A Richly Imagined Retelling of Sikh History

By Vidya Pradhan

“Podcasts allow you to create a personal connection with the listener,” says Sarbpreet Singh, the creator and narrator of “The Story of the Sikhs,” a multi-episode, multi-season paean to one of the world’s most progressive religions. Beginning with the cultural and historic milieu in which the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lived and worked, the podcast traces the lives of the ten Sikh Gurus as well as the rise and fall of the Sikh empire.

A Richly Imagined Retelling of Sikh HistoryGuru Granth Sahib, circa 1840. Digitized by the Panjab Digital Library; from the collection of the Chief Khalsa Diwan.

Singh, who has pursued a career in technology for several years, is also a playwright, commentator, and poet and is best known for Kultar’s Mime, a poem about the 1984 Delhi Massacre that was adapted to the stage. “When I arrived in the U.S. in 1987 for graduate studies in computer science, my connection to my faith and identity was, to put it mildly, tenuous,” he reminisces. Inspired by mentors and role models whose role in his life he considers “serendipitous,” he set about exploring his heritage over the next few decades. As he learned, he felt an urge to teach, to communicate his new-found love for his roots to young people in the U.S. who were similarly searching for an anchor to the culture they had only a second-hand connection with.

Talking to the Sikh Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Sikh heritage and its future, Singh adds, “ ‘The Story of the Sikhs’ is my attempt to distil everything I have learned and taught over the years into an offering that I hope will be of use to young Sikhs who are taking their first, faltering steps towards engaging with their faith, as well as to non-Sikhs who want to learn about us.”

While the podcast makes use of all the historical material that is available, Singh has also taken the help of Janamsakhis to provide color and interest to the narrative. Janamsakhis, or “birth stories” are illustrated mythological texts that profess to be accounts of Guru Nanak’s life. “There is not a tremendous amount of consensus about their authenticity,” admits Singh. “In fact, it is rather ironic that Janamsakhis are full of stories attributing miracles to Guru Nanak, whereas he was a very rational man who made debunking superstition his life’s work!” But Janamsakhis have helped him take what could have been a dull recitation of known events and turn it into a living, breathing narrative that captures the listener’s imagination. These documents, passed down from generation to generation, are often a foundational experience of Sikh childhood.

“The first three episodes of the podcast draw heavily on Janamsakhi traditions,” Singh continues. Later episodes hew closely to historical sources and also use short excerpts from the Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, a multi-volume classical text on Sikh history and philosophy. Written in Braj verse by Bhai Santokh Singh in the mid-19th century and edited in the early 20th century by Bhai Vir Singh, the great Sikh writer and savant, the epic poem is considered one of the most colorful sources on Sikh history. “I have used a selection of this poetry in the podcast,” says Sarbpreet Singh, “first reading it in the original and then in translation.” Other texts that have informed the podcast are Syed Mohammad Latif’s History of the Punjab, Khushwant Singh’s A History of the Sikhs, Max Arthur McAuliffe’s The Sikh Religion, its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors, and Joseph Davy Cunningham’s History of the Sikhs, a British account of the Sikhs.

A Richly Imagined Retelling of Sikh HistorySarbpreet Singh at the launch of the podcast Pic. Courtesy: Sarbpreet Singh

But Singh is quick to emphasize that “The Story of the Sikhs” is an unabashedly personal take on Sikhism. “It is informed by my own journey as a Sikh once I came to the United States; I focus on ideas and events that captured my imagination and inspired me to learn and teach about Sikhism.”

“It is my personal take on Sikh history. At the end of the day, it is a labor of love. I just write from the heart.”

Apart from the selections of poetry from the Suraj Granth, Singh also weaves in Sikh and Indian classical music in the podcast. “Music is my passion,” says Singh, who is the creator of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, an initiative to preserve and propagate ancient Sikh musical traditions. A lot of the music in the podcasts can be found at the end of episodes so as to keep the main narrative brisk.

Why this particular medium to tell his story?

“I am an avid podcast listener,” says Singh. “I have been known to take ridiculously long walks with my dog just to listen to my favorites,” he laughs. “I find podcasts to be the perfect medium to engage with an audience in an informal way and this allows me to make a personal connection with my listener.”

When Kultar’s Mime was staged as a play, Singh travelled with the show, staying back after the performance to engage with the viewers. “Kultar’s Mime, because of its subject, is very hard to engage with, so after every show we would do a talkback with the audience. It ended up being an integral part of the experience. The ability to talk to people directly enriched me and, from the audience responses, I felt that they found it useful too.”

A Richly Imagined Retelling of Sikh HistoryLangar being served at the launch of the podcast Pic. Courtesy: Sarbpreet Singh

“The medium of podcasts feels almost like an extension of those talkbacks. And the response thus far has been gratifying, both from Sikhs and non-Sikhs, from academicians and lay people. The most common feedback I have received is that there is a need for this kind of content.”

In this endeavor, Singh has had the invaluable assistance of Erica Huang, an undergrad at Boston University and an audio engineer who also narrates the intro and outro of each episode. “She assembles and records the episodes, and is also responsible for stitching the musical interludes into the narrative,” says Singh. “Her work allows me to focus on my passion, which is telling the stories.”

Singh has ambitious plans for the podcast. While the first season of ten episodes takes us till the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Singh, the fifth Guru, subsequent seasons plan to discuss the remaining Gurus, the tumultuous events of the 18th century during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and beyond. Singh is currently working on a set of non-fiction essays set in this lesser known period of Sikh history and is excited to bring it to life in podcast form.

“The Story of the Sikhs,” was launched on February 15, 2018 at an event organized by the Sikh student group at Northeastern University in Boston. In the words of Alex Kern, Executive Director of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service, “For the religions of the world, storytelling is as essential as the food we eat or the air we breathe. Stories are essential for spiritual nourishment, dialogue, and the work of building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. The Story of the Sikhs is a rich feast to savor, one that enriches our understanding of the past and sustains us for the long shared journey ahead.”

The podcast can be accessed on ITunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Podbean and various other directories.

For more information about “The Story of the Sikhs”, visit The Story of the Sikhs.

Listeners can connect with the author/narrator on Facebook and Twitter
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