The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 12, 2003

Guru Nanakís life in verse
Darshan Singh Maini

Baba Nanak
by Harjeet Singh Gill. Harman,
New Delhi. Pages 188. Rs 600.

I do not yet know how Harjeet Singh Gill, Emeritus Professor of Semiotics, JNU, was spurred into song when he elected to write in verse form the story of Guru Nanak, and of his divine hymns in a capsuled, simple, but effective style. Nothing, as far as I know, in Gillís past suggested such a "return of the native" to the faith of his ancestors, for in his long academic career, he remained involved in the study of semiotics and signification under the tutelage of his French mentors and theists of linguistics.

Whatever the reason, this volume underscores the nature of his inner transformation ó from a logician and sceptic to a seeker after truth, with Baba Nanak as his light and guiding star. I could stretch the argument and see how the science of languages, which ingests all human thought and its highest reaches, possibly led Gill to apply his earned insights to the Sikh scriptures. And therein, he discovered a vision of words (shabad), which found its profoundest, richest and most mellifluous expression in Guru Nanakís great poems ó the Japji, the Sidh Ghost, the Baramah and the Babarvarni, among many other compositions which remain sui generis in their universality, and in the evocation of the numinous and the ineffable.


Gill has, to suit his purpose, divided his work into sections, each starting with a few lines in the Gurmukhi script and a corresponding painting. He knows well enough that both the life and work of Guru Nanak have been studied in scholarly detail by scores of writers, and that his great hymns have been translated into English by both poets and savants. He, therefore, decided, it appears, to confine his poetic discourse to the Guruís life (only main events in a very brief form) and to the rendition of his select poems. He, wisely, did not deviate into complexities, even though Guru Nanakís poetry is highly metaphorical, compact and involved when the Guruís muses are roused to the pitch of visionary plenitude. Gillís rendering, thus, is simple, direct and nearer to fine prose. And he sustains this discourse with imagination and insight.

The opening section devoted to certain significant events in Guru Nanakís life depends heavily on the Janam Sakhis. The Guruís birth, education, marriage at 16, a brief stint as a keeper of the Muslim overlordís foodgrains at Sultanpur, a visit to Hardwar, etc, are only touched upon. No effort is made to go into the deeper and symbolic nature of those events. The Guruís four marathon journeys across the length and breadth of India, and to Saudi Arabia and the holy Kaaba also receive a nodding notice. That, of course, is all in accordance with Gillís aesthetic of composition.

The Guruís search for truth remains the main motif:

The truth

If there was one

was beyond those dialectics

was beyond those formal horizons.

And this great quest finds its first eloquent and rich expression in the Japji composed soon after the incident of his disappearance in and emergence from the nearby rivulet. The Guru, then 36, had been face to face with the Creator, and this divine experience signalled the birth of a new Nanak. In Raag Talang, he proclaims: "I broadcast what I receive from the Lord."

Gillís rendering of the Japji is effective, but it falls short of doing full justice to its splendour and transcendent vision. The pilgrimís progress from Khand to Khand, or from state to state is touched upon and we realise that the fourth stage, Sach Khand, or the realm of truth, is the highest virtue in Sikh values. In Bara Maha, the 12 months of the calendar, from Chet to Phagun, have one common leitmotif ó that of the soulís separation from the Lord, and the longing for reunion. The spousal metaphor is copiously in evidence ó the eager bride, or wife, aching for consummation, or her redemption. From mournful numbers to joyous harmonies, the long poem translates all those urges and immediacies in a befitting idiom.

Itís a pity, however, that given his defined parameters, his scheme had to be selective. I wish, though, he had touched upon Babarvani, composed by Guru Nanak after Babarís invasion of India in 1526. It shows most movingly and poignantly the soulful anguish of the Guru, having himself seen the horrendous horrors of pillage, rapes and abductions by a lawless, brutal soldiery. It serves both as a sermon and warning to the rulers, who jettisoning their mandate, descend to the lowest depths of depravity. I can understand Gillís constraints, for the Adi Granth carries as many as 958 hymns of Guru Nanak, and he found it hard to exercise his choice. In the absence of sub-titles and a table of contents, however, itís an ordeal for the lay reader to identify the hymns included in this discourse.