For Rakesh Chandra Mahi, 26 November is a significant date. There’s noticeable pride on his face when he mentions that two of his three children—the eldest and the youngest—were born on the very day that commemorates the adoption of the Indian Constitution. For this 49-year-old Ambedkarite living in Jalandhar, Punjab, there could be no greater sense of fulfilment.

Having followed his motorcycle down to the narrow street where his house stands shrouded in fog, we’re now waiting for his 18-year-old daughter, the singer Ginni Mahi, in the drawing room of the single-storey house that was built by his grandfather. Within this front room, removed by a long corridor from the interior of the house, is a concentration of everything that the family holds dear. On the coffee table is a Gujarati magazine with Ginni on the cover, though they have no idea what the writer may have written, while the computer in a corner has a wallpaper of the youngsters of the house: Ginni, a younger brother, and cousins. The walls, as well as a long red cupboard placed on one side, are lined with glass shelves holding plaques that Ginni has been awarded over the years—she has accumulated so many that they have now started distributing them as keepsakes among family and friends.

Given equal prominence are various framed images of the family’s two gurus, B.R. Ambedkar and Sant Ravidas, a statue of Buddha covered in plastic, a coffee mug with Ambedkar’s image printed on it, which holds two miniature India flags, photographs of Ginni being felicitated, a couple of oversized cheques that proclaim her as the winner of “Voice of Doaba", a singing competition in the region, and, unusually, right above the entrance, a large poster announcing Virgin Atlantic’s “stunning new A330s" in which one could “fly fabulous from New Delhi to the UK and the USA". This last, and some other aeroplane memorabilia spread across the room, is a reminder of Rakesh Mahi’s job in an air-ticketing office, which he quit in March to better manage Ginni’s singing career and the fans who call at all hours on the four phone numbers displayed publicly on her Facebook page—“kabhi kabhi khana hi chhut jata hai (sometimes I even miss my meals)," he says, explaining that his cousin, Sonu Mahi, and he take the trouble to respond to each and every caller, passing on their messages to Ginni.

Ginni Mahi’s family analyses the thousands of lyrics that come her way. She’s pictured here with her mother, Paramjeet Kaur, and father, Rakesh Chandra Mahi
Ginni Mahi’s family analyses the thousands of lyrics that come her way. She’s pictured here with her mother, Paramjeet Kaur, and father, Rakesh Chandra Mahi

Ginni, whose two albums Guran Di Deewani and Gurpurab Hai Kanshi Wale Da, consist mainly of devotional hymns of the Ravidassia community to which she belongs, became a YouTube sensation with her songs Fan Baba Sahib Di—admittedly her own favourite, “jis gane se Ginni Mahi ki pehchaan hui (the song I became famous with)"—Danger and Danger 2, which speak provocatively of Danger Chamar. She is now working on her third album of nine tracks, which will release by 10 January.

Dressed warmly in blue printed tights, a sweater and red jacket, with her hair tied in a high pony and the front puff that’s all the rage nowadays, Ginni looks more the college student she is than a pop star. After much urging, she’s taken time out from preparations for her first-year examinations—she studies music at the city’s Hans Raj Mahila Maha Vidyalaya—to meet us. Ginni, who started performing at age 12, says she takes pains to balance the demands of her professional and college lives. While her father responds to phone calls, no media interviews or concerts are agreed upon without her permission; Ginni tries her best to fix stage performances over weekends so that she doesn’t miss too many classes.

Ginni dreams of becoming a “versatile singer" in Bollywood, much like her favourites Lata Mangeshkar, Shreya Goshal and Sunidhi Chauhan. Yet, despite an already established career in folk singing and a fair amount of fame, she insists that she will first complete her PhD in music. “Uske baad main Bombay me hi dati rahoongi (After that, I will just persist with a career in the Bombay film industry)," she laughs determinedly. Her reason for studying further is simple; she wants the prefix “Dr" to her name.

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Identity is an integral idea driving not just the songs that are carefully chosen for Ginni Mahi, but the trajectory of her family’s life. The Mahis (the word Mahi, Rakesh tells me, is used to refer to God) are part of the nearly 39% Scheduled Caste population that makes up Jalandhar district. If the red curtains shielding us from the street immediately outside were to be opened, we would see on the opposite side of the road a Ravidassia gurughar—one of seven in the neighbourhood, Ginni says. The Ravidassias are a group based on the teachings of the Bhakti saint Guru Ravidas. “Aisa chahu raaj main, jaha mile sabhan ko ann, chot bade sab sam, waise rahe Ravidas pasand," Ginni quotes with ease when speaking of the “message" in her songs. “So many years ago, he had said that I want the kind of smart city where people will live with equality, humanity and without caste divisions. Main sirf apna farz nibha rahi hoon (I’m just doing my duty). It is our responsibility to ensure that discrimination is ended, and we live with oneness." She speaks in cliches of the sun shining equally for everyone, and the wind blowing equally for all. As she explains, her thought process has been shaped by the conversations in her household, largely of “Babasaheb’s messages, according to which we all live our lives".

Fan Baba Sahib Di, in fact, refers to Ambedkar as their “qaum di masiha (the community’s messiah)", proudly proclaiming, Main thi Babasaheb di, jinne likheya si samvidhaan… Main fan aisi soch di, tere saat liye balidaan (I am the daughter of Babasaheb, who wrote our Constitution… I follow the man who fought and made sacrifices for our rights). The Scheduled Caste community aligns naturally with Ambedkar, who too was born in a caste then considered untouchable, and was a forceful voice against discrimination. In the conversation with the family, it is clear that the fact that Ambedkar, despite the circumstance of his birth, rose to draft the laws that Indians abide by helps boost their confidence in determining the course of their own lives.

“In truth, I have never faced discrimination; I’ve only seen it happening to others and heard of the kind of exploitation that used to take place," says Ginni. Even so, it isn’t easy to shrug off caste identities. While Ginni Mahi has become her stage name, in official records she is Gurkanwal Bharti. Bharti is the surname that the family has chosen to give all the children of her generation—“Pehle India hai, pehle desh hai… isliye Bharti ke naam pe pehchaan diya ja raha hai (We are first Indians, and that is the identity we want our children to have)," says Rakesh.

When she was in school, Ginni was once asked her caste by a classmate. Not satisfied with the response “SC category", the classmate questioned her further. When Ginni told her that though she didn’t believe in caste, they were from the community known formerly as Chamar, she says the classmate responded in mirth, “Arre Chamar bade danger hote hain, panga nahin lena chahiye (Chamars are supposed to be dangerous, I should be careful)." Ginni returned home and recounted the incident, and the story spread among their friends. One day, Rakesh received a phone call from a lyricist, who had written a song inspired by the incident, but giving an entirely new meaning to the term “danger chamar". “Thoda funny bhi hai, thoda serious bhi hai (it’s a little funny, a little serious)," is how she recalls the incident.

Kurbani deno darde nahin, rehnde hai tayyar, haige asle to wadd Danger Chamar (Those who are ready to sacrifice, they are the real Danger Chamar), go the lyrics of the song that has given Ginni Mahi national prominence and a wider platform beyond the religious gatherings and folk singing concerts that are her mainstay. The thousands of lyrics that come their way are each analysed by a team—Ginni, her family, the music director Amarjit Singh, and the video director Raman Rajat—before they are selected. “Kissi ke opposite baat na jaye (It shouldn’t offend anyone)," says Ginni. The reason she prefers devotional songs is twofold: to remember their gurus and to create a distinct identity for herself. “Har koi chahta hai ki duniya mein hame log alag pehchaan ke saath jaane," she says.

The confidence with which Ginni performs, both on stage and in her music videos, has led to viewers of her YouTube videos commenting on her “bravery" and “courage". Supporters of all age groups call to leave their blessings and good wishes, with some even breaking down while speaking to him, says Rakesh.

Ginni has deliberately kept away from the political stage to avoid being identified with a specific ideology, but her choice of songs has often led to her being described as a “Dalit singer". Therein lies a conundrum. This is not an identity, Ginni says, that she has chosen, or will ever choose, for herself; such a discrete identity, she feels, would go against her belief in the oneness of humanity.

“Maine to kabhi nahin kaha ki main ek Dalit singer hoon. Yeh toh logo ki mentality aisi hai ki woh jatiwaad ko badawa dehte hai. Main ise nahin maanti hoon. Zaroori nahin hai ki maine Guru Ravidas ke upar gaya hai toh main ek Dalit singer ban gayi hoon ya ek identity reh gayi hai meri. Haan, woh jo hamare samaj ke log hain, unke liye chalo woh keh sakte hain ki yeh hamari bachchi hai. Lekin main community ke bahar bhi jo log hain, pure sansaar mein jo log hain, main unki beti banna chahti hoon, unki beti hoon. Bas, that’s it. (I have never ever said I am a Dalit singer. It’s people who promote caste divisions. I don’t believe in such divides. It’s not necessary that if I sing about Guru Ravidas, I am a Dalit singer, and this should remain my identity. Yes, those of my community, they may say that I am their daughter. But I want to transcend the community and connect with everyone across the world, become like a daughter to them.)"

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