For the last 30 years, Prof Gurinder Singh Mann has been working in the trenches — he has straddled villages, towns and countries to gather Sikh texts. He has made night trips to Pinjore on several puranmaashis to copy manuscripts that none in the family that owned them could decipher. He clicked 32 rolls of film in four hours at a Patna gurdwara. He has scanned and handwritten thousands of pages that are a matter of faith for most, but treasure trove for a historian. And now, Professor Mann is giving it all away. The texts and artefacts he has collected over the last three decades are now part of a repository in New York.
“The idea is to make Gurmukhi manuscripts available to people who can’t get their hands on them,” says Mann, who recently retired as Kapany Professor of Sikh Studies from UC Santa Barbara after 15 years and has now set up the Global Institute of Sikh Studies. The idea is also to set out on a fresh exploration of fundamental issues in a globalised world.
“During the period I was contemplating retirement, I had long conversations with people who I had been associated with and who had a long experience in university-level education and history of community organisation and development. We all acknowledged that the Sikh community continued to face severe religiopolitical challenges, whether in Punjab, in India or around the globe and something needed to be done,” says Professor Mann, who was visiting Punjab earlier this month.
He realised there was a need for radical reorientation of the prevailing academic discourses within Sikh studies regarding fundamental issues such as founding of the community, Sikh beliefs and practices, social structures and political aspirations, etc.
“Nothing seems to have changed since the mid-1960s. It is as if we are living in the shadow of a Mcleod [W Hew Mcleod (1932-2009) was a New Zealander and a prominent scholar of Sikhism] with the same distorted narratives being uncritically re-hashed,” he says.
He says the narrative of Sikh history that has dominated scholarly work was built on the assumption that Guru Nanak’s concerns were primarily spiritual, and the development of Sikh institutions, rituals and ceremonies was seen to have taken place under the guidance of the later gurus.
“Given the new focus on Baba Nanak’s founding of Kartarpur (West Punjab), and activities such as the compilation of a sacred text recorded in a new script, three daily prayers, local authority within distant Sikh congregation, and even the practice of pilgrimage to Kartarpur that the Sikhs undertook, provide us a different understanding of his mission, which later expanded under the guidance of the later Sikh gurus,” he points.
He points out that the situation had also changed in another way: Sikhs are now living in a globalised world and their aspirations need to be understood in this changed framework. “As a concerned Sikh scholar, I felt I owed it to the Sikh community to play a small part in creating a revised narrative of their early history and current opportunities and challenges,” he says.
The GISS thus aims to act as a resource centre where one can have access to physical as well as digital resources on important manuscripts, early Sikh art and artefacts as well as original archival materials relating to Sikh migration experience overseas. Acting as a repository of Sikh heritage at one location, researchers will have instant access to a variety of early sources of Sikh history.
Professor Mann’s decades of relentless research aside, there is a lot that is building up the archive at GISS. Texts from private collections, universities and museums are being photographed. Families of early migrants to the US are sharing old letters, photographs. And amid this, sometimes, springs up a surprise.
A London-based physician visiting Professor Mann in Santa Barbara with a mutual friend, was fascinated by his interest in early Sikh manuscripts and sent him pictures of an old manuscript of the Guru Granth Sahib that was in his family “since the times of Guru Gobind Singh”, but no one knew much about its precise historical importance. When Professor Mann studied the pictures of this undated manuscript, the evidence pointed to its being a pre-1638 text.
"This dating makes it the fourth oldest Sikh manuscript presently extant; the first two being pre-1574 texts compiled during the period of Guru Amar Das. The third one, the Kartarpur Pothi, is dated 1604," tells Professor Mann. Non-existent for scholars, the text had been owned by this family in the UK for hundreds of years. It had taken it along when it migrated from India and safeguarded it for faith's sake. We ask him if this was once in a lifetime chance... He affirms, "Such instances are rare." These are what keep a student of history enthused. And this is what keeps even this greatest living historian of Sikh history looking for more.
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