VĪR SIṄGH, BHĀĪ (1872-1957), poet, scholar and exegete, was a major figure in the Sikh renaissance and in the movement for the revival and renewal of Punjabi literary traditioin. His identification with all the important concerns of modern Sikhism was so complete that he came to be canonized as Bhāī, the Brother of the Sikh Order, very early in his career. For his pioneering work in its several different genres, he is acknowledged as the creator of modern Punjabi literature.
Born on 5 December 1872, in Amritsar, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh was the eldest of Dr Charan Siṅgh's three sons. The family traces its ancestry back to Dīwān Kauṛā Mall (d. 1752), who rose to the position of vice-governor of Multān, under Nawāb Mīr Mu’in ul-Mulk, with the title of Mahārājā Bahādur Bābā Kāhn Siṅgh (1788-1878) was perhaps the first in the family to be regularly sworn a Sikh. He turned a recluse when he was still in his early teens and spent his entire youth in monasteries at Haridvār and Amritsar acquiring training in traditional Sikh learning. His mother's affection ultimately reclaimed him to the life of a householder at the age of 40, when he got married. Adept in versification in Sanskrit and Braj as well as in the oriental system of medicine, Bābā Kāhn Siṅgh passed on his interests to his only son, Dr Charan Siṅgh. Apart from his sustained involvement in literary and scholarly pursuits, mainly as a Braj poet, Punjabi prose writer, musicologist, prosodist and lexicographer, Dr Charan Siṅgh took active interest in the affairs of the Sikh community, then experiencing a new urge for restoration as well as for change.
To this patrimony of Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh was added from his mother's side a living kinship with another rich tradition of scholarship in exegesis of the Giānī school, going back to the times of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. His maternal grandfather Giānī Hazārā Siṅgh compiled a lexicon of Gurū Granth Sāhib, and wrote a commentary on Bhāī Gurdās' Varāṅ. As a schoolboy, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh used to spend a great deal of his time in the company of Giānī Hazārā Siṅgh under whose guidance he not only learnt the classical and neo-classical languages, Sanskrit, Persian and Braj, but also received grounding, both theoretical and practical, in the science of Sikh exegesis.
Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh was the child of an age in ferment. The extinction of Sikh sovereignty in the Punjab, the decline in the fortunes of Sikh aristocracy, the gradual emergence of urban middle classes, the dissipation of the "national intellectual life" of the Punjab owing to the neglect and decay of indigenous education of the local people from their political destiny aroused among the Sikhs concern for survival and for redefining the boundaries of their faith. Further challenges arose in the shape of modernization, of Christian, Muslim and Hindu movements of proselytization and the agnostic cults such as Brahmo Samāj. Parallel to the developments foreboding gradual appropriation of Sikhism by the Hindu social order emerged a powerful trend towards Braj classicism in the Sikh literary and scholarly tradition. Mythologization of the persons of Sikh Gurūs, mixing of fiction with historical fact and interweaving of Vedantic and Vaiṣṇavite motifs into the essential Sikh teaching were its typical features. In response arose in Sikhism several movements ---Niraṅkārī (puritanism), Nāmdhārī (militant protestantism), Siṅgh Sabhā (revivalism and renaissance) and Pañch Khālsā Dīwān (aggressive fundamentalism).
Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh had the benefit of both the traditional indigenous learning as well as of modern English education. He learnt Persian and Urdu from a Muslim Maulawī in a mosque and was apprenticed to Giānī Harbhajan Siṅgh, a leading classical scholar, for Sanskrit and Sikh literature. He then joined the Church Mission School, Amritsar, and took his matriculation examination in 1891. At school, the conversion of some of the students proved a crucial experience which strengthened his own religious conviction. From the Christian missionaries' emphasis on literary resources, he learnt how efficacious the written word could be as a means of informing and influencing a person's innermost being. Through his English courses, he acquired familiarity with modern literary forms, especially short lyric. While still at school, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh was married at the age of 17 to Chatar Kaur, daughter of Sardār Naraiṇ Siṅgh of Amritsar.
Unlike the educated young men of his time, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh was not tempted by prospect of a career in government service. He chose for himself the calling of a writer and created material conditions for a single-minded pursuit of it. An year after his passing the matriculation examination, he set up a lithograph press in collaboration with Bhāī Wazīr Siṅgh, a friend of his father's. As his first essays in the literary field, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh composed some Geography textbooks for schools.
Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh began taking active interest in the affairs of Siṅgh Sabhā movement. To promote its aims and objects, he launched in 1894 the Khālsā Tract Society. In November 1899, he started a Punjabi weekly, the Khālsā Samāchār. He was among the principal promoters of several of the Sikh institutions, such as Chief Khālsā Dīwān (1902), Sikh Educational Society (1908) and the Punjab and Sind Bank (1908). Interest in corporate activity directed towards community development remained Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's constant concern, simultaneously with his creative and scholarly pursuits. In this engagement and, at the same time, in his eschewal of political activity, the Christian missionary example was apparently his model.
In determining the basic parameters of the modern phase of Sikhism, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh stressed the autonomy of Sikh faith nourished and sustained by an awakening amongst the Sikhs of the awareness of their distinct theological and cultural identity. Secondly, he aimed at reorienting the Sikhs' understanding of their faith in such a manner as to help them assimilate the different modernizing influences to their historical memory and cultural heritage. Education of the masses was the first requirement for the fulfilment of these objectives. In the meanwhile, the old educational system which had till then served as a channel for communication of the traditional knowledge to the youth of the race had broken down with the withdrawal, under British dispensation, of state patronage from the indigenous institutions. As if to fill the vacuum as well as to build new channels of intra-community communication, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh through his single-minded cultivation of Punjabi language as the medium of his theological, scholarly and creative work, resolved the cultural dilemma which the Sikhs faced at the turn of the century. On the one hand was the Sikh literary tradition in Braj language which had collected unmatched riches in multiple directions during the course of its three-centuries-long elitist career, on the other were the compulsions for mobilizing the common Sikhs through their own language. By drawing upon the Sikh tradition of Braj literature for his basic inspiration and cultural motivation and upon the Punjabi literary tradition for its linguistic component, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh initiated a new literary idiom distinctly different from both. The tracts produced by the Khālsā Tract Society introduced a down-to-earth literary Punjabi remarkable for lightness of touch as well as for freshness of expression. In this writing lay the beginnings of modern Punjabi prose.
