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A Good Addition to Existing Literature

Textures of the Sikh Past: New Historical Perspectives edited by Tony Ballantyne; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007;

A Good Addition to Existing Literature

gurpreet Bal

Moving away from the textual tradition of Sikhs to the empirical situation, McLeod’s overview of the place of caste in Sikhism is an important contribution though his under standing of a complex pheno menon from the very names and surnames used by people may be mislead

he volume under review has grown out of the symposium deliberations held in Dunedin to felicitate Hew McLeod for his great contribution to Sikh studies. It addresses the transformation of Punjab under British rule and the recent developments by interpreting the sacred texts, local histories and popular culture. After the editors’ brief comments on the articles, Barrier provides a biographical sketch of McLeod and he locates the origin of Sikh studies based on the sources in the pamphlets, novels, commentaries of the scholars and politicians of the Singh Sabha movement. Systematic research of a diverse nature by these scholars began in the 1960s initially depending mainly on the documents produced by the Punjabis and British during the colonial period. Sikh studies began to take shape by the 1970s and 1980s. The process did not only face a setback due to the Punjab crisis, but also a new challenge in a new volatile environment. The wave of Sikh studies that began with McLeod got more and more exploratory, analytical and expressive with the fresh arrivals in the domain. The 10 articles included in the volume need separate mention largely due to lack of continuity in the themes.

Vanjara Sikhs

In the first article, in a lesser known text ‘Vanjara Pothi’ (belonging to the nomadic Vanjara trading community), Pashaura Singh attempts to offer a perspective on the early history of the Sikh Panth in which Vanjara Sikhs played an important role as the scribes and custodians of the Sikh scriptures. However, the author seems to be unsure of the period when Vanjara Sikhs entered the Sikh Panth. His comparison of the physiognomy, sequence of the composition word by word and, line by line of the text with other texts,

book review

Textures of the Sikh Past: New Historical Perspectives edited by Tony Ballantyne; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp viii + 328, Rs 695 (hardbound).

mainly to Adi Granth enriches our under standing of the complex process of the making of the Sikh canon, yet the authenticity of the text among various ‘Pothis’ and the issues emerging from there have not been addressed. Nevertheless, it highlights a collabo rative approach on working drafts prepared under the direct supervision of Guru Arjan Dev.

Bhai Nand Lal Goya

Louis Fenech, after his notable work on the significance of martyrdom in Sikh tradition is now working on the life of Bhai Nand Lal Goya, who has got a little attention in Sikh studies. Bhai Nand Lal Goya was a chief scribe of Muhammad Muazzam (the future emperor Bahadur Shah) and also a scribe and renowned poet in the court of Guru Gobind Singh. Fenech reconstructs two Nand Lals. The first is the Nand Lal of history and according to him reconstructing a historical Nand Lal was a tremendously challenging task, as we do not have sufficient authentic data to do so. The second life of Nand Lal has been assessed on the basis of his posthumous reputation amongst the members of the 18th and 19th century Panth. There seems to be no dialectically opposite relation between two of his lives. Rather Bhai Nand Lal becomes a rare character positioned at the brink of two cultures, which might have enriched the textuality of Sikh Panth with the diverse experiences of Hinduism and Muslim affiliation, thus the two Nand Lals had many lives.

ing. “A person bearing Bal as a final name will be a jat whereas someone called Anand is a khatri” (p 105). Empirically, it is not true. For instance, the surname Bal is also used by many dalits. Understanding caste from marital practice of endogamous jati and exogamous ‘gotra’ may also be puzzling when we know that amongst the jats, the grewals practise the tradition of endogamous gotra. McLeod argues that the varna hierarchy and economic issue are important to understand the Sikh system of caste. He clubs the Sikh castes into four groups – jats, ramgarhia, dalits and other low castes in rural areas while in urban areas he includes khatris and aroras. Highlighting the caste hierarchy among the Sikhs is a refutation of the assertion of some orthodox Sikhs regarding the casteless character of the community.

Webster makes an assessment of the existing works on dalit Sikhs, highlighting the ways in which Sikh history has marginalised the importance and experiences of the dalits within the Sikh Panth. The author argues that the history of dalits has never got any place in the narratives of the Sikh history while they have a marked presence and in fact coexistence in the internal social structure and social divisions of Sikh society. That suggests, in his view, the politics of scholars’ analytical strategies. The author proposes to search for new ways to narrate Sikh history, that is, by making the dalit history approach the central theme. In his view the social history from below would bring many contesting issues in the open though he fails to acknowledge the works done in the same direction in literature – Punjabi, Hindi and English translations of novels, short stories and also through personal narratives.

Kerr, while glorifying the annexation of Punjab by the British, provides an

may 10, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


interesting interpretation of a woodcut of a train placed in a museum in London from 1870 by a Punjabi artist. This woodcut shows a train standing at a station with a British driver and foreman while the passengers and people on other duties are Punjabis. The train is a representative of a dynamic Sikh response to the new British driven changes. The train symbolises the new Punjab – the transformation taking place after the annexation by the British. The railway station represents a new space created in Punjab and in this process of modernisation the technological innovations have remained central. The new road system, railway lines, canal network and telegraph lines connected the market and facilitated the movement of goods, capital and humans. With the material development, a new consciousness of religious practices, cultural values, intellectual growth and local politics emerged in Punjab. The author gives only one interpretation of the train woodcut, as the train could be interpreted by others as taking away their freedom and autonomy and leaving them to face discrimination, subordination and getting down to low status positions in the society, thus changing the meanings of their lives.

