Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA)

A non-religious and non-political organization of all Punjabi's for the promotion of Punjabi language and culture


Selections of Punjabi Songs

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Aaja Bhabhi JhooT Le

Eh Jawani Jhal Mastani

MundraN Wala Jogi

Do Tara Wajda Ve Ranjhana

LakhaN Bande Jahan Vich

Duniya Matlab Di

JehRey Prem Di Nadi Vich

Ranjha Aakhe Heer Nu

Ranjha Jogi Ho Giya

Rondi Heer Din Chete Karke

Taana Lagda Jeonde Vich Maas De

Ras Bhini Bhini Been Vajja Jogia

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The real spirit of a folk-song rests not only in its text but also in its tune. The popular tunes of Punjabi folk-songs ring with the heart-throbs of the simple, unsophisticated villagers. These melodies, characteristic of their deeply-felt emotions are absolutely in tune with their mode of living.

 The rhythm and beat of Punjabi folk music is simple. The rhythmic patterns are determined by the day-to-day activities of the villagers, the sound of the grinding stone, the drone of the spinning wheel, the creaking of the Persian wheel, the beat of the horse's hooves etc. These rhythms refined into symmetrical patterns form the basis of the entire folk music of the Punjab.


 There is a widespread variation in the tunes and melodies prevalent in the different regions of the state. The folk tunes prevalent in the east of the undivided Punjab are different from those popular in the west. In the west specially on the plains of the Sindh Sagar Doab certain folk forms like Mahiya and Dhoola were very popular. Boli is popular all over the Punjab, though the eastern mode of performing it is different from the western one. Even in one area the same song is sung differently by different groups. This element of flexibility in Punjabi folk music adds a lot of variety to it.


Punjabi folk music is primarily vocal in character and is accompanied by instruments. It comes so spontaneously to the villager that when he is ploughing or digging his fields, driving his cart or walking homeward alone he just bursts into song in a full-throated ecstasy. When women get together and ply the spinning-wheel they sing alone, in twos and three's or in chorus. They need no instruments. But for songs which are sung on special occasions, the use of instruments is essential, particularly the dholak. The dholak is very popular with the Punjabis and is used on all occasions of social and festive significance. Innumerable memories are associated with its sound because all gaiety and celebrations of the family include the dholak as the basic and essential instrument. Sometimes if a dholak is not available, people improvise one, out of an earthen pitcher which they put upside down and strike with a stone to keep the beat. This improvisation is quite popular with young women who sometimes prefer it to the drum and achieve real perfection in it. Dholak has helped to preserve some of the most valuable traditional songs.

In the evenings, professional singers enliven village platforms. Bhatts and Dhadis entertain the audiences till very late in the night and keep men and women of all ages absolutely spell-bound with their ballads. These roving minstrels are sometimes accompanied by instrumentalists who carry folk instruments like an Algoza, an Iktara and a Dhad Sarangi and by playing on them add charm to the recital. 


There is an abundance of heroic, devotional and romantic tales in Punjabi folklore. Tales of Puran Bhagat, Gopi Chand and Hakeekat Rai belong to the devotional type whereas Raja Rasalu, Sucha Singh Surma and Jeuna Mor belong to the heroic category. Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnu, Mirza Sahiban and Sohni Mahiwal are popular as tales of romance. These sentimental tales are always sung in typical strains. For every tale, the popular tune is different.


 Mirza Sahiban is sung in long wistful notes and the tune is known as Sad (call). It is a mournful tune and the singer generally puts one hand on his ear and makes gestures with the other while he sings.The tune used for Heer Ranjha is different form the one used for Puran Bhagat. The notes of Sindhu Bhairava raag can be traced in Heer Ranjha while Puran Bhagat is sung in the musical notes of Asavari and Mand. Sohni Mahiwal and Yusaf Zulaikhan are sung in Bhairavi raag but the tunes are different.


Mahiya, Dhola and Boli are the popular folk tunes prevalent in the Punjab. Today Mahiya is sung all over the Punjab. A triplet of Mahiya is called Tappa because it throbs with the heart-beat of the singers. Mahiya comprising triplets has its own special structure. The first line contains a pen-picture, a description or an illustration but sometimes it has no special meaning or relevance. The real substance is contained in the second and third lines. These two lines are very expressive and overflow with the most deeply felt longings of the people. They are very effective because they are deeply-felt emotions put into words. Every Tappa is an entity in itself.

 Dhola is highly lyrical and sentimental in character and its chief contents are love and beauty. Dhola has a variety of forms.

