Kids Corner


The Punjabization of India



"Chak de India!"

It burst on the consciousness of the nation as a sporting anthem that spoke to the patriot in every one of us. "Chak de India", it screamed, ostensibly to cheer on the Indian women's hockey team, in a hit movie of the same name.

But, before you could say "King Khan", it had passed over into the language. Now, everyone is chanting "Chak de" at the slightest provocation, using it to enthuse India  -  and Indians  -  to do better in every sphere. Television channels employ this magic phrase to title their programmes and banners carrying the slogan appear every time an Indian team plays any kind of sport, as the song acquires a certain universal resonance.

"Chak de India" resonated with me as well, but on a different level. Whenever I heard anyone shouting out the slogan, it reminded me yet again that there was no denying the Punjabization of India.

If you think this sounds a bit far-fetched, just bear with me.

At the literal level, there is no arguing with the Punjabi origins of this phrase. "Chak de phatte" is the traditional exhortation used in almost every situation, from a wedding party to a night out with the boys, to the village kabaddi game. It has become familiar to the rest of India through innumerable bhangra numbers and was introduced to the world by Apache Indian (remember him?) in the 90s.

But even though Punjabi is my mother tongue, I am always stumped when someone asks what this phrase means exactly.

Short answer is: Umm, I'm not too sure. I know when it is used and what it signifies. But how do you translate "Chak de"? Sorry, haven't a clue. The closest I come to explaining it is to say that it means something like raising the roof. Or maybe, raising hell?

But the point is that none of this matters. What does is that the catchiness of this phrase has caught the imagination of the nation. And everyone from Kashmir to Kochi is singing along to its thumping beat. It doesn't matter where you come from or where you live. So long as you are Indian, a little bit of Punjab lives on your tongue.

It does so in more ways than one, too.

Bengalis may rave about the delicacy and refinement of their cuisine, Gujaratis ramble on about their understanding of flavours, and Lucknow and Hyderabad can argue long and hard about the relative merits of their particular style of biryani. But when it comes to Indian food that has popular appeal, it's Punjabi all the way.

Meen mioly and chingri malai curry are all very well, but it's mutter paneer and mutton kebabs that move.

It is now become something of a cliché to say that chicken tikka masala is the most popular dish in the U.K., but there it is. What the world knows as Indian food is actually Punjabi food. Certainly more people have heard of dal makhni than have visited Dal Lake. To update that old Khalistani brag: tandoori chicken is the national bird of India. Why, it's even a pizza topping now!

The influence of Punjab goes beyond our dining tables, though. It also decides how most Indian women dress today. The times when the sari was the most visible outfit on Indian streets are over. These days, it is the ubiquity of the salwar kameez that strikes you, no matter where you travel in this country. Whether it is a village in Bihar, a Goan beach, a small town in the Hindi heartland or the deep South, or cosmopolitan metros like Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore, the salwaar kameez is everywhere.

It has been adopted as the outfit of choice by Indian women, wherever they may live. It may take on different shapes and styles in various parts of the country and at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but its Punjabi provenance remains beyond a shadow of doubt.

It could be the Patiala salwar and short kurti worn by Rani Mukerji (Bunty Aur Babli) that launched a million knock-offs, a high fashion take on the style staple by some Indian designer, or the kind of printed set that traditional middle class women
have made their own, but the salwar kameez crops up all over.

And then, there is the music. You just have to turn it on and Punjabi shoulders begin to shake with the beat. Now, they have infected the rest of India with this malaise as well. The bhangra beat has taken over, it resounds in our discos and nightclubs.

Dance sequences in Hindi movies owe a substantial debt to the folk dances of Punjab. The balle-balle routine has become an integral part of baraats (wedding processions)  in every part of this country. And whether it is Durga or Ganesh (Hindu idols) that are taken for immersion, either in Calcutta or Mumbai, they are escorted by devotees dancing along Punjabi-style.

Even our national identity is beginning to reflect the best of Punjab. The new India is not characterized by the brooding intensity of Bengal, the nerdy intellectualism of the South, or even the machismo of feudal Rajasthan.

No, it is the passion and pride of Punjab that describes it best. It is the vim and vigour of this Northern state, its go-getting,
can-do spirit that seems to prevail.

As the slogan goes, "Chak de ...!"

Conversation about this article

1: Rehmat Kaur (Maner, India), October 16, 2007, 2:52 PM.

Song, dance, fashion, cuisine ...? To the list, you can add the independence struggle, the film and music industries, business, transport, agriculture! And, religious practices and social mores, too. Have you noticed how, since the last few of decades, certain Hindu sects now have "kirtan", "ardaas" and even "langar"! And how all of India has taken to the Sikh approach to naming children, which has no boundaries! The ultimate compliment, they say, lies in imitation. We should be proud that we have ... and continue to ... lead the way. May we always be givers and not takers!

2: Mohkam Singh (Paris, France), October 16, 2007, 3:03 PM.

