When my mother was six, or perhaps seven, her uncle was engaged to be married. They had a party in our home in Khanna, today a burgeoning city but then a quaint Punjabi town. The family had invited the singer and artist Biba Jagmohan Kaur to perform.
She got out of her car in a cyan sari, hair coiffed in a large bun. My mother walked behind her till Bibaji got on the stage. She sang and acted and flirted; she joked and laughed and performed like no one ever had, and – to my mother’s mind – no one ever would. My mother was moved by Bibaji’s magnetism. In that moment, the woman with the gorgeous sari and the strong stance became an icon for her.
As much as I wanted to write a career retrospective of Bibaji, this essay is not that. It is about me, and my love for the artist I consider the last, true purveyor of the Punjabi folk traditions, and why there can be no other Biba Jagmohan Kaur.
I was born a couple years after the Bibaji’s passing. My parents are as Punjabi as they come, extremely proud of their culture and heritage and their language. For them, that identity was a big part of raising my sister and me. At home, we spoke almost exclusively in Punjabi.
But at the age of seven, when I was admitted into a boarding school in Mussoorie, only a couple of hundred kilometres away from home, the Punjabiyat began to chip away. In our weekly calls, my parents and I still spoke in Punjabi but my sister and I were speaking English to each other.
I studied English as if it were my native language. By my teenage years, I was reading at least 90 books a year, writing poetry and essays in English and had committed Shakespeare and Kipling and Keats and Auden to memory. After school, and a year-long sojourn in university in India, I went to read law at Durham in England.
Though I was connected to my Punjabiyat, it almost felt like my land was letting go of me.
Then, one day, YouTube recommended a song that I used to listen to when I was much younger but which my mother would chastise me for attempting to sing. “It’s a dirty song,” she would say – Baba ve Kala Maror (Old Man, pick up the pace). The song is witty and rambunctious, filled with innuendo. Even in such a humorous record, meant for large-scale consumption, there was a quick glimpse of the revolutionary that was Jagmohan Kaur, when in pleading to the driver to drive faster, she says, “Main late daftaron hoyi” – I am now late for the office.
I do not know if she was an avowed feminist, but she was a strong woman, in awe of strong women, singing of women seeking their independence.
Then of course, I went on a spiral of listening to Bibaji’s music. I didn’t leave my room all weekend and had called my father thrice to ask for translations of complicated lyrics, I emerged an established admirer of Bibaji and in absolute awe of her brilliance.
Bibaji was born in 1948, and started singing in the late ’60s. She moved to Calcutta for a while, but by the mid-’70s, she was a singer on the rise. She cut her first record, an HMV in 1971 with her husband, the late K Deep. By 1976, she had recorded an album of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poems.
She continued recording and performing around the world – in rural and urban Punjab, in Britain and Canada, in the Doordarshan Punjabi studios in Jalandhar, and the BBC studios in New Delhi. Her last album came in 1998, a year after she passed away. By then, Punjabis had been united in their love for the blunt, wonderful Biba Jagmohan Kaur.
In 1972, recorded the song that would define her live performances – Baba Bulleh Shah’s kalam, Kamli. She would sing this at all her performances, and start with Mohan Singh’s verse lamenting life and love in Lahore, bringing the tragedy of Heer to the us today, just like Amrita Pritam did some decades before – “preet diyan shahzadiyan aaj vich mazaaran ron”, the damsels of love flood mausoleums with their tears.
Today, no performance of Kamli on either side of the border begins without Mohan Singh’s verse. Bibaji read into the lyrics of Bulleh Shah, embodying each word of the poet: she was Heer, the lovelorn young girl; Heer, mocking the world; Heer, the Haji at the steps of her lover; Heer, the mirror to the world. Conveying expression with her hands and face, she was no longer Jagmohan Kaur. She was a teenage girl, ready for the world to scorn her for loving the man she wanted to love.