The Pothohari Dhola is rather condensed in form. Each stanza consists of five lines which can be further sub-divided into two parts of three and two lines. The first two lines of the first part rhyme with each other while the third one is left loose. The second part which is a couplet, intensifies and polishes up the meaning of the first three lines. This couplet is a sustained part of the first three lines. This couplet is liberally used independently by the singers of Dhola.

 Dhola prevalent in Sandalbar has no fixed form, and its tune is different from that popular in Pothohar. The rhythm is different and it keeps changing according to the variety of emotions portrayed. Singers themselves are the folk poets of these songs.

 Boli is the most popular form of folk music of the eastern Punjab. It is the most miniature form of folk-song. Boli is very deep, effective and interesting in its impact. It expresses a variety of emotions. A Boli may vary from one line to four, five or even more lines. The two famous folk-dances of the Punjab,  Bhangra and Giddha are danced to the accompaniment of this form of folk-song.

Loris or lullabies are sung in different tunes but the tempo is invariably slow. Every tune tends to create a droning, dreamy atmosphere which leads the child into the alleys of sleep. Its rhyme scheme is crisp and brief and takes the form of an address. At the end of each rhyming arrangement, plain and simple syllabic sounds are hummed.

In the Punjab there are set tunes for typical dirges. Alahni and Vain belong to this category. The content is a sad and philosophic commentary on the transience of life. Mourning songs are generally sung as slow, dragging chants, punctuated by shrill and wailing cries.

The musical map of Punjab


Ab means "water" and by extension, "river"; punj means "five". Punjab is the land of five rivers, namely the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutluj, all westward-flowing tributaries of the mighty Indus. For more than a thousand years the area known as Punjab stretched from the Indus basin in the west to the edge of the Yamuna basin in the east with the Himalayas, including the Jammu region, forming the northern boundary and the deserts of Sind and Rajasthan on the south. The ancient sites of Harappa, Taxila, Multan and Kurukshetra fell within its boundaries. The partition of 1947 took away West Punjab and the partition of 1966 took away Punjab's southern reaches.

Western Punjab-essentially the valley of the Indus, comprising the areas of Lahore, Lyallpur, Montgomery, Jhang, Multan and parts of Sind-is considered the well-spring of folk forms. After Partition, East Punjab has continued to evolve independently of its western-Islamic relation. In fact, it is fair to say that united Punjab's Muslim element remains a very active 'ghost" in the folklore and performances of modern Hindu/Sikh Indian Punjab.

In classical music, the Patiala school or gharana is the best known and most influential-it takes its name from the royal court of Patiala. However, Patiala is not the only classical gharana of Punjab. Hoshiarpur is known for the gharanas of Sham Chaurasi and Talwandi; a gharana was associated with the royal houses of Kapurthala and Kasur (now in Pakistan). The Punjab baaz of tabla has its roots in the court of Lahore. All these gharanas have been nourished through nationally famous events such as the century-old Harballabh Festival at Jalandhar

In I947, following Partition, East Punjab was left with four regions, namely:

Doaba: Do (two) and ab (river-in other words), the tract of land between the rivers Beas and Sutluj, including the districts of Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr, Kapurthala, and parts of Fazilka, Jalandar and Gurdaspur-is a cultural buffer zone where the influences of Majha and Malwa mingle. Maize was traditionally the main crop although in recent decades the farmers have taken to the cultivation of wheat, sunflower and other cash crops. The high- pitched twang of the toombi resonates in the Doaba. Its dialect is distinct and so is its cultural identity which draws heavily on the aboriginal roots of Punjab. The Doabias are adventurous and have migrated all over the world.


Majha: This region includes the northernmost districts of Punjab from the Beas northward to the valley of the Ravi, roughly the districts of Amritsar and parts of Gurdaspur and Fazilka. In contrast to Malwa, Majha is the cradle of Sikhism and by extension, Gurmatt Sangeet. Dhadhis, vaar poetry, bhangra and akhara ke bol are typical of this region.


Malwa: The southernmost area of present day East Punjab, lies between the Sutluj and the Ghaggar rivers and encompasses the districts of Patiala, Ludhiana, Ropar, Ferozepur, Bhatinda, Mansa, Sangrur, and Faridkot. Until the coming of the canals about 50 years ago this was a sparsely populated, semi arid or even desert landscape. It was known as a jangal da ilaqa, wilderness area, where the land could at best produce bajra, millet, jowar, barely and channa a variety of lentil. Land-holdings were large, feudalism had a strong grip resulting in a low level of social mobility and the level of banditry was high. The people of Malwa are regarded as hot-blooded, prone to violence and high emotion. At the same time, Malwa has been the epicentre of folk music and cultural traditions. The ubiquitous giddha-a fixture at nearly every social event-provides impetus to a combination of folk poetry and dance. Giddha takes two forms, both rooted in Malwa: they are the babeeyan de giddha or Malwai giddha (performed by men) and the Malwain giddha (performed by women). In bolis, tappe, Jat/Brahniin songs, kavishri and kissa, lyrics reveal regional variations in imagery.


