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Enigma of her Arrival: From Rebellion to Commentary in the Jugni Narrative

By Sakoon N Singh

Jugni, the ubiquitous everywoman of Punjabi lore, refuses to die down. The eponymous protagonist of the Jugni folk song continues to be reinvented in every epoch. She is not content being a signpost in the past and hovers instead over the skies of today’s Punjab, swooping effortlessly down on towns and villages whenever something consequential happens. Jugni is perennially arriving, like the distant Punjabi relative, whom you have not seen in a while but is sure to land up bag and baggage on the most consequential days: weddings and funerals. So, this arrival is part of a social contract, too. Jugni, therefore, arrives in diverse locations to partake of important events, to be nothing but a dispassionate witness, with an intent to observe and then, at the end of it all, offer her two pence on the goings-on. Her succinct, compact commentary on the multifarious events she witnesses has a dispassionate distance. It is important that she is a woman, it is important that in the multifarious invocations that surround her, she could be of any faith: a Hindu, a Muslim or a Sikh; it is delightful that her religious identity is thus kept in a swirl: she does not bear a ‘proper’ name. She has but a nickname and nicknames have nothing but homely affection at their command, an intimate familiarity that eschews the identitarian purpose and the pretentiousness of ‘proper’ names.

This paper is a quest on the trail of Jugni, the Punjab folk narrative about the itinerant everywoman available in myriad versions/manifestations. With no definitive written word and authorship to preserve the ostensible sanctity and precision of the composition, this song, like other folk narratives, has, over a period,  grown, changed, accrued details; its contours modified and at times morphed into a completely different composition as it has travelled from generation to generation seena-ba-seena (by word of mouth). A significant point of interest is its subversive use during the Indian Freedom movement and its pan-religious reference points, making it a representative folk song of the syncretic culture of old and pre-Partition Punjab, with subterranean Sufi currents. Of particular interest is its forever expanding ambit of references, wherein every epoch sees a “Jugni” perennially arriving, at a new location – a town, a village, a city, embracing and reflecting the changing landscape and its attendant political, economic, and social realities.

Jugni is the product of the syncretic space that has always existed in Punjab: an in-between world where people straddle multiple identities in a celebratory vein. The Hindu-Muslim and the Hindu-Sikh binaries are questioned by the living practices rife in this space. If there are religious shrines, then inter-faith mazaars, shrines, peers, babas, personages, with followers cutting across religious lines, too have always thrived. The custom of the elder son sporting a turban in Hindu families was once commonly honoured. Jugni springs out of this milieu. She is the girl next door; so her presence is not disconcerting, rather unique because she is a woman liberated from the home and hearth and undertakes free travel as she participates in this community space with verve and gusto. She is variously invoked in the name of Sai, Allah, Peer, Guru, Hari etc., all of which being eminently interchangeable, thus point to a Sufi undercurrent of the Punjab ethos. References to Jugni have continued to flourish in Punjabi music in extremely diverse ways: from pre-independence anti-colonial discourse to diverse singers on both sides of the partitioned Punjab to Bollywood. In the earnest Punjabi spirit of resilience, growth, and movement, Jugni, too, has changed with the times.

While some ascribe Jugni’s authorship to the 19th century Sufi saint, Rode Shah FaquirJalali[i], there is a version of its origins that locates it in the nascent freedom struggle movement and pins its authorship to the two local singers, Bishna and Manda. Manda was from village, Hussainpur, in Amritsar District and was a Muslim of Mirasi caste. Bishna too was from the Majha region and a Jatt-Sikh by caste. In 1887, the British Empire celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in England as well as in the colonies, including India. A gold torch was taken from the headquarters of every district as a mark of celebration, accompanied with functions to mark the occasion. At each location, a battery of government officials and paraphernalia was dedicated to these functions. In the context of these elaborate displays, including the one later during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897, historian Walter Arnstein said that the idea of staging large-scale public celebrations was still a novel concept even to the British public of the day. The dissenting notes opposing this display were heard from Britain, too. James Connolly, the Edinburgh-born Irish nationalist, called the Diamond Jubilee celebrations a ‘feast of flunkeyism’ and wrote: “Join your voice with ours in protesting against the base assumption that we owe to this empire any other debt than that of hatred of all its plundering institutions.”[ii]

