Punjabi singer Sunanda Sharma’s quick rise to fame makes for a great case study on the role played by homemade video recordings in the music industry. Like Justin Bieber and Greyson Chance, the 27-year-old recording artist frequently uploaded videos of herself singing Punjabi pop and folk tunes from her home in Fatehgarh Churian town, near Amritsar.
“I never had formal training in singing,” Sharma told Scroll.in. “I only began sharing my singing on Facebook three years ago, and music companies began showing interest.” Three years is all it took for Sharma to produce a series of Punjabi pop hits accompanied by snazzy music videos. Sharma’s latest single is Ban, released through Gaana Originals.
The song has Sharma’s high-pitched singing punctuated by English rap over a trap beat. The music video, directed by Robby Singh, is strongly reminiscent of M.I.A’s video for her song Bad Girls. Sharma performs Ban in a desert populated by gun-wielding men wearing Arab headdresses. “Year 2030. All the countries around the world have decided to give up weapons,” the video declares.
Sharma’s Punjabi hits include Billi Akh, Sandal, Patake and Jaani Teri Naa. The videos for these tracks have amassed over 477 million views collectively. The last song’s video has 244 million views alone.
Sharma loves the YouTube stats, but isn’t fully convinced of them as a measure of a song’s popularity. “YouTube views are important to me,” she said. “But some of my songs have 10-12 million views also. According to me, the live audience is the one to win over. My songs are pan-Indian hits. When I perform in Bombay, and their audience tells me to sing so-and-so song of mine, it means they have heard it and loved it enough to want it.”
The sudden popularity of Sharma’s early Facebook videos took her by surprise. “I don’t know if I am talented or not but I got a lot of love from people for my videos,” she said of a pre-TikTok time. “At that time, no Punjabi girl my age was doing things like these – singing and putting up videos from home. Maybe, that’s why it caught on quickly.”
These videos led to a contract with Punjabi music label Mad 4 Music, which has released all of Sharma’s singles since her debut, Billi Akh. Sharma now divides her time between her hometown and Mumbai. The transition of her singles and videos from folksy and rustic to hip and urban is telling.
Like nearly all Punjabi singing sensations, Sharma has had her brush with Bollywood. She has sung a track each for the Hindi films Nawabzaade (2018) and Luka Chuppi (2019). A couple of her singles are in the process of being recreated.
“Our songs give out a very entertaining vibe,” she said about the reach of Punjabi popstars in Hindi films. “The beats are fun. It makes sense for Hindi films to have Punjabi songs.”
In a market flooded with Punjabi singers, plus the larger pool of young talent who perform for films and are also active on YouTube, does Shama feel the heat of competition?
“Competition is for robots, not humans,” Sharma said. “Like two humans can’t be the same, two artists can’t be the same. How can one artist compete with one another when both come with different sensibilities? I come from Punjab, where all artists are close to each other and live merrily, so I don’t feel any competition as such.”