Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Jugni: More Than a Firefly – The Enduring Symbol of Punjabi Feminism

by Saloni Poddar

Jugni; according to the popular narrative, this term refers to a ‘female firefly’.

Metaphorically speaking, to me, ‘Jugni’ symbolizes the rebellious Punjabi woman; bold and brash, feisty. A no-nonsense woman. A woman, just like her male counterparts from the Sikh community, who is brave and strong, ready to take on the world… on her terms.

Even today, ‘Jugni’ is popular in Punjabi songs. She is there in the modern renditions of old folk songs and pop music. She is an elusive mystery woman residing somewhere in the heartland of Punjab or should I say she is the alter ego of every ‘Sikhni’, waiting to be found!

We all are aware that Late Alam Lohar, singer and composer, recreated Jugni and surrounded her with this air of charisma and elusion. The great maestro’s son, Arif Lohar (a prominent singer and performer himself) however, explains that the origins of Jugni are purely spiritual. Neither male nor female, it belongs to Allah Tallah. He sings:

Ae way Allah waliyan di Jugni ji
(She’s the spirit of the messengers who brought the divine message to the earth)

Ae way Nabbi pak di Jugni ji
(She’s the spirit of the holy Prophet himself)

Ae way Maula Ali wali Jugni ji
(She’s the spirit of Ali and his followers)

Ae way merey pir di Jugni ji
(She’s the spirit of my saint).

Ae way sarey sabaz di Jugni ji”
(She’s the essence of all His teachings)

So, this is the ‘Jugni’ in the Sufi context. But where is the woman?

Maybe she doesn’t exist in form. Let’s say she’s there in all Punjabi women, waiting to be discovered in this male predominant society.

To figure out its true meaning and symbolism we need to dig deeper. ‘Mahan Kosh’, a well-known Punjabi encyclopedia by Bhai Kahn Singh Nabhaa, describes ‘Jugni’ as a traditional Punjabi ornament worn by women around their necks. This could be the reason that classical poets referred to the wearer of this necklace as ‘Jugni’.

Well, hold your hearts for this is not all! There is another more romantic angle to the term too. According to folklore, there is a love context to Jugni. It is believed that it symbolizes the love lore of a Punjabi girl, Jugni, who was separated from her lover and still wanders from village to village searching for him. The history and timeline of Jugni’s existence remain as vague and full of mystique as the woman herself. However, it is believed that the love story originated somewhere between the Kashmir mountains and the Cholistan desert (now in Pakistan).

Jugni also has roots in the Revolt of 1857. It is said to have been sung to laud the sepoys from Sialkot and Mian Mir (Lahore) who were killed on the shores of river Ravi by Brigadier John Nicklinson and Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Frederick Henry Cooper. As the local ballads of those times go,

“Meri Jugni da dagga ek,
(the triumph of my Jugni)

Es ne phadd li hathh wich itt,
(she held a brick in her hand)

Maari vairiyan de sir vich,
(and hit it over the head of enemies)

O phai meri Jugni O…”
(O brother! O my Jugni)

Again, the revolutionary Jugni seems to talk about real events but there is no evidence of the same in the literature of 1850-60s. These could have been later additions by poets to pay tribute to the martyrs of 1857.

Nevertheless, the most credible and proven theory relating to the introduction of Jugni dates back to 1900s to Manda and Bishna who were Punjabi folk singers. As India was fraught with natural calamities and people died of hunger in those times, the suffering due to British atrocities also continued. The British administration characteristically turned a blind eye to the plight of Indians and held opulent celebrations across cities, most times accompanied by a ‘torch relay’ to commemorate the golden jubilee of the British Raj in India. So, in 1906, Manda and Bishna still sang, and being illiterate they pronounced ‘Jubilee’ as ‘Jugni’. And thus, Jugni was born in the world of Punjabi folk music. The duo made use of their iconic ‘Jugni’ to belittle the British regarding their lavish celebrations as people died and suffered. Although they sang in Punjabi, a language not understood by the ruling class, as their popularity grew, large crowds began gathering for their performances and soon they were arrested, beaten to death by the police, and buried in unmarked graves at some unknown cemetery. No one today knows or remembers Manda and Bishna, but their immortal Jugni lives in the hearts and tongues of people on both sides of India and Pakistan.

Their most famous ‘Jugni – verse’ was,

“Jugni jaa vaarhi Majithe,
(Jugni reached Majitha)

koi rann na chakki peethe,
(but no one is working in the flour mills)

putt gabru mulak vich maare,
(because men and sons are being killed in the country)

rovan akhiyaan par bulh hi seete,
(eyes are crying but lips are silent)

phir mereya oye jugni aayi aa,
(Oh God, Jugni has arrived)

ehnan kehrhi jot jagayi aa.”
(But it, reference to the relay torch, has not lighted up anything)

In contemporary times, Bollywood’s favourite child is ‘Jugni’. She is the quintessential rebel, the woman of today who will not be confined but will rise, to create her own destiny.

Jugni, from the movie ‘Queen’ is an ode to a girl who breaks the societal shackles to discover herself and follow her dreams whereas ‘Patakha Guddi’ from Highway Celebrates the woman who finally lets go of her past and embraces a path of spirituality. Contrastingly, ‘Tanu Weds Manu’, describes the rebellious Jugni, one who lives on her own terms and conditions.

All said and done, it is conclusive that the trajectory of ‘Jugni’ transcends time and space. She has travelled from Colonial India to contemporary India, always raising her voice, wanting to be heard and understood loud and clear. Let’s just say, ‘Jugni’ is the woman of today and she is here to stay!

Saloni Poddar

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