Of Flag Flyers and Flag Flying – by Prof. Lou Fenech

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University of Northern Iowa

It is with sheer delight that I accept the Sikh Foundation’s request to contribute a short article regarding the history of my own fascination with the Sikh people and the various opportunities and challenges which face those of us committed to the academic study of the Sikhs and the various ways of expressing Sikhness. The previous posts have been very inspiring and I can only hope that my humble contribution is worthy of inclusion amongst them.

I very much enjoy writing about Sikh history, religion, poetry, and culture far more than I like writing about myself. But there are moments, obviously, when the subjects have become intertwined and at least from my perspective have shaped each other. I hope therefore that you will indulge my reminisces of twenty-five years of keen interest in Sikh Studies. My own personal journey begins in a location which is now very well known within the Sikh world, Toronto, Canada. It was not so well known when I was a child however. As a member of perhaps the only immigrant Maltese family residing within the predominantly Italian neighbourhood of Rexdale (Etobicoke) in the 1960s and 70s my childhood encounters with the Sikhs were very few and far between. But I do vividly recall, as a child of eight or nine, seeing a young boy, playing on his driveway, with what I later came to know as the patka on his head. It was only my good friend, an Anglo-Indian from Calcutta, who pointed out that this remarkable child was a Sikh.

I still recall how intrigued I was by this young Sikh, an interest which undoubtedly alerted me to the presence of Sikhs if not in my neighbourhood then within the city itself. By the early 1980s I had again heard of these fascinating people: in this instance it regarded a dispute between Sikh families over contributions at the first gurdwara built in Toronto, on Pape Street near what is today known as Little India. Unfortunately the dispute turned deadly, a very unfortunate circumstance which in the early 1980s was often mentioned in Toronto in the context of events transpiring within the Punjab itself, of which I knew very little.

By 1983 however these were distant concerns for me as I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. Here I was first introduced to the study of India through a course awkwardly titled the History of the Third World. In retrospect I was drawn to this course through a clearly cultivated romantic fascination with India (based perhaps on years of comic-book collecting). It was this which I spent the next few years exploring at the university (and critiquing and problematising) through a variety of courses. Fortunately, one of these courses was taught by A. L. Basham, the famous Indologist who is still noted for his important (though now clearly dated) text, The Wonder That Was India. Basham was no Sikhologist to be sure but during one cold winter’s morning he did fascinate us with a lecture on Sikhism in the context of India’s various bhakti movements (or now, ‘bhakti publics’), and when I claimed an interest in writing a term paper on the Sikhs it was Basham who introduced me to this book by one of his former Ph.D. students, which he thought was quite good, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. This was the week before the Torontonian equivalent of Spring Break (i.e. Reading Week) and so I packed the book along with my swimming gear and headed down to Florida to spend some serious study-at-the-beach time. I did just this, to the chagrin of my friends. At that point I can honestly say no academic book had inspired me so. I was, to put it bluntly (or sharply), hooked: the teachings of the Gurus, their extraordinary lives, and those of their martyrs, particularly Baba Dip Singh ji; and how Sikhs throughout the centuries have attempted to manifest those teachings were rousing to say the least. The triumphalist narrative(s) of the Sikh Khalsa and their Guru, Guru Gobind Singh was amongst the most invigorating stories I had ever heard. The poetry amongst the most beautiful I had ever heard. Understanding, contextualising, and problematising these histories was an ambition I was determined to fulfill and a goal for which I would always strive. It may sound trite but I knew then, at about twenty years of age, that studying the Sikhs and their history was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Hew and Margaret McLeod, Dunedin New Zealand 2002My objectives it seems were rather easy to accomplish as I was, luckily, one of the few, very fortunate students who was in the right place at the right time. Even before the tragic events of 1984 and the subsequent destruction of Air India flight 182—the Kanishka which began its journey to India at the Toronto airport in 1985 and which was alleged to have been perpetrated by Sikh militants—had placed the Sikhs centre stage throughout Canada, the University of Toronto, through the tireless work of various scholars and Sikh professionals, had decided to seriously experiment with offering a series of courses in the Sikh tradition, with the hope that this would be ultimately transformed into Canada’s (and, at that time, the world’s) first Chair of Sikh Studies. Community funds were committed; Canada’s Department of Multiculturalism was ready to match community funds: all seemed bright. Things, however, as we all know, did not go as planned. Nevertheless it was the excitement engendered by these scholars and community leaders and by the university which allowed me to meet two of my future mentors both of whom made me a better scholar and both of whom have made me a better person.

