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The Soft Power of Punjabi

By soft power I mean the capacity to be used in private domains of pleasure, intimacy, relaxation and, thereby, promote ...

We should celebrate the earthiness, the bonding and the celebration of life contained in the language

On this language day let us take up the case of Pakistan’s biggest language — Punjabi. The census tells us that more than 44 per cent Pakistanis speak this language. Punjabi is also the 11th most widely spoken language in the world. In South Asia — to be exact the northern part of the subcontinent — it is the third most widely spoken language and, since there is a big Punjabi diaspora in Britain, it is the fourth most widely spoken language in England and Wales.

And yet, in Pakistan, Punjabi is not the language of any of the domains of power. It is not a medium of instruction at any level though it is an optional subject in school and college and there is a master’s degree available in it.

In the Indian state of the Punjab created in 1966, Punjabi speakers are 2.83 per cent of the total population of India. Yet, Punjabi is one of the languages in the twenty-two scheduled languages of India. It is also the official language of the Punjab state where it is written in the Gurmukhi script. It is used in schools as a medium of instruction and also in the Punjabi University for some subjects. It is a language of the media being used in the television, radio and print.

However, even in India it is not really the language of the domains of power. If you want really powerful and lucrative jobs, you should know English. If you know only Punjabi you will only be confined to lower jobs in the Indian Punjab and not even these in the Pakistani one.

In short, Punjabi is not the language of power anywhere.

I do not want to go into the reasons for this since I have written about it in my previous books such as Language and Politics in Pakistan (1996) and Language, Ideology and Power (2002).

Today I want to point out that, despite being neglected by the ruling elite and the structures of power, Punjabi has soft power. By soft power I mean the capacity to be used in private domains of pleasure, intimacy, relaxation and, thereby, promote bonding and help create a positive idealised Punjabi identity. Let us take male bonding first.

The oft-heard observation from Punjabi men that everything can have a sexual meaning in Punjabi is, of course, factually incorrect because such ambiguity can be part of the verbal repertoire of other languages too. However, it is precisely this which makes Punjabi the preferred vehicle for male bonding. That is why in informal gatherings of adult men jokes are best narrated in Punjabi. Their earthiness, best expressed in the mother-tongue, is not deemed fit for female ears at least in public, hence they serve to create a certain bonding and bonhomie among the men.

Now let us take the role of Punjabi in the domain of pleasure. In history performers belonging to the service groups gained access to rich and powerful patrons as Doms, Mirasis, Dhadis, Bhands and Naqqals. They are losing their role because young Punjabis from affluent families are providing amateur entertainment. The singing of a Punjabi song has a thrilling electrical effect in any social function even in Urdu-speaking families living in the Punjab. And, of course, no wedding can be fun without the mahias (love song to a male lover in a female voice). Sometimes they are sung as verbal duels. In this case the mahia starts with the ritualistic challenge.

Main kuri Lahore shahr di /kade tappeon wich nayi hari

(I am a girl of Lahore city/ I have never been defeated in a competition of tappas)

This challenge is responded to by the lead singer. Then the verbal battle ensues and the boys, though excluded in the conservative families, either join in or cheer the singers on the sidelines.  The duel may end with the girl’s side asking the boy to appeal to her mother.

Girl: roti utte pa pista/ mere kolon ki mangda meri maan kolon man rishta

(there is half a pound of pistachio nuts over a loaf of bread/what do you seek from me? Ask for my hand from my mother)

Such tappas create the impression of Punjabi marriages being more ‘fun’. They are also constructors of the idealised fun-loving Punjabi persona which is explained below.

Dancing too is on display in marriages even among fairly puritanical families in Pakistan. Young men are apt to break out into such dances (bhangra) on occasions of joy. Young women dance too though generally only in the presence of women.

Eating for fun is also associated with the idealised Punjabi image in the media. The idea is that Punjabis express their joie do vivre through good eating and hearty laughter. Hence the term for Lahorites is zinda dillan-e-Lahore (alive hearts) though there is no city of Pakistan or India where people do not enjoy food as much as they can afford it.

The most powerful constructor of the idealised Punjabi identity is the cinema. Although Punjabi cinema, called Pollywood, is a only a $7.9 million industry compared to Bollywood’s 630 million, there were only 26 films in Punjabi versus 221 in Hindi — not counting those in its dialects which came to 152 in their own right in the year 2012. Yet the Punjabi presence is very prominent in films. This is partly because of the famous Punjabi families which have been associated with films as actors and directors such as the Sahnis, Anands, Chopras, Puris, Khannas, Kapurs, Bedis, Dutts, Deols and Singhs.

Punjabi is a very important language in Pakistani cinema. The first film in Punjabi, Sheila orPind di Kuri (the girl of the village) was produced in 1935 in Calcutta. Since then many Punjabi films have been produced and in Pakistan they surpassed Urdu ones after 1978. Thus, out of a total of 4, 026 films from 1948 till June 2012, 1347 are in Punjabi. Even Urdu-Hindi films show the idealised Punjabi character by putting a few witty lines in Punjabi or Punjabi accent in his or her mouth. Such characters are full-blooded, passionate, romantic and loyal as lovers.

Thus the language and the ethnicity is indexed to a certain type of ideal Punjabi identity which is perceived as being generous, informal, relaxed, prone to enjoying life and hence, pleasure-promoting. This identity is not necessarily projected by speaking Punjabi. One may speak Urdu with some words of Punjabi, one may use Punjabi expressions, one may use the pronunciation and intonation pattern of Punjabi strategically. In short, however projected, it is the soft power of Punjabi which gives positive cultural significance to the Punjabi identity.

This means that we should celebrate the very things about Punjabi which people consider vulgar or non-serious: the earthiness, the bonding, the medium of coming of age among boys, the celebration of life, the solidarity-marking function. Punjabi creates the idealised Punjabi identity of the warm-hearted, full-blooded hero capable of fun in this fun-starved subcontinent. That is soft power. 

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