Sharif Idu is probably the most widely known dhadhi singer in India. Of course, dhadhi is not a massively popular genre. Least of all in the urban, recorded-music consuming markets of India. So the word ‘widely’ needs to be tempered somewhat.
Dhadhi is a genre of traditional music performed mostly in Punjab and some border areas of Rajasthan and Haryana. Its natural audience lives and works in the agricultural villages and small towns of Punjab. While the recent folk music revival in India has given artists like Sharif Idu more ‘fame’ than they would normally enjoy, dhadhi, like so many other indigenous, local forms of singing and playing music is struggling to withstand the forces of digitally-consumed commercial popular music.
Punjab is blessed with an incredibly rich traditional/folk culture which includes a number of distinct styles of singing and playing music. While certain geographic areas of the State are ‘home’ to specific styles, most have been enjoyed widely by Punjabi speakers across India and Pakistan. The characteristic that distinguishes one genre from another is not geographic as much as the performance context.
There are songs that are performed to accompany major events and milestones in the life of a family: childbirth, marriage, death, business success. These are sung by amateur musicians, family members and neighbors and according to some scholars are the true ‘folk’ music.
Other genres are devotional. They are performed by professional musicians in a specific context of worship, spiritual ecstasy or reflection.
Still other styles, are secular and relate well known folk stories, tales of local heroes and pure entertainment. These are performed by specific classes of professional hereditary musicians at fairs, festivals, as part of travelling revues or in private functions.
In addition to various hereditary castes such as bazigars, mirasis and jogis, (to mention just three), who specialize in specific genres, each style is often associated with a particular instrument or combination of instruments. In the case of dhadhi, the sarangi and the dhadd, a small hand held hour glass shaped drum.
Greater Punjab is a huge area in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. It is wealthy (based largely on agriculture) and has historically been a place of intercommunal harmony. Muslims have always been the most numerous but prior to Partition in 1947, large populations of Hindus and Sikhs lived all across the state. Since 1947, almost all Muslims moved west to what is now Pakistan and likewise, virtually the entire Hindu and Sikh populations moved east to Indian Punjab.
Prior to 1947, Punjabis of all faiths participated in and shared a common musical and artistic culture. Divisions between the three groups, while never irrelevant, were far less rigid than in other parts of India. Sikhs and Hindus intermarried. All three communities were familiar with the myths and legends of the other and often included elements of ritual from other religions in their daily practice. Indeed, Punjab’s most famous folk tales, what have been called the Tragic Love Stories, were ‘owned’ and appreciated by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs equally.
As part of this amicable arrangement several groups of hereditary Muslim musicians served the Sikh community. One of these groups, the rababi, were attached to the main Sikh gurdwaras, where they sang and recited the beautiful Sikh hymns known as shabad and gurbani.
The origins of the dhadhi have been traced back to the Sikh Gurus as well. Many of the gurus, including the first, Nanak, referred to themselves as dhadhi, or balladeers of God. Though balladeers and minstrels had been a feature of rural Punjab much earlier, it was the deliberate patronage of Sikh gurus that catalyzed the dhadhi into a particular group of performers and style of singing.
The dhadhi’s main function was to inspire the Sikh community (then quite persecuted) to valour and courage as well as to sing the praises of the gurus. Very quickly a sub genre, var, developed that was focused on singing of the heroic (martial as well as spiritual) deeds of Sikh leaders.
At the same time, (1600-1650), dhadhis began putting the dramatic and emotional story of star-crossed lovers, Hir and Ranjha, into song. Hir Ranjha is just one, but probably the most revered and loved of Punjab’s tragic love stories. The first reference to dhadhis being integral to the performance of these secular epics is from the late 18th century.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries dhadhis were attached to princely courts such as Patiala and Faridkot. Though all dhadhi are non-caste and within broader society considered unclean, within the context of their service to Sikh nobility and the religious hierarchy, they were accorded a certain respect and even material privilege.
With the collapse of the princely states by the early 1950s, dhadhis (and other musicians, including some of the biggest names in classical music) were cut loose to fend for themselves. For some years they were able to secure a subsistence living by performing at village fairs and festivals where their stage shows which often ran for three or more days, were a highlight of the annual calendar.
But first records, then cassettes and finally the humble mp3 and rapid change in musical tastes put the tradition on the ropes. When Sharif Idu was re-discovered he was working as a day labourer in Chandigarh.
Born in Patiala district around the time of the Partition, Sharif Idu’s father was a well known singer and so the boy was brought up in the environment of dhadhi. His reputation grew after singing in the wedding of a Punjabi movie star and with his eldest son and nephew on dhadd , and Idu himself on sarangi he formed his first dhadhi group. After his rediscovery, in 1986, he stole the show at a national performance in Delhi, receiving acknowledgement from the then Prime Minister himself for this powerful singing.
Sharif Idu’s repertoire is made up of qissa (secular folk tales) the most prominent of which is Hir Ranjha. Unlike other dhadhi who have begun to incorporate their own compositions into their shows, Idu is a faithful and powerful interpreter of historic material. He continues to perform with his three sons and this recording made by DeKulture (Jaipur) is a wonderful example of his talent and passion as well as a valuable cultural document.
Note: Tracks 1,2,3 and 5 relate specific episodes of tragic love stories Sassi and Punno; Hir and Ranjha; and Mirza and Sahiban. Track 4 is a telling of the story of a 16th century Punjabi hero who did battle with the Mughals. Track 6 is a kafi (spiritual poem/lyric) by the great Sufi, Bulleh Shah.
01 Sassi Punno
02 Heer Di Kafi
04 Dulla Bhatti
06 Baba Bulleh Shah