This unabashed display of power, likewise, did not go down well with the Punjabi masses. The wounds of the Second Anglo-Sikh war (1846) still persisted as a part of the cultural memory and the immediate provocation was the ill-treatment meted out to them under the rule. According to Khushwant Singh, as a consequence of the Canal irrigation introduced by the British in the 1870s, there was a dramatic increase in the price of land in Punjab. Many small farmers succumbed to the temptation of selling land for money; the number of landless farmers assumed alarming proportions. The famine of 1869 had led to heavy mortality of livestock. The 1870s thus ushered in an era of peasant indebtedness “which had never been known in the country before.”[iii] The Jubilee flame in Punjab encountered resistance in Punjab and was received with angry jibes, demonstrations, and subversive songs. It is claimed that Bishna and Manda revived/invented the “Jugni” as a bastardized version of “Jubilee” to counter the celebratory air and replaced it instead with a subversive narrative of the excesses of the British: whereby youth were being killed, labour was being exploited and women were crying because there were no grains left to be fed to the hand mills (chakkis) (see lyrics below). This was perhaps an indicator of the times to come as Punjab was poised to witness a direct confrontation between the peasants and the colonial state in 1907, which saw large scale rioting in the cities of Amritsar, Lahore, and Rawalpindi.[iv] Jugni, therefore, began as a marginal protest song, a subversive voice devaluing the jubilee celebrations, and gradually gained momentum, owing to the resonance it had with the masses.

Apart from the phonetic similarity of Jugni and Jubilee, the underlying relatedness to fire/light in that Jugni/Jugnu means a firefly and Jubilee celebrations were alive in the popular imagination as a torch also lends credence to this theory. The two singers would set up parallel tents supported by the locals and express their angst through the appropriately lambastic Jugni narrative. People would support the effort by making offerings in cash and kind and this was duly recognised by an impromptu insertion of the names of their villages in the narrative. The figures of two companions, even though from different faiths but combined in a quest, had earlier been available in the Sikh iconography and imagination vis-a-vis the figures of Guru Nanak Dev and his companion Mardana. The rhubab-wielding Mardana was a Muslim and comes across as endearing in his total commitment to the Guru, his love for music, and the foil he provided to the spiritual quest of Guru Nanak. He was the innocent one, embodying child-like simplicity and getting lured by good food, comfort, and material trappings on the way, while Nanak walked on with a spiritual purpose. Both together became the symbol of “Udasis” – the journeys that Guru Nanak undertook and on the way questioning the rituals, arcane customs, and hollow beliefs on both sides of the religious divide in Punjab and beyond. Thus, by harking back to this image, Manda and Bishna evoked a blueprint of rebellion that had existed in popular imagination.

Jugnijavadi Jallandhar
Tappan gore vaangkalandar
Loki vadhgayeapneandar
Peer mereyavejugnikehndihai
Jehdanaahari da laindihai

Jugni stumbles on in Jallandhar
Where the white man prowls over and under
People are scrambling into their homes
My Peer, Jugni narrates thus
And she swears in the name of Hari

Jugni Jaavadii Majithe
Koi rannnachakkipeethe
Putt gabrumulakvich mare
Rovanakhiyan par bulsiseete
Peer mereyaoyejugniaayiaa
Ehnakehri jot jagaiaa

Jugni stumbles in on Majitha
No woman grinds the chakki (hand mill)
For their young sons have been killed
Tears stream down their eyes
But their lips are sewn
Oh my Peer, Jugni comes and wonders
What torches have they lit, she ponders?

Peer mereyavejugnikehndihai
Jehdanaasaayin da laindihai

Jugni stumbles into Ludhiana
It abounds with the blind and the one eyed
They bash them up and demand grains, she sighed
My Peer, Jugni narrates thus
She swears in the name of Sai (Translation: Mine)

It is said that Manda and Bishna sang Jugni in the strident dhadi style and their fiery lyrics often caused uproar in the Jubilee tents. On many occasions, people were lathi-charged by the British police. On one such occasion in Gujranwala town in 1906, Bishna and Manda were arrested and later killed in custody. Their bodies were surreptitiously cremated by the police.