Pashaura Singh and II met Hew McLeod first at a lecture offered by T.N. Madan (I think) in 1986. Speaking about Hew now, eight months after his death is still difficult for me. I cherished every moment both within and outside of the classroom with him. He was an inspiration. It was obvious to all those with whom he had met that his commitment to the study of the Sikhs was born from a great (and indeed infectious) love for the Sikh people and Sikh culture. The second was not a professor, but a fellow graduate student, Pashaura Singh. I met Pashaura in January 1988 just as Professor J.S. Grewal came to the university to offer a series of courses on Sikh History. Sharing these classes with Pashaura was a joy and I learned as much from him as from Grewal. One class I remember in particular as Pashaura and I were Grewal’s only students. I recall moments in this class when Grewal and Pashaura spoke so beautifully (an eloquence only those who have taken their classes can know) that I was covered with Goosebumps. It is to Grewal and Pashaura and these early graduate classes that I trace my fascination with the life and Persian poetry of Bhai Nand Lal Goya, the subject of my first academic article and afterwards my second book. These were the best of days, just before the controversies which made Sikh Studies such a difficult subject to purse at U of T. Pashaura graduated in 1992 and Hew left for New Zealand very soon afterwards. The University of Toronto for various reasons to which I was not privy decided that a Chair of Sikh Studies was not in the school’s best interest and thus dramatically altered its intended Sikh Studies trajectory. Hew McLeod had nevertheless agreed to supervise the next few years of my doctoral dissertation gratis. An extraordinary gift given the circumstances. During all of these years together never did Hew impose his own ideas and views on me, always allowing me express myself as I saw fit and be my own person. In this light therefore I can only second the words of Pashaura Singh noted in his earlier Sikh Foundation post.

Prem Singh of Delhi UniversityWhile at the University of Toronto with Hew and Pashaura I spent a year in India supplementing my study of Punjabi and Brajbhasha thanks to a Shastri Indo-Canadian fellowship, a wonderful resource for Canadian and Indian scholars. My time in India was spent at Delhi University (with bi-weekly visits to the Punjab) under the tutelage of a phenomenal scholar, Prem Singh of the Department of Linguistics. Trained as a Sanskritist/linguist Prem’s knowledge of Indic languages, indeed of languages generally, was stunning. A Sikh whose family had been displaced during Partition Prem Singh eventually found himself at Cornell and Harvard working under Daniel Ingalls. Although I studied both Punjabi and Brajbhasha with him I recall our conversations in Persian and in Maltese (!), my mother tongue which is a dialect of Arabic. Prem Singh was a truly remarkable man who allowed me into his home many times during the Mandal Commission disturbances around the Delhi University campus in the late 1980s. Prem died in late 2008 while I was in the Punjab and preparing to visit him. He is sorely missed.