Her Heer was not a timid woman – she had a mind of her own, assertive enough to question the maulvis and the society. Her Heer was unwilling to accept the fate of the world and plead – she wanted to love and love freely; the world be damned.
She sang another melody in a similar vein, with even more careless abandon – Mera Ruthra Yaar Ni Maanda – my sulking love listens to me not. It was another poem by Bulleh Shah. A line stands out – “kanjri banne meri izzat na ghatdi, mainu nach ke yaar manavande.” I lose no honour in being deemed a whore: I will dance on the streets, if that will have him return to me.
She sang this, knowing that people would object to her, and to women artists in a patriarchal society, affirming that she could not care less for their opinion, just as Bulleh Shah had said. Bulleh Shah’s words question; Bibaji further implores, herself becoming the questioner.
Bibaji sang of the Jutt, just like every other singer. The Jutt man in Punjabi music is foundational. He was the main consumer of the industry – a rural man, with some land, some clout, some power. He was the centre of admiration – when Amar Singh Chamkila sang, he made the Jutt into a macho man, a sexual deity. Gurdas Mann sang of the Nawab Jutt, sitting on his manji – the bed – as if it were a throne. Sadiq Saab and Manak sang of the Vaili Jutt, the gangster and do-gooder, in the tales of Jagga and Sucha, and of the hardworking trucker Jutt.
Bibaji, though, sang of the rural Jutt, burdened with loans and crushed by the state. In Shahan da Karz Bura – bad are the loans of the merchants – she laments the Jutt getting distracted from his work of tilling the land by womanising, of sons falling into bad ways, the pains of penury, of the betrayal of friends.
She perhaps understood the Jutt psyche more than her male contemporaries, and as a Jutt woman, she refused to cover her hair unless singing Sikh spirituals – small steps of revolution. For her, Punjabi culture and music had maligned the reality of the poor Jutt for the fantasy of the powerful man. She wanted the poor farmer to have his pride, stand strong, but not in a fantastical world but rather in his perseverance. She realised, as had the hundreds of purveyors of Punjabi culture, that no fabric is more deeply woven into our psyche than the pride of farming.
Unfortunate as it is, liberalised Punjab has seen the new Jutt – the urban-rural Jutt, flaunting his cars and his Rolexes, the woes of the working man now replaced with a dream for the opulence of the rich man. Bibaji’s Jutt has now been abandoned by the state and society. As landholdings reduce, farmer suicides have seen a new high in Punjab with nearly a suicide a day in 2018. Pink bollworm spoiled a crop of the cotton, wheat prices have plummeted, soil quality is deteriorating. Bibaji’s Jutt still is burdened by loansharks, Punjabi farmers still having the largest institutional loans in the country.
She, like every other folk singer, sang stories of folk heroes – Mirza, Jeona Morh, Bhagat Puran. Her song Mirza is not a love song. On the contrary, it is a plea from his father to Mirza not to leave leaving his home as he readies to elope with Sahiba, warning him of the wrath of the Sial Jutts. The young man does not heed the advice and leaves, never to return.
Mirza is a tough song to perform as bhangra dancers and folk singers would attest. It requires a thunderous courage and a booming presence, and yet, it requires pleading against a futile cause: just as Jutt Vanjhal, Mirza’s father attempts to do, by commanding him, by provoking him, by begging him.
Bibaji raged in Mirza: she would often have a swig of a drink, talk about how Mirza has made her life a Sisyphean task, daring her to sing his tale every day. Sometimes, she would ask the audience if they had ever fallen in love: oh, and since they hadn’t, how perhaps were they to understand what happened with Mirza, with Heer, with Bibaji perhaps, they should go, and fall in love, and then come back to understand her.