Catanach takes us back to the time of crises – which are still preserved in the memory of elderly persons: like the plague. Millions of people of Punjab, particularly from the central districts of Hoshiarpur and Nawanshehar were killed over 20 years from 1897 to 1918. The author uses the plague as a prism through which he reads the development of Sikh politics. The plague was found more in large villages with a compact population which were mainly the Sikh villages and it was more a disease afflicting females, as more women were dying mainly because of their social role of taking care of the sick. He suggests that moments of crisis provide valuable insights into the nature of social formation, religious traditions and the way the British state and the staff on duty constructed the epidemic disease through a plague policy. The handling of a recurrent disease by the British administration reveals their inefficiency, corruption, and politically vested interests. Therefore, we need to explore such an

Economic & Political Weekly

may 10, 2008

enormous phenomena as the politics of a disease. The rise of the Singh Sabha, emergence of Bhai Randhir Singh’s Akhand Kirtani Jatha, the growth of Ahmadiyya movement may be interpreted as a reactive formation to the activities of the colonial state in connection with the plague.


Himadari Benerjee takes us beyond Punjab to Orrisa, showing that religious and cultural plurality has a place for Sikh history as well. The exploration, based on textual sources and oral narratives, starts from Guru Nanak’s ‘udasi’ (travel) in 1509 to Puri – the place of the famous Jagannath temple. These two distinct and distant religious traditions find time and space for a meaningful dialogue within the composite culture along the pilgrims’ road to Puri. These Sikhs are Nanak panthis, largely khatris by caste, who visited the tract for pilgrimage, trade, soldiering, etc. They were renowned in running religious congregations-cumhospices (‘mathas’) for travellers and pilgrims. The elaborate matha network exposed them to the complexities of local life. These brought wealth and power to Nanak panthis. However, it also stimulated tension and dissent. The Sikhs used various strategies to handle the local people, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) and Utkal Sammelani politics to find space for them in the popular Oriya culture.

The folk dance of Punjab, the bhangra, a symbol of Punjabi identitiy, has been examined by Ballantyne in the context of its hybridisation in modern times. Bhangra originated in the vicinity of Sialkot and Gurdaspur in the pre-colonial times. Earlier it was attached with the harvesting of the crops but then it became a part of all auspicious occasions and after independence it became a symbol of Punjabi identity carefully cultivated by the press, refugees and the state. The diaspora Sikhs, particularly in England innovated with dance and mixed it with Afro- Caribbean black music with the aid of digital technology, standard hip-hop techniques of sampling, looping and cutting up. As a result we have “black bhangra” which has been taken as a challenge to Sikhism as well as a cultural threat. The major question is not whether bhangra is a cultural form or a religious art. Bhangra is a part of Punjabi, Sikh cultural heritage. Surely, it puts a major question mark on Punjabi identity in the modern scenario. For such a distortion of Punjabi folk culture the young diaspora Punjabis may be held responsible. We need to look into this issue more seriously.

Modern Means

Barrier presents a new culture of learning the Sikh traditions and history through the modern means of communication, i e, web sites. There are over 300 Sikh discussion groups listed in one Yahoo group. Participants often develop their own web sites. One of the first and the most distinguished sites is However the issues discussed remain pragmatic and concern the diaspora community more than others. The author takes up one discussion group “Sikh diaspora” as a case for evaluation of issues, perceptions and controversy. Participants of this group virtually take every topic relevant to contemporary Sikhism ranging from the nature and content of the Guru Granth Sahib to the issues of identity. The author resolves the issue by saying that the researchers can learn a lot from these interchanges of virtual communities through these new communication networks. But in these web sites the issues that are raised do not point towards the progress of a liberal community, rather they are subverting the community to fundamentalism and radicalism. Khalistan really exists in these web sites!

New Sikh Art

Two visual artists with a Punjabi Sikh background in UK have successfully created representation of Sikh art in academia, the jacket cover of the book under review is their painting “On All That I Am” in Indian miniature style. The portrait functions at three levels. It represents the journey of any diaspora family from Amritsar, having had the experiences of Partition, to the destination – England. Also it reflects the collective Asian diaspora experience in the “rags to riches” scenario and “who they are” as a result of their first generation’s efforts, sacrifices and achievements. Their other


paintings on the themes “Wedding Jungle 11”, “Mr Singh’s India”, “The Beast of Revelation”, “Battle of the Gains”, “All Hands on Deck” reinterpret Sikhism within a contemporary context. The authors argue that to neglect art within the academic studies of Sikhs and Punjab is to miss out on a whole diversity of perspectives.

The volume is an interesting reconstruction of Sikhs and Sikhism and addresses a wide range of issues analytically handled by a range of scholars who have dealt with various issues with objectivity and impartiality. The volume will be an important source to understand the varied yet intertwined dimensions of the Sikh past. The subtitle of the volume claiming new historical perspectives could be contended. Most of the articles are part of established perspectives in historiography. Obviously, keeping with the spirit of the times the volume has an interdisciplinary approach. Still a rigorous iconographical approach is missing in two articles, which do not come out with anything substantial about the Sikh mentality. From the perspective of contemporary debates on the Sikh history and historio graphy, the present volume should be understood as an addition to the already existing literature on the subject.


may 10, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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