Prem’s training and Hew’s supervision allowed me to finish my dissertation in late 1994 upon the history and understandings of martyrdom within the Sikh tradition which was ultimately published in India as Martyrdom in the Sikh Tradition: Playing the Game of Love (2000) an obvious allusion to Guru Nanak’s famous shlok which the subtitle paraphrases. This was later followed by my second book, The Darbar of the Sikh Gurus: The Court of God in the World of Men (2008) which examines among other things the life and works of Bhai Nand Lal Goya and the compositions of the tenth Guru’s darbari kavis. At the moment I am writing my next book which continues my interest in Sikh Persian literature as it will focus mainly on the Persian epistle known as the Zafar-namah. Attributed to Guru Gobind Singh the Zafar-namah today is an important part of the sacred Sikh inheritance, situated as it is close to the end of the Dasam Granth.
A dhadhi jatha I photographed in late 2008 just off the parikarma of Harimandir Sahib
This text is, like much of the material we find in today’s Dasam Granth, mired in controversy. ‘Are the Hikayats a part of the Zafar-namah?’, ‘Was the letter written by the Guru?’, and if so ‘How could the Guru contemplate something as base as revenge against the emperor?’ are questions I often hear and read in regard to this remarkable text. These are valid questions (although I have yet to find a desire for vengeance articulated within the text), and I hope that the partial answers which I will supply in my forthcoming work will spur more scholars to take up the challenges which the Zafar-namah poses, apt this as the Zafar-namah was according to tradition written as a challenge cast to the emperor Aurangzeb. For now it seems clear to me that a fresh interpretation and understanding of the Zafar-namah is warranted, one which thoroughly examines the cultural context in which the Zafar-namah was written. Indeed, although the text has been effectively collapsed to one sole couplet or bait (Zafar-namah 22) today, this was not always the case. One portion of my work will therefore focus on the problematic and contested historiography of the Zafar-namah and how various Sikhs throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries may have understood and interpreted this epistle. Another will aim to demonstrate that in order to understand the text and its context one need turn to its most significant intertextual source, the Iranian national epic of Abul Qasim Ferdausi, the Shah-namah (whose 1000th anniversary we celebrate this year), a direct reference to which we discover in Zafar-namah 80. Most scholarship on the epistle simply notes this one bait’s reference and moves one. My study posits however that the debt to the Shah-namah is a profound one which merits the most serious study. The tenth Guru I believe (and will show) appropriates the Shah-namah and in this act of appropriation we see the metaphor for his admiration of Ferdausi’s epic text. The tenth Guru has in other words tipped his arrow in Ferdausi’s direction.
Pashaura Singh and a group of sewadars from Gurdwara Gur-gian Prakash (Javvadi Taksal, Ludhiana) at Gurdwara Mehdiana Sahib near Jagraon
Thanks to Hew’s and Pashaura’s support I was fortunate enough to find a job in Iowa (which in Arabic means ‘yes’) where I am still situated (yes!) and still in love (as there’s no other word) with the study of the Sikh tradition (yes!). Although the majority of my students are from rural Iowa itself (fields upon fields of corn which on certain hot summer days remind me of the Punjab countryside) and thus have very little experience with India in general and the Sikhs in particular, I have managed to encourage a few students to pursue graduate study in Indian history through my classes and my seminars on the Mughal empire and Sikh history. In fact, one of my undergraduate students is now in a Ph.D. programme with Pashaura Singh at UC Riverside and, through the Guru’s grace, is poised to do great things.

I very much enjoy teaching at the University of Northern Iowa as one of its principal commitments is to prepare elementary and secondary school teachers. In this way the lessons about the Sikhi and the Sikhs which I pass on sometimes make it through to the K-12 generation of students, not just in Iowa but throughout the United States as our teachers are particularly well trained and thus very much prized. It’s not rare that a past student will send an email to let me know that they have reserved a section of their classes to the introduction of Sikhism.