She embodied Vanjhal physically too: her shoulders stern, her hands aggressive. To contrast that, one would have to look no further than the tale of Bhagat Puran. Bibaji is a storyteller here, much like the qissa-khwanis of old. She tells the tale of when on the accusation of his young queen, Loona, the Raja Salvan sentences that his son, Puran, be sent to the gallows, the same story that Batalvi writes of in the magnum opus of modern Punjabi literature, Loona.
As the sentence is announced, Puran’s mother, Rani Icchran, cries and begs for mercy –
Jid akhan sanve kho leya, kinj beetu dil de nall– what would happen to the mother’s heart if you snatch her child in front of her eyes. Bibaji responds too with Raja Salvan’s answer to Icchran – Ehnu Bakre vaang jhatkaavana, mat samjho ehnu baal. Butcher him like a goat, consider him not a child.
She cries sans tears in Icchran’s role, all but screams as Salvan: in that moment, in that song, Bibaji carried centuries of folk theatre and storytelling forward, acting as much as singing.
She was crude too, when it served the songs. In the wonderful, Poodna – mint – she is zesty and feisty, just as much as her husband, K Deep. To the husband, she quips about the several relations in her life – my cracking mint has revealed that your mother is up to no good, that she now has eyes for your uncle. In an uncaring strength, Jagmohan Kaur does not care for ridicule: she is enjoying the flirtatious fighting with her husband.
The songs in this essay have spoken of the humour, the valour, the pleading, the rebellions of Bibaji. However, Bibaji was a romantic at heart, as evident in Batalvi’s Akhiyan Ch Tu Vasda – you reside in my eyes.
She is playful and delightful; yet, she is never more lovelorn than in Charan Singh Safri’s poem Apna Pyaara Janke – knowing them as my love. In the most beautiful Punjabi, Safri writes – ni main saru nu kadave vich le leya, apna pyara janke. Knowing him to be my love, I took him in to an embrace. An alternative translation could perhaps be of the shroud being taken in an embrace, but I chose to focus on the lighter things.
Bibaji has light instrumentation supporting her, letting her voice tell the story. She was a master at belting notes and would do it to get the crowds going. In this song however, Bibaji shows a nuanced, quieter belt. It is unlike anything I have listened to yet: unlike the strong Broadway belters, it is the sustaining of a note till the point of breathlessness, performed to increase the longing of the poem.
She lists the turmoil of her love, and how the world pulled her down, and yet, how she took it all in her stride. Bibaji takes her role as this unnamed lovelorn person seriously, and yet, there is a teenage presence in her voice, a wit, an almost undeniable quality of young love. Perhaps, it was to always be young with her: Bibaji passed in 1997, at 49.
There is no rival to Biba Jagmohan Kaur, but why would there be no other Jagmohan Kaur? She came from a different Punjab, destined for a different Punjab. Her women were fighters, her men rebellious, all characters with power and humour. Even in the terribly funny, Mai Mohno and Posti, where she would play the straight man, Mohno, to Deep’s addict character, Posti, Bibaji was aware and educated. She was not the naïve girl, ever.
She came from a Punjab that was communitarian and yet suffered from strife – what that Punjab possessed was both the pride and joy of being from that land. Sometime in the 25 years since her passing and today, Punjab has changed, its complacency becoming evident. It no longer wants to fight for what is its own.
Punjabi music today has become universalised – it is the Indian answer to American opulence. Perhaps, it is to be that the passing of Biba Jagmohan Kaur was signalling the end of the golden era of our music and folk traditions. Nobody had before performed their duties of cultural heritage with such joy, and perhaps none will.
Maybe it is my Punjabi vanity, but I know that she and her music deserve more. I complain, for our music has been tainted in Bollywood, and made into techno records for audiences around the world, but never been regarded as an integral part of the intangible heritage of the country. Maybe Jagmohan would have an answer: more likely, she would call me darling, tell me to stop fretting, and go find some love.
Aarnav Tewari-Sharma is a student barrister at Gray’s Inn, London, having read law at Durham University. When not in law, he is an independent political consultant, speechwriter and activist.