The last 10 seconds of the super-hit Assamese pop song Disco Bhonti is a sequence that few women would find funny. A young woman struts down a wide empty road, while the clothes on her keep morphing – initially, she is dressed in evening dresses, hot pants, brief skirts and glittery gowns, but as she comes to a stop in the penultimate frame, she is attired in a conventional Assamese mekhela-sador. This return to traditional values by the bhonti (which means sister in Assamese) pleases Kussum Koilash, the singer-lyricist of Disco Bhonti, who gives her a thumbs-up – approval that her formerly Western-clad self would never merit.
The song became a hit in Assam towards the end of 2016, and laid the ground for the genre known as Assamese cringe pop to enter the cultural mainstream. The outrageous lyrics of this genre echo across mini-city buses, paan shops, regional channels, picnic-taxis, wedding functions and dhabas. There is no way to drown them out.
Fans have no reservations about the offensive lyrics in Bihu, but they are displeased when Assamese singers like Zubeen Garg sing in Hindi. The songs of Assamese cringe pop replicate a pattern that involves policing the clothes and bodies of women. The genre’s popularity indicates a wave of sexual repression, where women clad in scanty Western clothes are cast in the video for public titillation, so they can eventually be contrasted unfavourably with women clad in traditional attire. The outcome is that cumulatively, the words in these songs add up to a rigid, misogynist worldview, which is not just poorly crafted, but actually dangerous.
Assamese cringe pop
The popularity of music that is so-bad-that-it’s-good has grown exponentially with the internet. The existence of cringe pop as a genre has to do with the number of views its videos and lyrics accrues. In his article Taher Shah and the rise of Cringe Pop, Bhanuj Kappal describes the genre as “music that goes viral on social media by virtue of being so godawful and inept that people are compelled to share it, if only to ensure that others will share in their misery... It’s a phenomenon that’s part village idiot and part situationist intervention.”
At its best, cringe pop is honest and doesn’t care about its constituents. In Assamese cringe pop though, urban women are imagined as proactive agents of a new modernity that rural men find tough to live up to.
In the song Jeans Pant Half Pant, Sristi Nandini (often described as the Assamese Dhinchak Pooja) has the same message as Disco Bhonti. The video’s protagonist, dressed in jeans and shorts, sings about how despite being from an urban area, she fails to woo her man.
The sought-after male lead then clarifies that he prefers a woman who wears churidar or mekhala sador. In order to win his heart, in the final sequence, the woman walks out in a yellow-black sador, apparently looking like a “sorogor pori” or angel.
This is the hit formula of Assamese cringe pop – selling stereotypes about genders and urban or rural milieus. The men are rural sons of the soil, often living in areas with fake huts in the background, whereas the women are depicted as imperialised by urbanity, in need of cultural rescue.
Ajikali suwali pindhe tepa mora jeans
Mekhala sador pindhile henu burhi burhi laage
Tepa mora jeans pindhi style maari phure
Women today wear skinny jeans— Tepa Mora Jeans, 2017 Lyrics: Amardeep and Dipsikha
They think wearing mekhala sador makes them look aged
So they wear skinny jeans and show off
Recently, DY365, an Assamese news and entertainment channel, discussed the degradation of art in one such cringe pop song. The episode was titled “Kune ‘Balatkar’ korise oxomiya gaanok?” or, who has raped oxomiya songs? The unhindered use of the word rape was a telling comment, even though none of the panellists (including women) appeared to find it disturbing. Even while criticising songs for their sexist and misogynist undertones, the word that comes closest to describing our discomfort is a violent sexual crime. In using the word rape as a figure of speech, Assamese television revealed how the violence and subjugation of women is ingrained in our speech and thought.
As globalisation makes way for more alien words in local languages, there is a militant drive to validate the vernacular as the carrier of tradition. One can get away with sexist drivel solely by using the regional language as opposed to using English. This makes the issue highly contentious. While an older generation believed in veiling anything to do with sex with heavy poetry and symbolism, it often distanced itself from urgent subjects like sexual violence. On the other hand, the younger generation chooses to remove the veiled silence and taboos that surround sexuality by using vulgar expressions. Despite this, the sexism carries over in the name of tradition: one form is slow and passive, while the other is in your face.
Koilash, who has been the focus of many debates after the success of Disco Bhonti, said: “I am not a rich singer and I know my songs aren’t perfect but every generation has understood the colloquial Assamese I have used. The world around is changing, even rural Assam is equally accessing the internet and it cannot be predicted what exactly made certain songs more popular than the others. Perhaps people are intrigued about Bihu rap; they have found it new and hence applauded it.”
While this genre exists, no singers or rappers that refer to it seem very sure of what exactly it refers to. A scattered generation hopes to hear rap in their own tongue. Singer Rupam Bhuyan said that Assam’s current crop of rappers have been influenced by the Baba Sehgal era of Hinglish rap and haven’t been educated about the real essence of rap. Author Alexs Pate writes In the Heart of a Beat (2010) that rhythm and poetry from the Afro-American soil originated as protest music and reflected an oppositional position. In this context, rap stresses upon the importance of lyrics along with the beat in order to create a powerful impact. Rap in Assamese lacks context because it is not in opposition to anything. Bihu as a choice of language is merely a convenient tool to attract consumers familiar with the folk form. But simply borrowing the Afro-American aesthetic of over-the-top make-up, neon goggles, a swagger hat, abundant auto-tunes and a few disco lights doesn’t make rap music. Instead, it creates a sub-genre to cringe pop – cringe rap.
Sohoroloi ahi toi modern hoi porili,
Bhonti toi mini skirt pindhi level nidibi,
Muga riha pindhile, tumi bihu nasile,
Eman je dhuniya laage
You are a modern city-goer now,— Disco Bihu Rap: High Heel 2017. lyrics Aryan and Niren
Sister, don’t just show off your mini-skirt,
When you wear Muga-riha and dance bihu,
It is then that you look so beautiful.
These young men lament at the diminishing of feudal power, their control over financial resources and by extension, women. They are shown abhorring the same female body that they derive pleasure objectifying and policing.
Jeans T-shirt nipindhiba o’ mure jun torali,
Aai bupai mur bhaal napai tenekua suwali
Mekhala jura pindhiba o’ mure jun torali,
Tetiya he tumak kobo lokhimi nu suwali
Do not wear jeans and T-shirt, my moon and star glitter,— Narrow Jeans, 2017 Lyrics: Bhaskar Chutia
My parents do not like that kind of girl
So you wear your mekhala set, my moon and star glitter,
Only then, you would be called Laxmi herself
Bidisha Singha Dutta, a journalist with The Assam Tribune, said: “As listeners, we might crib about them but we inadvertently discuss and popularise these self-acclaimed hits. Even bad publicity is publicity. If we ignore them completely, artistes will receive the message that only good music will enter our conversation.”
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