South Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - A Song, A Novel, A Woman, And Sikh Identity in Late Nineteenth Century Punjab: Vir Singh’s Sundari (1898)

Friday, July 6
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Tamarind, New Building

Bhai Vir Singh stands tall as a modernist Sikh litterateur, historian and an exegete who carried forward the Lahore Singh Sabha agenda of forging the modern Sikh identity. He invested substantively in Tat Khalsa identity through providing it with scholarly, cultural and emotional heft. His novel Sundari is primed as that singular achievement which used history, fiction, and an emotional investment in the ideals of the Khalsa, through delineating the character of the virtuous and chaste woman Sundari, who dedicated her life to the cause of ethical Sikhi. The success of the novel is visible in its multiple editions (more than forty) that have been published, and its unfading popularity in India and the Sikh diaspora. This paper will study the novel from the perspective of the characterization of Sundari to understand the following: 1) what happened when Singh switched codes, i.e. transmuted the folksong (on which the novel is based) into the novel genre; 2) why did he choose to make a woman an ideal Sikh when symbolically it was the male Sikh body and Khalsa semiotics that the Singh Sabha promoted, and so what purpose did Sundari’s chastity serve; And finally 3) what meanings can be derived from the narrative’s obsession with questions of conversion and abduction. I will conclude by discussing the multiple complexities embedded in the novel, and Singh’s simultaneous forwarding and undermining of the Sikhizing agenda.

Anshu Malhotra

University of Delhi, India

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2 - A Song, A Novel, A Woman, And Sikh Identity in Late Nineteenth Century Punjab: Vir Singh’s Sundari (1898)



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