February 15 was the last time I saw my friend Prof Rajpal Singh. I was standing beside his hospital bed. He couldn’t speak, and seemed too tired to keep his eyes open for more than a few seconds. We held hands and I did the talking. He passed away on March 1.
I had always looked up to Rajpal. The missionary zeal with which he served Punjabi culture and honed the talent of budding folk artists made me not only an admirer but also a lifelong friend. A versatile person, Prof Rajpal was full of life. He welcomed new challenges and was intensely involved in preparing the new cultural policy of Punjab. A dedicated teacher of English literature, he was offered a position in the Punjab Arts Council, where he served as general secretary for several years.
We first met about 25 years ago when he took part in a residency programme in Shropshire schools organised by well-known Punjabi sculptor Avtarjeet Dhanjal, who had made his home in Shropshire, where I was county Arts Adviser. This led to the founding of the Shropshire-Punjab Youth Arts Exchange, which Rajpal and I ran for five years in the 1990s.
Each year, two groups of young people with similar artistic skills and interests were paired up to work on projects drawing equally on British and Punjabi culture. They stayed in each other’s homes and collaborated on projects. They put on a play in an old fort in Punjab and another in a medieval castle in Shropshire. They created art work to be displayed at Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, with the master himself there for the opening. They organised a Punjabi mela in the town square in Shrewsbury, right beside a statue of that infamous old Shropshire lad, Robert Clive. I remember Rajpal looking up at the statue, pointing to the pigeons, whose droppings had turned Clive’s hair and shoulders white, and commenting, “Those pigeons must have come from India.”
Every year, Rajpal went literally to great lengths, driving from one end of Punjab to the other, to select young people to take part in the following year’s exchange. The selection was important. We were able to arrange for the artists to spend time together and plan the work they would do with the exchange group in each country. That led to some lasting professional relationships between artists, some of whom are still in contact with each other.
What began as a professional relationship for me soon became a close friendship. Rajpal met my family when he visited me in Shropshire and I met his, first in Patiala and then in Chandigarh. In 2006, he came to visit me and my mother. When I told him she would be 90 next year, he invited her to celebrate her birthday in Punjab. She accepted the invitation andm a few months later, enjoyed the best birthday she had ever had, as she said, with Rajpal, his wife Kuldip and their son Gorky at their home in Chandigarh.
A few years before, I had taken my wife and daughters with me to spend Christmas with them in Patiala. When she was 18, my eldest daughter Katy spent part of her ‘gap year’ there. She has been looking forward to going back ever since. Perhaps, one day she will, but sadly it will not be to stay with Rajpal.
A visit planned for 2017 would have enabled me to attend Gorky’s wedding, but other things got in the way and it had to be put off for another year. When I arrived at the end of January, Rajpal was in hospital. He was discharged the next day but he was still not well. I enjoyed three weeks as their house guest, spending what time I could with Rajpal while being careful not to tire him.
A few days before I returned to England, he was re-admitted to hospital. Two weeks later, I received a message from his friend RM Singh that Rajpal had died earlier that day.
He will be missed by the countless friends he made during the course of a very full, very rich life which, though it ended too soon, will not soon be forgotten.
The writer is former Arts Adviser to Shropshire, UK
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