When Gurkanwal Bharti was seven years old, a TV serial by the name “Meri Awaaz Ko Mil Gai Roshni” was a house favourite. She was mesmerized by the songs and the main lead of the series who has dreams of being a singer but has to give up her dream after marriage. One day, she asked her father to listen to a song she had memorized from the TV series, when he heard her, he knew her voice deserved to be heard by more people. A decade later, Gurkanwal Bharti AKA Ginni Mahi is one of the most popular singers of “Chamar Pop” and “Dalit Folk” emerging from Punjab.
With songs that reached prime popularity like “Fan Babasaheb Di,” which has around 64,000 views on Youtube and “Danger Chamar” with 72,000 views, 17-year-old Ginni Mahi has done what few have been able to achieve- gain mass appeal for songs about equality and Dalit rights. With the swag she projects with the use of her hands, the confident attitude gleaming from her face and a supporting male cast behind her, Ginni, as she is fondly called, is a youth icon everyone wants to look up to.
Belonging to the Chamar caste and a follower of Dalit icon Sant Ravidass, Ginni’s father changed all of his children’s sr.names to Bharti from Mahi. “We are Indians after all,” said Rakesh Mahi, her father and her manager. He worked for a private firm making air tickets when taking holidays for Ginni Mahi’s career calls made him quit and start his own travel agency called Mahi travels. He is able to devote more time to Ginni by taking her for her recordings, video shoots, college and training.
Ginni’s father knew his friends’ children were learning music and took his daughter for further training. When they knew she has reached a level of professionalism, they sought music studios that would compose her songs. Amar Audio took her in and has produced two chart topping devotional albums, “Guran Di Diwani” and “Gurupurab Hai Kanshiwale Da.” “I had sung for multi-singer albums before but didn’t have a solo album. I began singing professionally when I turned 12. We began with devotional albums because any work should begin with the name of God. I have been inspired by Dr.B.R Ambedkar and try to bring his views about equality and justice through my music,” Ginni professes.
The Mahi’s live in Jalandhar while the studio is in Ludhiana. A report by Hindustan Times said that Jalandhar is the heartland of Dalit-dominated Doaba region of Punjab, the state with the highest proportion of SCs at 32%. In Doaba, this goes up to 45% in some segments. There are many more singers singing about Dalit rights and lived realities too. ‘Roop Lal Dhir, who belongs to the founding generation of ‘Chamar pop’ from half a decade ago, explains: “When I used to sing the usual ‘Jatt’ fare, in 1995 I used to get Rs 22,000 a show. Now, I get around Rs 15,000.” He says the “Mission of Jai Bhim” is more important. He is an active worker of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and his wife, Nirmal Kaur, is their native village’s sarpanch in Nawanshahr,’ said the report. It also shed light on the community singers. ‘Pardeep Sharma, manager with Amar Audio, the production house behind Ginni, says songs with the word ‘Chamar’ have hit a plateau. “There are only 5-6 singers at a time since it began.” Ravidassia devotional music is still the primary genre of ‘Dalit music’,’ it said.
“Travelling for music videos is the toughest part. We have good support from the studio and the people so we are happy how things are progressing,” said Mr.Mahi. Ginni is over the moon with the stories media has been doing lately. “The world knows my name now, what more could I ask for. I have a comfortable life and I have amazing parents. I haven’t faced any issues since childhood and it’s all because of the blessings of Gurudev,” she said.
Ginni is not a fan of the Hip-Hop culture that is trending in Punjab. “Everybody is right in what they are doing. I would only do songs that an entire family can listen to together. I want to sing about unity, equality and end discrimination among castes because it is man-made. I believe that a singer doesn’t have a caste and I myself don’t associate with any caste. I believe I am an Indian and human first. Every singer is doing great things, I am still a child, I am nowhere near them. Everybody gets the result of the efforts they put in,” she said. A panel of 5-6 family members choose the songs lyricists send them. “We see what suits her image the most and is not bearing any ill-will towards anybody. We don’t want to put anybody down through our songs. We just want to uplift. What matters most is the audience reaction. We always try to give the audience what they need and what are their wishes,” he said.
After Ginni Mahi released her first album, a barrage of online messages and whatsapp messages informed her about the positive feedback for her work. She realized how her work was changing the reality. “I recently joined college after my board exams. All of us were new to the class and everyone wants to know more about their peers. Everybody was asking which religion do they follow and a girl asked me as well. I just told her I am from the Scheduled Caste but she wanted details. I told her I am a Chamar and she said Chamar toh dangerous hote hai. By that time my song Danger Chamar had already come out and I realized how what I was doing was a step in the right direction and the song was depicting reality,” she said. The word ‘Chamar’ has been banned by the constitution for being deragatory and discriminatory as it was most oftenly used as a racial slur but Ginni has made it something to be proud of.
In college, Ginni studies music and is mostly happy with the scope the education allows her. She does regret how busy her life has become. “I used to paint as well but I don’t get any time,” she said. She wants to pursue a PhD in music and her family is rock-solid about getting her educated. “If we are going to talk about educating people and she herself is not educated, we will be promoting lies. We can’t have that,” said her father. Ginni, meanwhile, is trying to focus on both parts of her life. “I am learning the Sitar and Classical Dance in college and it is difficult to get them right. I am improving myself every step of the way. Music is a vast ocean, people spend their entire lives learning, some are great singers and yet they are learning,” she said.
Ginni is a staunch feminist as well. “Girls in my college though are encouraging and supporting. When they know that I study in their college they feel proud. They tell me that I inspire them to pursue their dreams and that is great. Punjab has changed so much for girls. Earlier women were not allowed to go out of their house and were treated like footwear. Whatever girls can do today is because of babasaheb Ambedkar and we should not forget his contribution to improving our lives. You are a journalist and I am a singer and the reason both of us can talk to each other is also because of him. The more girls today agitate, better the future will be for others,” she said.
Songs about liberation, rights, humanity tend to get politicized but Ginni says her work is not political at all. “All I do is keep repeating my Gods name. Mai toh namm japti hun. And these are universal topics,” she said. Her mission in life is to become a playback singer. “Lata Mangeshkarji and Shreya Goshal inspire me as well. I want to sing all types of songs be it in Bollywood, Tollywood or even Hollywood. A singer should be versatile and I try to do better everyday. The audience is asking for more folk and devotional songs so we are working on Sufi tracks and a song about Guru Nanak Devji as well. I take interest in the folk culture of Punjab because it is so rich,” she said.
Ginni’s family has more family members supporting and protecting her. Her mother often cries during her stage performance. “Happy tears,” said Ginni. With her grandmother, uncle and two younger brothers, Ginni is grateful about having them in her life. “When she was born I asked my best friend what should I name her. He said name her Ginni. I asked him What does it mean and isn’t it an old fashioned name? He said it is an evergreen name and Ginni means a gold coin. She has proven to be priceless for us, in whatever mould we put that gold in, she took that shape. Parents should realize that giving women equal rights is of utmost importance. Today, wherever I see, a college topper is a girl. Parents should educate them and listen to what they want and what do they want for their life,” he said.
“Awwal Allah Noor Upaya, Kudrat Ke Sab Bande. Ek Noor Se Sab Jag Upjya, Kon Bhale Kon Mande. All of us have the same blood running in our veins,” said Ginni quoting Sant Kabir.
Read more about Ginni here.