Opportunities and Challenges for Sikh Academics – by Farina Mir

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University of Michigan

I was honored when Dr. Kapany invited me to contribute to the “Opportunities and Challenges for Sikh Academics” series. I have been committed to the field of Sikh and Punjab studies for almost twenty years now, and it is a pleasure to share both the experiences that brought me into this field and my thoughts on its possibilities in the future. I am excited about the prospects for the field, particularly as we are at the cusp of important changes. Sikh and Punjab Studies programs have now gained traction at a number of prestigious institutions and are placing an increasing number of scholars into a diverse array of academic departments in universities across North America. Indeed, I am a beneficiary of this trend. It was the presence of a Sikh and Punjab Studies program that fostered my academic interest in Punjabi language, literature, and society, and provided me the intellectual support and institutional infrastructure to pursue my research on colonial Punjab’s history.

My interest in and commitment to the Punjab is both personal and intellectual. I am from a Punjabi family, albeit one that migrated from the Punjab approximately 100 years ago. That migration, I learned through my studies, was part of a larger pattern. Through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries many Punjabis, and Indians more generally, moved into the circuits of the Indian Ocean—heading East and West from India—to other parts of the British Empire. Some, like one of my grandfathers, moved directly because of the empire. In my Asian Pioneers East Africa (Sikh)grandfather’s case, he migrated to Kenya to work for the East African Railways. Others moved because of the ancillary opportunities opened up by imperial expansion. My other grandfather exemplifies this kind of migration, as a merchant who settled in Jinja, a small town on the banks of Lake Victoria in British Uganda. Both men raised their families in East Africa, retaining strong links with the Punjab through regular visits “home” and by preserving the traditions — religious and cultural—of their own upbringing. Of these traditions, the one that has captured my particular attention is the retention of language. My parents were raised with Punjabi as their primary language, while they were educated in English and learned both local African languages such as Swahili and other Indian languages, such as Kutchi or Gujerati, through their close contact with other East African Asian communities. The significance of Punjabi in their linguistic repertoire meant that I grew up in a home where Punjabi was the primary language. That remained consistent, even as my parents were forced by circumstances to make migrations of their own.

Due to the political troubles of the early 1970s that led to the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, my parents were forced to migrate to Britain, and from there they moved to the United States. Though born in Kenya, I was raised in Britain and the US, but all the while with a keen sense of my Punjabi heritage. My interest in that heritage was sparked intellectually when I entered Barnard College in the late 1980s for my undergraduate studies. There, I was able to formally study the Punjabi language through the auspices of Columbia’s program in Sikh and Punjab Studies that was being established at that time by Professor Gurinder Singh Mann. My study of the Punjabi language, and attendant courses in South Asian history, religion, and literature, fed my intellectual interest in Punjab’s colonial history and sparked a particular interest in why Punjab’s colonial history culminated in its partition. My undergraduate studies fortified my resolve to study what struck me as the incommensurability between scholarly narratives of colonial Punjab’s history that emphasized increasing antagonisms between religious communities—narratives that often naturalized religious conflict as an outcome of religious difference—and a history of shared traditions in which people of all communities participated. In order to interrogate that incommensurability, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in modern South Asian history, and to focus my study on Punjab’s cultural history—and on the Punjabi language and its literary traditions in particular. Without the intellectual opportunities produced by the Sikh and Punjab Studies program, I would not have been able to develop these intellectual interests as an undergraduate, or contemplate further study through a Ph.D.

I entered the Ph.D. program at Columbia University to study the history of the Punjabi language and its literature during the colonial period. My goal was to examine the extent to which the arena of literary culture continued to be one of shared, cross-religious participation during the colonial period. I was prompted to this project by my study of earlier periods of Punjabi religious and literary history. I had studied the inclusion of the poetry of Hindu and Muslim sants in the Guru Granth Sahib, for example, and had spent an entire semester during my undergraduate studies reading Shaikh Farid’s bani. It was clear that the inclusion of a Sufi saint’s poetry in Sikhism’s most sacred text flew in the face of conventional narratives that pitted Islam and Sikhism as necessarily oppositional traditions. With that knowledge, I set out to look beneath (or beyond) the obvious history of communal conflict that defines colonial Punjab in South Asian history by examining Punjab’s literary culture under colonialism. This was at the time a novel approach for it meant studying colonial Punjab not through the prism of a single religious community, but through the prism of a tradition in which members of all religious communities participated. Put another way, I wanted to examine Punjab’s history through a tradition that was as culturally relevant to Sikhs, as to Hindus and Muslims. The Punjabi qissa (epic; romance) tradition provided the foundation for my study.