Jugni Stumbles in On…

Since then, Jugni has been variously sung by diverse singers in different eras. The concerns they highlight are very different but are all tied together with the trope of Jugni. Alam Lahore’s (1928-79) Jugni, for which he received a gold disc LP in 1965, is considered to be one of the prominent Jugnis. It centres mostly around the aashiq (lover) persona, who is privileged to sing Jugni as it becomes of the one who has endured the ravages of love: “jihnusattishq di lagge” and sets him apart from the materialistic world. This materialistic-spiritual binary is also a departure from Bishna and Manda’s Jugni, which very well captured the real/material concerns of the people. It dwells on the ephemeral jawaani which is fleeting every minute and the honey of which is sweeter than gur (jaggery) and needs to be savoured. In the typical hedonistic Punjabi spirit, the songs exhort to quit worrying over trivial matters and hold on to the fleeting youth with joie de vivre. He later added a verse on Jugni in England, thus locating the Jugni in diasporic imagination, which too is a central Punjabi experience. However, it does not rise above the mundane sweeping of sartorial choice, and thus is not illuminating in any way.

Jugniapna des bhulaya
Dera aa England ichlaya
Jisdam coat pant sipaya

Jugni has forgotten her land
She has found roots in England
And she attires now in coat-pant
Now her looks are altered, she has a new rant
Jugni, thus, narrates in the name of Sai

Gurdas Mann’s (b 1956) Doordarshan recording of Jugni has a characteristically jubilant Mann dancing to the beats of Jugni. He wears his distinctive chadar-kurta with an embellished short jacket. What he does differently is that he splices his Jugni narrative with an unexpected patriotic Hindi film number, “Yeh desh hai Veer Jawanoka” [It is a land of brave, young men] (Naya Daur, 1957). There could be reasons for doing so: the foremost is that such an embellishment of nationalist sentiment must have been encouraged by the national media. It could also be a case of compensation on the part of the Sikh/Punjabi identity that had got adversely hit by the wave of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s. The erstwhile hardworking, patriotic, jovial, sacrificing Sikh stereotype had been replaced by the militant/khadkoo in the public imagination. There could be a need to rid the Sikhs of this anti national stamp and therefore the splicing of the patriotic fervour with Jugni. It veers into a playful repartee between a husband and wife with the latter telling the former that she has had enough and she would not take care of his wheat stocks any more. In a characteristic role-play between Mann and one of his troupe members, with Mann playing the defiant wife, he spells out these shenanigans. The husband is miffed and enquires of the reasons of this indifference.

However, given the historical antecedents of Jugni, the insertion of the patriotic vein along with a comic repartee is not so discordant. However, Punjabis certainly have no popular connect with the historicity of the Jugni as a nationalist narrative. In a way, Mann was only bringing it home, even though, in all likelihood, unconsciously.

Rabbi Shergill’s interpretation of Jugni (2011) is a montage of various audio-visual clippings interspersed with his vocals wherein he weaves in social concern and consciousness, a very important element of his music. He makes an attempt to make Jugni contemporary with the itinerant woman landing in a new postcolonial reality. From the very first line it is clear that Rabbi’s concerns are not of Punjab alone and he, in his description of Desh from where – “kadeyasiangrej” – the white man was expelled, convincingly tethers his Jugni to Bishna and Manda’s narrative:

Ki banayausdahaal…

Jugni sets out to see her desh
Wherein were once composed, the Vedas
From where, were expelled, the white men
What has, become of that desh…

The sombre tone with which Rabbi Shergill brings a closure to the last sentence is telling in that he does not have very good news in the narrative that follows:

Jugnijavadi Kashmir
Jitherozmaran das veeh
Sohniabhenatesohne veer
O roropuchhan
Eh jhagdaohdonmukna eh
Jadon Jhelum paanimukna 

Jugni stumbles on in Kashmir
Where dozens are killed everyday
Lovely sisters and brothers of the land
They cry copious tears and ask,
“When will this upheaval be over?
Not till the waters of Jhelum dry out”

Further, Jugni lands in Punjab to find young educated, unemployed boys, emigrating to foreign lands: “Jithe padhe likhe bekaar vech zameena jvanbaar.” When Rabbi Shergill narrates this, it can be assumed, given his credentials, that he is saying it with an awareness of the original Jugni as a nationalist song, while adhering to the spirit of expanding the ambit of Jugni’s concerns. His Jugni is, thus, unusual in the sense that he brings in pan-Indian issues like Kashmir, rather than sticking to Punjab. His Jugni travels to Mumbai and Delhi exhibiting an existential anxiety. That may have to do with his location in Delhi, which gives him a more national vantage point, making his concerns broader. It could also have something to do with a strategy on the part of his managers to appeal to a more urban, national, cosmopolitan audience, which for Rabbi Shergill became his audience since the success of his maiden Bullah (2005). In the video, the woman is very cosmopolitan, inhabiting what looks like a pad in a big city, certainly not the muffasil dusty lanes, the location of her grandmother Jugni. Her existential struggles are evident and her collapse is signified through the game of scrabble, the alphabets of which are scattered in a disarray on the bed.