The Khālsā Tract Society periodically made available under the title Nirguṇiārā low-cost publications on Sikh theology, history and philosophy and on social and religious reform. Through this journal Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh established a living contact with an ever-expanding circle of readers. He used the Nirguṇiārā as a vehicle for his own self-expression and some of his major creative works such as the epic Rāṇā Sūrat Siṅgh, the novel Bābā Naudh Siṅgh, and the lives of the Gurūs Srī Gurū Nānak Chamatkār and Srī Gurū Kalgīdhar Chamatkār were originally serialized in its columns.
In literature, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh started as a writer of romances which proved to be the forerunners of the Punjabi novel. His writings in this genre---Sundarī (1898), Bijay Siṅgh (1899), Satvant Kaur (published in two parts, I in 1900 and II, in 1927)---were aimed at recreating the heroic period (eighteenth century) of Sikh history. Through these novels he made available to his readers typical models of courage, fortitude and human dignity.
Subhāg jī dā Sudhār Hathīṅ Bābā Naud Siṅgh, popularly known as Bābā Naudh Siṅgh (serialized in Nirguṇiārā from 1907 onwards and published in book form in 1921) shares with Rāṇā Sūrat Siṅgh (which he had started serializing two years earlier), Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's fascination with the theme of widow's desperate urge for a re-union with her dead husband. But in Bābā Naudh Siṅgh this search is situated in a more mundane setting. This makes all the difference. The narrative here is more realistic in tone, and almost contemporary in its appeal. Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh weaves into the narrative numerous motifs of social reform, moral teaching and religious preaching and depicts several situations of inter-communal and urban-rural confrontation.
In 1905, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh started serializing through tracts Rāṇā Sūrat Siṅgh, the first Punjabi epic, written in blank verse of Sirkhaṇḍī variety. This long narrative of over 14,000 lines is a striking imaginative evocation of the situation of the Sikhs through a symbolic tale of a widowed queen in quest of her lost paradise. The spiritual voyage of Rāṇī Rāj Kaur, the main protagonist of the poem, from external factuality to internal essence has been described by Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh in the form of a fantasy of spiritual ascension. Apart from living out her earthly destiny of suffering and pain, she symbolized the total ethos of the Sikh people at that historical moment when they were emerging out of their sense of defeat and' despair into an era of a fresh beginning.
Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's quest for new forms of expression continued. Soon after the publication of Rāṇā Sūrat Siṅgh in book form in 1919, he turned to shorter poems and lyrics. In quick succession came Dil Taraṅg (1920), Tarel Tupke (1921), Lahirāṅ de Hār (1921), Maṭak Hulāre (1922), and Bijlīāṅ de Hār (1927). Following at some distance was Mere Sāīāṅ Jīo (1953). In this poetry, Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's concerns were more aesthetic than didactic, metaphysical or mystical. He refined the old verse forms and created new ones. The metrical patterns Kābit, Soraṭhā, Baint, etc., which he inherited from classical Punjabi literature, were transformed into light, nimble measures. Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh also naturalized in Punjabi the Rubāī which he borrowed from Urdu. By grafting Soraṭhā and Sirkhaṇḍī forms on English blank verse, he paved the way for the emergence of Punjabi poem. As it happened, the first play written in Punjabi, Rājā Lakhdātā Siṅgh (1910), also came from the pen of Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh. Tentative in form, the play did reveal the author's powers of constructing crisp and witty dialogues.
Change-over from Braj Bhāsā to Punjabi as the main medium of Sikh literary and scholarly expression created the need for new materials such as glossaries, lexicons, encyclopaedias and exegetical works. Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh himself provided several of the tools. He revised and enlarged Giānī Hazārā Siṅgh's dictionary, Srī Gurū Granth Kosh, originally published in 1898. The revised version, published in 1927, gave evidence of Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's command of the science of etymology and of the classical and modern languages. He published critical editions of some of the old Sikh texts such as Sikhāṅ dī Bhagat Mālā (1912), Prāchīn Panth Prakāsh (1914), Purātan Janam Sākhī (1926) and Sākhī Pothī (1950).
Monumental in size and scholarship was his annotation of Bhāī Santokh Siṅgh's magnum opus, Srī Gur Pratāp Sūraj Granth, published from 1927 to 1935 in fourteen volumes covering 6668 pages.
No sooner was the Srī Gur Pratāp Sūraj Granth completed than Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh launched on an even more arduous task. This was a detailed commentary on the Gurū Granth Sāhib. In a way, exegesis had been his lifelong occupation. Early in his career he had annotated selections from the Holy Book published in 1906 under the title Pañj Granthī Saṭik, and, as he himself declared, all of his writing was an exposition of the Sikh Scripture. He devoted himself unsparingly to the commentary, but it remained unfinished. A lifetime of unrelieved hard work and the weight of advancing years at last began to tell. In early 1957 signs of fatigue and weakness appeared. He was taken ill with a fever and died in his home in Amritsar on 10 June 1957. The portion of the commentary--nearly one half of the Holy Book--he had completed was published posthumously in seven large volumes.