Arif Qissa The Sikh and Punjab Studies Program fostered my work not only at Columbia University, but also through the Summer Program in Punjab Studies. The program has been conducted in Chandigarh every summer for the past 13 years under the auspices first of Columbia University and then the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was a participant in the program in its second year, and it had an immense impact on the nature of my subsequent research. The program’s language study component allowed me to hone my Punjabi linguistic skills. Its history and culture components were taught by leaders in the field, such as Professors J.S. Grewal and Indu Banga, who provided students with both a level of sustained attention to the Punjab and a sophistication of analysis rarely available in the United States. By being in situ, the program allowed for travel to many of the important historical sites under study, such as the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It also provided an introduction to the important archival collections in Punjab, and allowed me to develop a plan for subsequent archival work in Delhi, Chandigarh, Patiala, and Amritsar.

That research was the foundation for my doctoral dissertation, a revised version of which will be published this fall by the University of California Press as, The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab. The book is a study of the Punjabi (language) literary tradition during the colonial period (from 1849–1947), with a particular focus on qisse. It seeks to explain why Punjabi literature flourished during this period, despite British efforts to marginalize Punjabi through policies that denied the language and its literature almost all forms of state patronage. In this sense, the book traces the limits of colonial dominance in British India, both as a trope in contemporary historiography and as realized historical fact. It shows the resilience of a vernacular cultural formation whose pragmatic engagements with colonial institutions were far less important than the affective attachments its adherents established with a place, with an old but dynamic corpus of stories, and with the ecumenical moral sensibility that suffused those stories. By tracing the durability of a vernacular literary tradition, the study makes important interventions into the historiography of colonial India. Most significantly, it reframes inquiry into late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cultural formations in north India away from a focus on religious communal identities, the dominant emphasis in the present historiography, to analyze a widespread, ecumenical, and place-centered poetics of belonging in the region, for which the musical performance of literary works and the technically refined listening practices that accompanied those performances were absolutely central.

Jog Singh-Qissa HirSince 2003, I have been on the faculty of the Department of History at the University of Michigan, and that is largely where I conducted my revision of this manuscript. At the University of Michigan, I teach courses on early modern and modern South Asian history. While many of my courses are broad in scope, I also have the opportunity to teach specialized seminars where I focus on Punjab’s history.

As my narrative makes evident, the institutional foundations provided by Sikh and Punjab studies programs have been crucial to my intellectual and professional development. Indeed, in some ways, my experience shows the potential of these programs to foster the study of the Punjab and Sikhism, provide the academic and intellectual foundations for their study, and to place scholars in academic institutions where they can teach the next generation of students, and produce the next generation of scholars. This cycle is of course critical to the sustenance and growth of any field, and Sikh and Punjab Studies programs are now at a juncture where the field can grow exponentially.

In thinking of the directions Sikh and Punjab studies can and is taking, one important thing to note is the increasing disciplinary depth of the field. Today, scholars of Sikhism and the Punjab are affiliated with the following fields: religion/religious studies, history, literary criticism, sociology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, economics, art history, linguistics, and architecture/architectural history. This bodes well for the field and suggests its future promise. Certainly, religious studies and history will always be important anchors for the field. But I see the proliferation in the study of Sikhism and the Punjab into a variety of disciplines as a good harbinger of things to come! The field is growing, students are being educated, research is being fostered, and new scholarship is being produced. The foundation built by the various Sikh and Punjab Studies programs across the country—programs initiated by the generosity and philanthropic spirit of the Sikh community—is developing into a strong institutional presence for the field in the North American academy. This is sure to lead to the further growth and depth of the field, a development that I myself hope to contribute to, in whatever small way.


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2 Responses

  1. Tejwant Singh Malik says:


    I enjoyed your wonderful essay a lot. I read yours and Harpreet’s excellent ESSAY on Sikhphilosophy.net. It is interesting to notice how our roots create the shades of the tree through its branches under which we find solace and inquisitiveness. The other interesting part is that these unseen roots of ours make us take their shades with us and share them with others who are looking for a warmth under a cool place.

    Thanks once again for this gem.

    Warm regards

    Tejwant Singh Malik

  2. Harbans Lal says:

    Thank you for sharing your work and aspiration.