KESAR SIṄGH (d. 1935), a Sikh virtuoso of the Qur'ān. How Arabic sat upon Sikh lips will be a fascinating question to ask. Arabic when she came to India made good friends with the languages of India. They took note of its sonorous periods and resonant style of recitation. There were Indians at that time who had gained remarkable proficiency in cross-cultural expression. Rājā Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) was one of them. He had mastered both Sanskrit and Arabic. A Sikh scholar who had established unquestioned authority in Arabic letters was Sardār Sir Attar Siṅgh of Bhadauṛ (1833-1896). He carried the dual distinction of formal certification in both areas --- in Arabic as well as in Sanskrit. In the former he was honoured with a Shamas ul-'Ulemā and in the latter with a Mahāmahopādhyāya. He commuted between these two worlds of learning with sovereign ease and distinction. There had likewise been scholars before and after them claiming mastery of both. At least two of them were venerable Sanskrit and Arabic scholars. They were Sardār Ṭhākur Siṅgh Sandhāṅvālīā (1837-1887) and Kaṅvar Bikramā Siṅgh of Kapūrthalā (1835-1887).
To return to Kesar Siṅgh, the life of the Sikh who knew the Qur'ān by heart was as unusual as was his original name, Akbar Siṅgh. He was the youngest of three sons of Thaman Siṅgh, who owned 20 acres of land, partly irrigated by canal, in Ḍāṅgrī village, in Paṭiālā state. He had three sisters. In those days every additional hand, boy or girl, was needed for cultivation and farmers as a rule did not send their children to school.
Akbar Siṅgh tended his father's cattle until he was 12. He wanted to go to school. Being sick of a cowherd's life, he ran away from home and reached his maternal uncle, who welcomed his nephew and had him admitted to Government Middle School, Deheṛū, five miles away.
Akbar Siṅgh went to school on foot, like boys of other neighbouring villages. In those days the middle school examination was also conducted by the university.
Mr Trump, the chief inspector of schools, who came to hold the examination was surprised at the queer name, Akbar Siṅgh.
The inspector ordered his name to be changed to Kesar Siṅgh. His certificate of University of the Pañjāb, Lahore, dated 11 June 1885, certified Kesar Siṅgh as having passed the Vernacular Middle School examination held in April 1885. At the left hand top of the certificate, his original name, Akbar Siṅgh Deheṛū, is written in Persian.
Kesar Siṅgh joined class 9 in Government Model School, Paṭiālā, which was located in one wing of Mohindrā College. After Matriculation he joined Mohindrā College.
Kesar Siṅgh topped the university in BA and won the Viceroy's (Northbrook) Gold Medal and university scholarship for postgraduate studies. As Mohindrā College had no M.A. classes, his M.A. was from Lahore Oriental College run by Pañjāb University. Of all the subjects, he chose Arabic, which normally Muslims opted for. He stood first, in the first class, in the final examination.
Those who believe in rebirth would perhaps interpret the phenomenon in these terms. Kesar Siṅgh must have been a Muslim in his previous birth, and an Arabic scholar to boot.
There being only one college in the state of Paṭiālā in which the post of Arabic teacher had already been filled up, Kesar Siṅgh joined service as science master in Government Middle School, Bhavānīgaṛh.
Some years later, he was transferred to Mohindrā College as Lecturer-cum-Librarian.
After 15 years as Lecturer-cum-Librarian; he was transferred to Foreign Office or Munshī Khānā as it was commonly called. He wrote English, Persian/Urdu and Sanskrit in a beautiful hand.
Kesar Siṅgh's last assignment was that of a vakīl at Toorāvati in Jaipur state. Paṭiālā state appointed vakīls in the states and in aṅgrezī ilāqā (British Indian territory) which had a common border with the state. The vakīls acted as the state's representatives and watched its interests.
Kesar Siṅgh quoted from the holy Qur'ān, Hadīth, renowned Persian poets like Shaikh Sā'dī and Hāfīz and from Sanskrit classics as fluently as he quoted Gurbāṇī in his letters to his only son, Partāp Siṅgh, to educate him and advise him.
Eventually, Partāp Siṅgh became a doctor and joined state service. In one of his letters, quoting from the Holy Qur'ān, Kesar Siṅgh wrote to his son thus : "Dear Partāp Siṅgh always keep in mind what moral comes from the sacred verse --- it says that when the near and dear ones of a dying man lose all hope, they lay him on the floor. That scene you must always keep before your eyes while serving ailing humanity and preparing medico-legal reports at your place of posting. Never give a false report. This is very important."
In another letter Kesar Siṅgh quoted the Prophet as having said that the ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr.
Kesar Siṅgh had a close relationship with Sardār Dyāl Siṅgh Majīṭhīā, the founder of The Tribune, Dyāl Siṅgh College and Dyāl Siṅgh Library at Lahore. Kesar Siṅgh's first cousin, Bhagvān Kaur, was married to Sardār Dyāl Siṅgh Majīṭhīā. She could read and write Punjabi (Gurmukhī) and was well versed in Sikh scriptures and was matchless in beauty. She had great influence upon her husband.
While the exact date of birth of Kesar Siṅgh was not known, he was said to have been born 12 years after the Mutiny, i.e. in 1869. He died in 1935, of pneumonia, after a short illness. He was 65.
His son, Dr Partāp Siṅgh, has made his home in Paṭiālā. On a stipend given by Mahārājā Bhūpinder Siṅgh, he entered King Edwards Medical College, Lahore, where he received his M.B.B.S. in 1924-25. Today, at 96, he sounds as truly as a bell. He regularly goes out for his morning walk. He travels, attends his professional meetings and scarcely ever misses a conference or symposium of his interest at the Punjabi University.
R. S. Datta