What future awaits them, particularly those interested in Sikh Studies? I have read with concern the postings of other scholars and community members (in a sense we are all community members, the Guru Granth Sahib and indeed the lives of the Gurus themselves are gifts to all of humanity) in regard to the preservation of Sikh heritage and the challenges we have all faced, and I second (and third, and fourth) their cautions. But let me add a caveat to this list of prescriptions. Let us never forget that we have overcome so many challenges in broadening the appeal of Sikh Studies. Things in the world of Sikh scholarship have changed so dramatically in both India and abroad since the time when I was a student. Today scholars interested in Sikhism and Sikh history have far more sources and resources to which to turn, and thanks to the work of scholars like Hew McLeod, Jerry Barrier, Mark Juergensmeyer, Pashaura Singh, and Gurinder Singh, and a host of others in North America and abroad the study of Sikhism is taken as seriously as the study of any world religion, as too is the study of the Punjab and panjabiyyat. We have, as we all know, a number of Sikh Studies Chairs throughout the United States and Canada; work in preserving manuscripts and other Sikh artifacts is readily underway with a number of such texts laminated and preserved in other ways at, for example, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar; Punjabi University, Patiala; and Panjab University, Chandigarh. True there is a long way to go—Ganda Singh’s collection within Punjabi University’s archives seriously requires organization and as well the many manuscripts at the Punjab State Archives in Patiala are likewise in need of care—and we must never rest on our laurels, but let us keep in mind how far we have come. Digital copies of many texts are now available through the near-indispensable work of the Punjab Digital Library (www.punjabdigilib.com) and even Sikhs based in North America are taking a very serious interest in preserving Sikh heritage by digitizing manuscripts on their own dime. True all of these choices have agenda however benign and in this regard I must point out the tireless work of Joginder Singh Ahluwalia who has made available to the scholarly world alternative visions of the Sikhs and Sikh history which he beautifully titles the chhota mel, the younger acquaintances, if you will, younger offspring of the larger Sikh family. There are far more journals dealing with issues in Sikh Studies which clearly demonstrates what we have known all along, that the concerns in this field are overlapping with those in others and such overlap is bringing these studies to the attention of far more scholars than we find in Sikh Studies. There is finally the phenomenon of the World Wide Web which all of us, Sikhophiles, scholars, Sikhs, and many others have wholeheartedly embraced. Here we find YouTube (at which a dhadhi performance or the katha of as prolific a kathakar as the late Giani Sant Singh Maskin are no more than a click away), internetarchive.org (at which British Orientalist works on the Sikhs may be downloaded and read), apnaorg.com; Flickr, Creative Commons, the list goes on and on; all wonderful resources which are available for the most part free of charge.

This abundance of riches leaves me positively brimming with chardhi kala. How could it be otherwise? All these accomplishments and the glorious future we have in store as we move forward and meet these and future challenges together helps us all further fulfill that ambition onto which I and so many others have serendipitously fallen. All of us, scholars of Sikhism, Sikhs, friends of the Sikhs; those with whom we agree and those with whom we agree to disagree; all of us and all of these resources are here to help us all become not only better scholars of Sikh Studies but better citizens of Sikh Studies which ultimately allows us to become better people, a message which so resonates with the collective statements of the Sikh Gurus. To all of you who help keep the flag of Sikh Studies flying, I offer you this fateh.

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2 Responses

  1. Ehjaz Hussain says:

    Dear Prof. Fenech,

    I hope this note finds you in good health and spirit.

    I am a Pakistani based in Islamabad and was delighted with your article. There are a lot of written resources on Sikh history and culture in Pakistan but unfortunately, not too much is is made available to people outside Pakistan such as yourself.

    If there are any specific books you require for your research that are available in Pakistan, I would be more than happy to provide them (free of charge!)

    Kind regards,


  2. ajeet singh says:

    I trust this finds you in a state of high level of BLISS OF LOVE OF GOD/GURU NANAK.
    I may highlight to you that SIKHISM of GURU
    NANAK suggests that till you have met
    GOD & got the blessings of NAAM DAAN ,
    only then all your effort is fruitful .
    May be this is not new to you because
    NAAM is the LIGHT OF TRUTH ,which is
    common to all existing religions of the
    GLOBE . Any thing short of NAAM /INFINITE
    BLISS is ignorance & needs to be eliminated
    with the powers of GURU’S LOVE & GRACE .
    That is real knowledge of SIKHISM .
    Though it is not a unsurmountable challenge
    for a young scholar like you but you
    have to make a right start in this direction,
    SIKHISM is not history or theory but is
    a practical soldiering way of life while
    enjoying KUNDALNI POWERS latent inside us .
    Hope you will appreciate it in right spirits
    & i wish you GOD’S LOVE to succeed.
    ajeet singh
    formerly major ( now 61 plus)