Jugni, written by Madan Gopal Singh (2009) and rendered by Jasbir Jassi, is musically surefooted and more philosophical than most other Jugnis. The song is accompanied by a documentary style monochrome video by Gurvinder Singh with aesthetic shots of rural Punjab community life, including, prominently, a village wedding and the Golden Temple. A deep consciousness to foreground the underlying ethos of Punjab and interpret it for the “outsider/academic” renders the effort rather intellectual. The video is accompanied by a very accomplished translation of the lyrics, highlighting the ease with which the composer straddles both worlds. However, the masses would find it hard to comprehend and sing along, it is a “tough” Jugni who:

…Jugni jog bhog di maya

Lives across eons
With fiery passion, inhabits the times unknown…
Jugni is the illusion of senses and renunciation. (Translation: Madan Gopal Singh)

Madan Gopal Singh attempts to highlight the secular ethos of the state by using multiple invocations of Sai, Rabb, Allah, in a row in the same breath and in the same verse, which is remarkable and an indicator of his changing understanding of the spirit of Jugni. This version of the Jugni connects the narrative to a higher literary space, having consciously invested a lot of thinking into this composition.

Arif Lohar pairs with Meesha Shafi for a Coke Studio production of Jugni (2011). He conjoins Jugni with two more compositions: it starts with “Alif Allah Chambe di Booti”, brings in Jugni, and rounds it off with “Vangachadha lo kudio mere data de darbardiyan.” This composition is more “spiritual” in that Jugni is seen to be not arriving at any destination but the spiritual destination of “Data da Darbaar”. There is an exhortation to “Chhadduniya de janjaal” or leave the entanglements of the world behind. “Alif Allah Chambe di Booti” is likewise a song that celebrates the importance of the murshid: the guru, the teacher, for having installed in the mureed’s (pupil’s) mind a love of learning. She stumbles into the wilderness – “Dig payivichdhoi…utherorokamli hoi, ohdivaatnilenda koi” – she falls down, crying copious tears and no one really bothers about her. Probably, the state of Jugni sums up the state of Punjab today. Jugni, who had the power to land up at distant places, has today fallen into a ditch and no one really cares – the alienation of Punjab thus continues.

The one fact about the discourse around this rendition is the market-talk about the number of views. When I last checked, it had crossed 30 million views. This fact has been highlighted in various fora, making it the singular achievement for the production house, Coke Studio. His pairing with Meesha Shafi, too, pole-vaults the song into another space of popularity. The reference to “Daata de darbaar” is that of the famous Sufi shrine of Peer Daata Ganj Baksh. The shrine is located near the Bhati Gate of the Walled City of Lahore. It was originally built by the Ghaznavi king, Sultan Zakiruddin Ibrahim, in the late eleventh century, and has been renovated several times. For centuries, the tomb has been visited by people cutting across religious  affiliations. With this, Lohar emphasizes his Sufi credentials.

Thus, over a century or more of its existence, Jugni has had the innate malleability to be interpreted and reinvented to adequately represent the changing socio-political narrative of Punjab. It started out as a marginal voice but with most prominent Punjab singers lending their voice and adding verses to Jugni, it has been enshrined in popular imagination. Jugni is a voice in the sky that has stayed, swooped down, and possessed Punjab and in turn has been possessed by Punjab every now and then.

[i]  Singer Hans Raj Hans quoted from Rana Yudhvir, “Discordant notes strike Punjabi folksong Jugni Origin Claims” (2013), accessed 20 February, 2017.
[ii]  Quoted in Andy Sully, “Queen Victoria and Britain’s First Diamond Jubilee” (2012), accessed on 18 February, 2017.
[iii] Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
[iv] Sekhar Bandyopadhyay. From Plassey to Partition and After. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2004.

Sakoon N Singh teaches English Literature at the Department of English, DAV College, Sector 10, Chandigarh, India. A product of JNU, New Delhi, She has been a recipient of UGC-JRF Fellowship and Fulbright grant at the University of Texas at Austin, US. She has written for journals such as DIALOG, FAMILIES, Muse India, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, and E3W Review of Books for which she also did a stint as Editor, South Asia Section. Her interests include Indian Writing in English and Translation, Amitav Ghosh, Indian Drama, Aesthetics, and Cultural Studies.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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