In addition to the former region of Punjab, there is the submontane belt lying along the Himalayas. Kangra, Chamba and smaller valleys stretching back into the Himalayas now in Himachal Pradesh, which plays an important role in the evolution of Punjab's folk music; are home to shepherds-players of algoza and flute-a deeply romantic people whose delicate women inspired traditional painters. We see them as raginis and nayakas in Pahari miniatures. The hills are also the setting for ballads such as Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Pumu, Sohni-Mahiwal, Mirza-Sahiban and many other tales of tragic love.

Each of these regions are linguistically and culturally distinct and they each have their own musical forms. The musical instruments of these regions are similar to the musical instruments of Rajasthan and Gujarat and even some instruments of Iran and Central Asia but the style of playing and the compositions created with them have a unique flavour.

The folk instruments that accompany performances are played with subtle nuances recognised by those familiar with the corpus of the region's folk music. The vitality, wholesomeness and purity of the people of Punjab are ingrained in the melodies and rhythms of the instruments. But more than anything else, it is the dialect that distinguishes the folk music of various regions.

Punjab's most significant export is her people: the adventurous Punjabis have fanned out all over India and beyond to every country of the globe where they have struggled and prospered. But however far away they wander in search of a livelihood, they retain strong bonds with family and friends left behind in Punjab. This, and the media revolution that has put satellite television in the most remote areas, explains the high level of cultural and musical awareness seen even in dusty villages. Moreover, recording technology has also become easily available. Punjab's capital city, Chandigarh, boasts six (at the last count) recording studios and Ludhiana has as many. This is a very mixed blessing.

The studios have flooded Punjab with cassettes of "folk music', replacing the strains of authentic folk instruments with the renditions of the octopads and synthesisers. Actual folk musical instruments and their exponents are vanishing. Along with this, promotion and marketing are doing their bit of damage. Agents are a "showbiz" fact of life and traditional performers often get a costly lesson in their ways. The touts with their shady contracts fleece the gullible folk performer mercilessly but if the performer is already poverty-stricken and making a desperate bid for survival, he is more than likely to accept whatever is doled out as if his talent were of no value.

At the same time, those who are in fact not even mediocre are projected-often very successfully-as folk performers. Putting on a surgeon's coat does not make a man a surgeon; grinning from behind a dafla on a cassette cover does not make him a folk singer.

Thanks to the advent of the electronic media, entertainment is available at the push of a button. The tenacious hold of the electronic media on the youth of Punjab is evident from the tremendous popularity enjoyed by the small screen idols like Apache Indian, Malkit Singh, Daler Mehendi and Sukhvinder. There is also the escalating number of those experimenting with the folk motif and merging it with the foot-thumping beats to create the disco-bhangra, Punjabi Pop and Punjabi-rap.

While the true propagators of the folk forms languish in the villages, the patrons are lavishing adulation on those who are obviously borrowing and blending a concoction of the folk and the modern conceptualisations of what is being served as "Punjabi music". The hype and commercialisation of the music market may be inevitable but it is certainly not pretty.

At the turn of the century, folk performers of United Punjab enjoyed the patronage of the great princely states, and to some extent the British overlords. Some of the British administrators were also scholars and documented the people and their culture. No serious student of Punjab can ignore R.C. Temple's Legends of Punjab, or Sir Denzil Ibbetsons' three volume compilation, A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Even today the old State Gazetteers are the bedrock of serious research. However, it must be remembered that the authors of these monumental works were not fluent in Punjabi and so one must expect to find serious lacunae in comprehension and transliteration.

Cultural continuity, in the sense of the perpetuation of cultural traits from generation to generation for centuries, holds within it a contradiction. It transforms the main essence through the ages till the contemporary components are a spectacularly convoluted form of what the original might have been. In contrast, the paradox is that nothing really changes-the stories are the same, the myths are similar and the legends are undying. This continuity has been maintained through the rich oral traditions of a people especially through the group that has been specially ordained by society to perpetuate this heritage.

Since the transmission of the folk tradition is through the traditional guru-shishya parampara, documentation and systematic compilation of lyrics and literature does not form part of the system.