Workshop: Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957): Rethinking Literary Modernity in Colonial Punjab

Organizers: Anshu Malhotra (Delhi University), Anne Murphy (University of British Columbia)

Please note that this is a closed event. For registration and more information please contact Anne Murphy at .

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.

While much has been written about Bhai Vir Singh that is hagiographical or semi-hagiographical in nature, further critical analysis of the work and impact of such an important reformer and literary and intellectual figure is needed. This scholarly workshop will be held from August 17-20 2017 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and subsequent edited volume or journal special issue will 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 has been 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.