HIS songs Ailaan (Proclamation: The Voice of People) and Pecha created waves during the farmers’ protests, so much so that the video recording of Ailaan was taken off from YouTube without much of an explanation. At 37, Kanwar Grewal is the latest singing sensation, enjoying millions of views in the subcontinent, even among people who do not necessarily understand Punjabi. He intersperses his singing with conversations with the audience. The farmers’ movement, he says, impacted him a lot and he felt drawn towards it. He says he cannot understand why Pecha, which had drawn more viewers on YouTube, was retained while Ailaan was banned. Both the songs had similar lyrics exemplifying the angst of farmers.
The lines Faslaa de faisle kisaan karuga (only the farmer will decide about his crops) in Ailaan have resonated among the protesting farmers, including the non-Punjabi-speaking sections among them. His live performances on the borders of Delhi, almost back to back, took place in mid January in the peak of winter and in the open air.
On February 13, Kanwar Grewal relaunched Ailaan fer taun (Proclamation once again) with a voice-over that says: “If you can spare time to listen to our songs to ban it, you had better listen to the demands of farmers instead of the songs. Songs can be banned from the social media, but how could you ban the voice of the people?” He spoke to Frontline about his protest songs, the ban and his own involvement with the protests. Excerpts:
Your song was removed from YouTube. How did you deal with this?
I took it in my stride. It was very normal for me. Ailaan was released two and a half months ago and millions of people have already heard it. The lines Faslaa de faisle kisaan karuga has become a slogan. So I don’t assess the ban professionally or commercially. If the government has problems with it, it’s their right. Instead of blaming anyone, I thought I should prepare another version. The lyrics are the same and are penned by the same person. We have added more in the song.
How did you realise that the songs had been removed? Did you receive any legal notice?
Actually, all these things are handled by my brother. He told me the song had been removed and the government had sent a complaint to YouTube. Then friends called up, very upset, saying that the songs were no longer there. We felt that the government could do what it wants, we will do what we need to do. That is how we decided to launch the second part of Ailaan . I don’t have access to any of the messaging sites like WhatsApp, Twitter or online music sharing platforms like YouTube. I just use a basic phone for making and receiving calls.
What made you participate and sing in the protests?
When the protests started, no one really told me to sing. I come from a farmer’s family and I know the value of the produce and the effort that goes into it. Even though I have no experience of working in the fields, I know the importance of it in my life. I could empathise with the people who were sitting on protest. When I saw 70- and 80 -year-olds sitting there on protest, I realised they were doing it for us, the younger generation. After all they have few years ahead of them, but they were sacrificing those years of their lives for us. This is the first time that I got to know about the jathebandis [farmer organisations]. I had some pedestrian knowledge about them but never had an occasion to interact with them earlier.
I am 37 years old but I got acquainted with the work of the jathebandis and about the farmer issues only four months ago. Farmer leaders used to make announcements in the villages and go door to door explaining the farm laws. I watched them and liked what I saw. Now it’s been four months and they all feel like family.
Was the kind of response you received from the protest songs, nationally and internationally, more than what you have received for the songs that you have sung in the past?
The first thing is that I am responsible to the State where I was born. As an artist I am responsible to my place of birth. An artist should reflect on what is happening in the environment around him or her. I draw a lot of satisfaction from the fact that my voice, my talent and my songs are coming of use to my society.
Punjabis are very large-hearted. As far as the response to my songs is concerned, I have been very fortunate. If Punjabis feel that anyone is sincere and of good intent, they will give up their lives for that person. They are very emotional people. But not only me, other brother singers have also contributed a lot to the movement. After the protests, my interaction and connect with people have become even more stronger.
The lyrics connect a lot with the people. We have quite a bit of the “Punjabi form” in popular music, including music that is produced in the Mumbai film industry.
To be honest, before the protest, people were singing the usual kind of songs which had to do with romance forms, gun culture, drugs, etc. They were not critical of what was happening in society. But after the protests began, many singers have come forward to participate in whichever way they can. People began to see things differently. After the events of January 26, there was a sadness all over, but we soon did live shows at the Tikri and Shahjahanpur protest points and we began singing those songs again. The role of music in expressing emotions—we call them khushiyaan and gamiyaan (joy and sadness)—is typical of the songs in our country. It’s universal. Thanks to this government, there are protests almost every day, by students, teachers, employees. But Kanwar Grewal has never come forward to sing earlier. I never sang any protest songs before. I feel very responsible now for what is happening around me.