Scholarly workshop: Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957): Rethinking Literary Modernity in Colonial Punjab (August 2017)

Organized by Anne Murphy (UBC) and Anshu Malhotra (University of Delhi)

For many, the name Bhai Vir Singh is synonymous with Punjabi literary and religious reform. A poet, novelist, exegete, theologian, historian, journalist, and pamphleteer, Vir Singh is often said to have single-handedly ushered “modernity” into Punjabi language and literature, and was a major force in shaping the Sikh and Punjabi politics of the undivided Punjab. He was sympathetic to the reformist project of the Lahore Singh Sabha, for whom he penned many a tract through the vehicle of the Khalsa Tract Society, set up in 1894. In 1899 he began the newspaper Khalsa Samachar in support of the same cause. In many of his novels Vir Singh imagined the agency of women as vital to the cause of the reformed Sikh; this was portrayed in both negative terms, such as through the figure of the “unreformed woman” who encouraged Sikh ambivalence towards religious identity, and more positive ones, defining the “reformed” Sikh woman’s role in bringing her men to the call of community. In his myriad writings Vir Singh both popularized and clarified his ideas on what constituted Punjab’s religious communities and their distinguishing characteristics. He was a prominent exegete and scholar of Sikh scriptures and literatures, and a historian. As a man trained in the tradition of multiple cosmopolitan and vernacular languages of India and Punjab, Vir Singh dedicated his intellectual life to promoting Punjabi, lending it a particular form and envisaging it an emotive symbol of Sikh identity. Indeed, he is seen by many as the “father” of modern Punjabi literature. Vir Singh’s politics were colored by the urgent need for Sikhs to establish their separate identity so that they could take their place as a “community” in the colonial political and public sphere, a space where competing community claims were increasingly seen to decide the social, cultural and economic fate of Punjabi peoples within the logic of colonial governance.

In August 2017 a group of scholars from India, the United States, and Canada gathered at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada to consider this important figure, his thought and literary production, and his impact. The program included prominent and emerging scholars from the following institutions: in India, Ambedkar University Delhi, Punjabi University Patiala, Guru Kashi University, and Delhi University; in the United States, from Trinity College, University of Mississippi, and the University of Michigan; and from UBC, three graduate students and one faculty member. Mohinder Singh, Director of the National Institute of Panjab Studies and the Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan in New Delhi, also attended. Three recent graduates from UBC and Kwantlen with Bachelor’s of Arts degrees also participated in a special student panel, further developing papers that theypreviously completed for a Directed Reading course in the Department of Asian Studies. An open Call for Papers was issued publicly in the spring of 2016, inviting submissions; a program was planned from among the submissions. The workshop is closed to the public in order to foster exchange and conversation on works-in-progress.

A selection of essays originating in the conference are now under review for a special journal issue (in November 2018); it is hoped to come out in 2019. A later book volume is planned, with these and remaining papers from the conference, with the addition of a number of additional solicited papers, to critically analyze this important figure and his contribution, politics, and literary impact in light of our current historical understanding of Punjab and the colonial period.

This workshop was made possible by a Connection Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, with supporting funds from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and the Department of Asian Studies, the Centre for India and South Asia Research, the Faculty of Arts, and the Hampton program at UBC. The Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan contributed towards the participation of Dr. Mohinder Singh, the Sadan’s Director.