In India, where you are from and who you are matters. We’re not just talking about gender inequality and the patriarchal and conservative cultural norms that are the root of an epidemic of gender-based violence. What caste you are can determine everything from who you marry, what kind of job you will have and your socio-economic status.
For instance, if you are an “untouchable” or as they are now more commonly referred to, a Dalit, there is a certain stigma that accompanies this political term. The caste system is the social organizing principle in India, however there have been many governmental reforms to prevent harassment and discrimination based on tribal, cultural or social status.
A new generation of Dalits are rising up to challenge the long-standing stigma by taking slurs and phrases once used to denigrate and ostracize them (“chamar”), and instead wearing them as a badge of honor to represent the pride they have in themselves and the people in their community.
One of those outspoken advocates is Ginni Mahi, the 18 year old from Jalandhar, Punjab, who is a singer using her voice to raise awareness about injustice and gender inequality. She has also become a beacon of hope and pride for other Dalits who see her as a role model. Her music is a mix of religious and folk songs with catchy beats and a hint of EDM.
She has been singing from a young age and her eventual goal is to make it to Bollywood to be a playback singer, as well as finish college and earn a PhD. Ginni, whose real name is Gurkanwal Bharti, has amassed quite the social media following (20,000 followers on Facebook and up to 200,000+ views on her Youtube videos), adding gravitas to her message as well as her presence on the Indian music scene.
Her music videos convey her strong, determined personality and her ability to transcend stigma and cultural expectation of her social background. One of her tracks ‘Dangerous Chamar’ was inspired by a conversation with a fellow school student who once asked her what caste she was from, a common introductory conversation in India. It is this song which challenges the stigma around being an “untouchable” and what that could mean for a person.
Ginni pays homage to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an important figure in Indian history, especially for Dalits. Popularly known as “Babasaheb”, he was an Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who inspired the Dalit Buddhist Movement and campaigned against social discrimination against Untouchables, while also supporting the rights of women and labor. He was Independent India’s first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India.
Ginni refers to herself as “the daughter of Babasaheb, who wrote the Constitution” in her lyrics for ‘Fan Baba Sahib ki‘ while a band of Punjabi men/back-up singers stand behind her and yell “Listen to what Ginni Mahi has to say”.
“The moment feels like a quiet victory. Here is a young Dalit woman powerfully asserting her voice and, moreover, saying that her voice needs to be heard over savarna ones and over the band of men that threaten to drown her out,” describes Shivani Bhasin on Theladiesfinger.com.
She wrote a song earlier this year called ‘I Am A Fan Of Ambedkar in the hope that it would draw the attention if youth to Ambedkar’s ideals about social equality.
“We are here today due to his efforts. But his life stories are missing from our school textbooks,” Ginni told Rama Lakshmi at the Washington Post.
In an interview with Indianexpress.com, Ginni says it is the knowledge of the history of her people which makes her all the more determined to make a change through her music.
“I belong to a middle-class family. I had heard a lot of stories about what happened to Dalits from our forefathers. I used to feel unusual that even such times existed. But now it has improved a lot. We get good facilities. We began with devotional songs because everyone wants to take the name of our gurus. So in my field also I began by taking the name of our gurus,” she said.
Her spirituality is also clearly woven throughout her lyrics, as there are multiple references to Saint Ravidas, the founder of the Ravidassia faith which originated out of Sikhism, as well inspiration from Guru Nanak Dev. Ginni never intended to become a social media sensation and cultural activist through her music, as her career was borne out of a love of the traditional songs that she was taught by her parents.
“It was an attempt to remember our Gurus. I didn’t know that we’ll become so popular and people will accept me,” she told the Indian Express.
She is fully embracing her status as a role model for a generation of people who want to escape the burden of what being a Dalit carries. Since 1989 there have been law preventing abuse and violence of Dalits because of their caste, which also imposes a jail sentence for upper caste people using slurs against them. During the past decade there have been uprisings and protests which cemented a newfound pride in their own heritage.
Dalits built their own temples, started businesses, joined the army and began working in government. A few months ago, 4 Dalit men were viciously beaten publicly by people who accused them of killing a cow – an animal which is sacred in India.
The men tried to defend themselves by explaining they were simply doing their jobs disposing of a dead cow and removing its skin for leather, a job not many others would be willing to take. A video about the incident went viral which stoked up collective anger against the treatment of these men, while also empowering the Dalits community.
In a somewhat similar way, Ginni Mahi’s online presence has become a proxy voice for those who dare not speak out, albeit in a peaceful, artistic way. Although social justice isn’t the only topic tackled in her songs (she also talks about the horrific epidemic of female feticide in ‘Ki Hoya Je Main Dhee Hain’) is has become her calling card, one which she is known for.
Ginni was recently asked to perform at The Bridge Talk event in Delhi, a new initiative by The Caravan organization aimed at challenging the conventional thinking surrounding gender empowerment, and in turn, addressing the gap between theory and implementation.
She told the Washington Post that her focus is now raising awareness about social injustice and caste discrimination.
“I am proud to be a chamar, there is no shame in admitting it. The time has come to shake off the historical baggage and restore respect to this word. How long will we dread the word which has only fallen into our ears as an insult?..First you should be proud of who you are, then you rise up to destroy all caste identities,” she said.
Gender equality is important to this rising star, and she joins a long list of women around the world throughout history who have used activism and art to change the status quo for marginalized and oppressed peoples. It is inspiring to see her determination and willingness to take her role model status seriously. You can hear more of her thoughts on her music, her family support, her musical inspiration and more in the video below: