Folk singer Amar Arshi on Kala Chashma – a catchy Punjabi number he once recorded at a modest studio in Phagwara
Over the past two weeks, Kala chashma, the Punjabi earworm that has found plenty of head and heart space in the populist music world for over three decades, has garnered reception and global affection of gigantic proportions. Kala chashma – the original version of which was recorded 32 years ago in a small studio in Phagwara in Punjab – has had the world on its feet in recent days and they, the people, are really groovy and how.
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While the song had The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon and American singer Demi Lavato spinning to its looping beats; he also had the Indian cricket team celebrating their win over Pakistan in the Asian Cup by kicking the locker room; even the Hong Kong team was stumbling over the same thing. While the actors Ayushmaan KhurranaAnanya Pandey and Ritesh Deshmukh and Genelia D’souza bonded over the song online and danced, a group of women from Nepal and many from India tried to catch the happy vibe.
But what everyone unanimously loved was a group of African children absolutely killing it in the mud in front of a small hut while bouncing on point with the catchy beats. Killy and Neema Paul, the Tanzanian brother-sister duo and social media influencers also created their own dance version of the piece. All followed the high-powered choreography and absolutely ecstatic dance reel of the song created by Norwegian dance troupe, Quick Style, during a member’s wedding to an Indian bride. This is where things started to evolve and go viral. And this is where social media and its frenzy took over.
The version of the song that made it into these dance videos is a remix created by rapper and songwriter Badshah. Become in Katrina Kaif –Siddharth Malhotra’s star Baar Baar Dekho (2016), this version seasoned with occasional yelps, addictive beats and looping swag in the rapping of Indeep Bakshi and Badshah and the nasal vocals of Aakriti Kakkar. But the game belongs to the traditional tumbi, the prancing opening riff.
But what is little known or rather little remembered is that Kala chashma, the song that ignites almost every street party, club and house around the world, was sung by a folk singer named Amar Arshi, who started his career with local jagrans and weddings in Punjab. He recorded the song early in his career after coming into contact with the song’s lyricist Amrik Singh Shera, a Punjabi police officer from Kapurthala. “It feels good to see the song back in the limelight.
He was already quite famous in Punjab, England and Canada. But Badshahji’s version in 2016 brought him a lot of international attention. I don’t know why, but people all over the world are connecting again, dancing to it and making me feel very honoured,” Arshi said in a phone conversation from Jalandhar, where he currently lives. The ‘re-created’ version had helped the singer by increasing the amount of money he earned from his shows, especially the few that took him to Australia and the UK – two countries with a sizable Punjabi population .
Growing up in a poor family in the village of Nangal Majja, where no one was interested in music, Arshi taught himself by listening to folk songs sung by legendary Punjabi singers such as Gurdas Mann, Surinder Shinda and Kuldeep Manak. That was until he found a guru in popular singer Amar Singh Chamkeela. Arshi was his protege for four years, until Chamkeela was shot with his wife and entourage in 1988. The murder remains unsolved. “I would meet at his office at 4 a.m. and I would sing for him, I would learn from him. All I know is thanks to Chamkeela,” says Arshi, whose parents didn’t like the idea of a career in music and often asked him to do something “constructive.”
“My mother constantly got angry when I played the harmonium. Both of my parents kept telling me to get a real job and not mess around with the music. But I didn’t budge,” says Arshi , for whom Kala chashma, three decades ago, was one of 10 songs recorded to be taken to the UK. “I was delighted to have some music producers recording me. I sang with all my heart,” says Arshi, who did not receive any money for the song at the time. “I would be happy if I got paid at that time. I was ok if I didn’t,” says Arshi
Shera, who wrote occasionally and knew Arshi, gave him the song. Shera had written the song when he was 15 and while visiting Chandigarh. He saw a girl in the city, in jeans and dark glasses, and wrote the song the next day.
The song – slightly self-tuned but with Arshi’s vibrato in place, met with instant success in Punjab. The video had a group of bhangra dancers, Arshi and a woman wearing dark glasses.
Years later, Karan Johar and Badshah came to call and some of their reps told Arshi that about 10 seconds of the song was needed for a commercial. “Mashoori bana rahe si koi (They were doing a commercial). I was called to Bombay, recorded the song and came back. Later some of their men came to Jalandhar, made me sign some papers and gave me one lakh. Since I don’t understand English, I still don’t understand what I signed. But then I thought, “I sang and I got paid,” says Arshi, who never received royalties or any share of the profits after the song’s success. Shera received 10,000 rupees.
The success earned Arshi more appropriate gigs beyond weddings and jagrans in Punjab. His other songs include Aaaja ni aaja and Rangli kothi. Did Arshi observe dance trends? “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but a lot of people are dancing a lot to my voice, again,” he says in chaste Punjabi.