Sikhs helped, way way beyond their fair share, to liberate India. Then, upon independence, they helped drag the country, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. They helped feed the country, famine after famine. They helped defend the country, war after war. They then helped rescue the country from Mrs. Gandhi's dictatorial stranglehold in 1977. Now, they are helping drag the country, still kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. For Sikhs and the Punjab throughout history, this has been a privilege, an obligation, a burden, an honour and a pleasure! Even in the face of repeated betrayal and treachery. It's called Seva!

3: Tejwant (U.S.A.), October 16, 2007, 4:20 PM.

"Chak de phatte" has been morphed into "Raise the roof" in hip hop and in sports jargon outside Punjab. Punjabi spirit is not only in the moonshine brewed in Gurdaspur but also in its ability to spread it as a contagious happy-go-lucky way of life which has sprouted from the struggles that the Punjabis have been going through since the first invasion of the land millennia ago. As they say, only under huge pressure can a carbon turn into a diamond. Now, the sheen of this diamond is opening the eyes of many the world over.

4: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), October 16, 2007, 5:22 PM.

Despite the extraordinary contribution of Sikhs and Punjabis, why is it that we don't get any credit and have no unified voice or leadership, and tragedies like the Partition and 1984 are inflicted upon us? Also, I do have to say with all the positives that the punjabization of India has brought to our country, some negatives have also come our way: for example, ridiculing of the Punjabi language and the Sikh identity in bollywood, as well as this label of Sikhs being larger than life and fond of eating, drinking, and fighting on the streets. Why aren't we known for our beautiful concepts such as sewa, langar, daswand and service for sarbat da bhalla?

5: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), October 17, 2007, 2:44 PM.

Punjabi music is now heard even in remote villages of Bulgaria, and of course all over the world. Punjabization of music in the western world has been going on for several years, even where there are few Sikhs. And, many British investors in Bulgaria today are Sikh-Britons. The progress Sikhs have made in business, politics and culture, both in india and across the diaspora, is phenomenal. Chak de phatte!

6: Satvir Kaur (Boston, U.S.A.), October 18, 2007, 10:55 AM.

I particularly like one of the comments above. It's true: the fact that, despite being cheated upon repeatedly (by our own and by others), we keep giving ... this is indeed Sikhi!

7: Roopinder Singh Bains (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 18, 2007, 4:09 PM.

"Chak de Phattey!" - this expression, according to my father, comes from the early pioneers in Canada who worked in the lumber mills. When they went back to India with income earned in Canada, they were more affluent than the others. They explained that they had earned their wealth by lifting planks or "phattey chak ke". So, anyone that has excelled in wealth did it "phattey chak ke", and doing anything well became "chak de phattey!" Just one more explanation you may wish to consider!

8: Ujjalbir (Mumbai, India), January 11, 2008, 8:29 AM.

"Chak de phatte" also connotes lifting the phatte or gates of the Bhakra Canal ... signifying a lot of power and force, pointing to Punjabiyat!

9: Jasleen Kaur (U.S.A.), March 11, 2008, 12:56 PM.

My father in law cringes when he hears this phrase ... he says "phatte" are the planks on which a body is carried to the cremation ground. "Chak de" is to raise or lift up. So "chak de phatte" is to lift the plank (and body) to make the journey from the home of the deceased to the cremation ground. Not quite such a happy theory of origin, I know.

10: Sunny (London, England), September 14, 2008, 11:18 PM.

Jasleen: though phatte are indeed wood planks, the phrase DID NOT EVER refer to those used to carry bodies at Sikh funerals but the phrase translates, as Tejwant rightly said, into: "Raise the roof!"

11: D.J. Singh (Chicago, U.S.A.), September 20, 2008, 2:25 AM.

Sure!.. Its Punjabization all over, except in Punjab! Where most "modern" people prefer to put up alien accents, converse with their kids in Hinglish, and consider it fashionable to discard their true identity.

12: R. Sandhu (Canada), October 14, 2008, 5:56 AM.

Thanks D J Singh for highlighting the immense sense of self-denial that is emanating from the homeland! More often than not, we are brought down with a thud with the negativity exuded by those who should be in the vanguard. It is surprisingly and particularly intense where one would expect otherwise, in those with military background and carried on into the bureaucrats and the supposed elite. Let us acknowledge the progeny of the hard-working early immigrants to U.K., who kept the culture and language intact to spearhead this current surge of popularity.

13: Ashok Sharma (Singaapore), October 12, 2013, 1:59 AM.

There's a school of thought saying that "chakk de phatthey" was in fact mispronounced from "chakk de fateh"...(Fateh means victory in Persian and Punjabi.)

14: Raj (India), May 22, 2015, 12:36 PM.

Wow ... so beautifully written and very nice comments posted! I just liked it very much and somehow it has filled me with a positive energy. No words to explain the reason but the feeling that I am able to see a ray of hope hiding behind clouds of certain misunderstandings. We have a tendency to give, give and always give and we can do this in extreme conditions too as it's there in our blood and we are blessed with the same. We just need to realize it.

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