heard emphatically singing that a rural boy’s rise (himself) to the top of rap music is being hailed around the world, but not in his own backyard. In fact, while challenging his peers to bring someone to compete with him (Jat da mukabla), he seemed to convey that there is a way to rise without leaving rural Punjab and live far from loved ones. Given his fame and wealth, he could easily have settled in any metropolis not only in India but anywhere in the world, but preferred to live among his people in the land of his ancestors.
He often used to get emotional when remembering his grandmother from the catwalks of her akharas, which motivated him to never cut his hair and wear a turban. It was for meticulous obedience to his grandmother’s teachings that Sidhu Moosewala’s father appealed to all who wanted to join Mansa at his son’s antim ardas to come dressed in turbans.
To uphold Moosewala’s commitment to a traditional dress code, a businessman opened the turban langar (free distribution of turbans to the needy) at the site of the Bhog ceremony.
Nonetheless, his father told the huge gathering at his Bhog ceremony that Moosewala often complained about the jealousy of his peers. It’s unfortunate, but the overriding reality of the current Punjabi mindset is that success is often not praised, but grudgingly.
He never talked about drugs in his songs. Although he spoke of weapons, he never heard of his opponents being intimidated. His fondness for firearms was limited to self-defense as he often repeated during several of his concerts which goes well with the brave culture of the region.
Another aspect of his dedication to the grassroots community tradition was the way he addressed the audience at concerts. He is known to greet ladies and gentlemen as Behnas and Matas (sister and mothers) and Bhravans and Buzurgs (brothers and venerable elders) respectively. At times, he has been heard asking the huge gatherings of his akharas to take extra precautions to leave the halls to return home safely with special attention to childcare. In one of his many earlier videos that went viral after his horrific murder, he can be seen consoling a crying child who has been slapped by someone. It motivated him not only to laugh but also to recite a few lines from one of his many hits – uchiyan ne gallan tere yaar diyan.
The killing of such a celebrity – who encouraged young Punjabis to stay true to their cultural roots and avoid abandoning their villages – in broad daylight raises many questions. This came at a time when most Punjabis are saying goodbye to their native homes and emigrating to foreign countries in hopes of better education, career prospects and to escape the ever-present threat of drugs. . The powerful voice against this exodus has been silenced so brutally and suddenly. But an unprecedented torrent of mourning on social media indicates that with his cultural values, the folk hero of Punjab has left an indelible imprint on millions of minds across the world.
(The author is Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair Professor of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh (India) and Visiting Professor, Center for Sikh and Panjabi Studies, University of Wolverhampton (UK))