For Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary year, author Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh has penned a biography that delves into the lesser-explored aesthetic aspect of the Guru. Published by Penguin it’s called The First Sikh: The Life and Legacy of Guru Nanak. Singh is Crawford Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Colby College in the USA. She has authored The Guru Granth Sahib: Its Physics and Metaphysics (1981), The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (1993), The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus (2001) and others. Excerpts:
How did the idea of the book germinate?
It was Ambar Sahil Chatterjee who planted the idea of The First Sikh in my mind. He was the editor who I worked with on developing a framework for it and then executing the same. He encouraged me to explore the person behind Guru Nanak’s words and that’s how it all began.
What was your first source of reference?
Guru Nanak’s wide-ranging 974 hymns recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib was my primary source of reference. What can be more important evidence of the First Sikh’s personality, his vision, his emotions, his concerns, his self-awareness, and his undertakings than his voice? In the visual, perceptual, syntactic, and semantic process of reading, we feel Guru Nanak’s palpable presence in early Sikh sources like the works of Bhai Gurdas and the Janamsakhi narratives and that made for a strong starting point.
Tell us some of the key aspects you’ve touched upon
I’ve tried to grasp Guru Nanak’s kaleidoscopic personality and vision. Him as a poet, musician, philosopher, mystic, revolutionary thinker, human rights champion, feminist, environmentalist and pluralist. The way he shattered conventional dualities such as mind-body, theory-knowledge, sacred-secular, Hindu-Muslim, male-female, philosopher-mystic, have been brought out through the book.
Several books have been written on the Guru. Which one is your favourite?
I’ve most enjoyed my father’s biography, Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith, which he wrote for the Guru’s 500th birth anniversary. His vivid visual, aural, and tactile descriptions bring out historical figures as three-dimensional characters.
Is there any under-explored aspect of the Guru?
The aesthetic aspect of Guru Nanak has not been fully delved into. Since my undergraduate years at Wellesley College, I have been intrigued by Guru Nanak’s poetic artistry. How his words flow out at a gusty speed and shape into such perfect artistic designs? I’ve contemplated upon mesmerising paradoxes and his brilliant metaphors. Also, how his poetry creates verbal arabesques, stair-like parallelisms, and dynamic somersaults. An aesthetic study of Guru Nanak’s poetic art has been eclipsed by a focus on his theological doctrines and ethical principles. But through his book, I have tried to underline his aesthetics too.
Any aspects of the Guru that have been misunderstood?
The Guru identifies himself as a poet (shair) and as a songster (dhadhi), yet, if we addressed him as these, we run the risk of being disrespectful to him. But I feel that our respect only grows when we realise his poetic and musical genius.
You have an extensive body of work on Sikhism. What drove you to consistently work on the subject?
Coming to the USA as a young teenager, I was away from my family and home. I suddenly found myself in a boarding school for girls in Virginia in a different world. It was reading Passage to India, a poem by the American transcendentalist Walt Whitman that made me question myself. And that took me to Guru Nanak, The First Sikh.
How does the book help us comprehend our social and political reality better?
Guru Nanak’s melodies intersect with concrete historical moments and it is most meaningful to discover their relevance for our global and ever-evolving society. Guru Nanak’s Var Majh offers an autobiographical reference to his divine revelation. His Baburvani compositions have enormous social meaning. When we hear attentively and intentionally, his learning helps us navigate through cultural, political, psychological, social, spiritual, and environmental problems.
The First Sikh
Pages: 264 Price: I699