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S. Shamsher Singh: A Life Worth Celebrating

TRIBUTE

 

 

SHAMSHER SINGH [1924-2011]

BIOGRAPHY

S. Shamsher Singh, founder of The Sri Hemkunt Foundation Inc., passed away on June 13, 2011, while he was in Kanpur, which had served as his home from 1946 to 1979, before he moved to the U.S..

He dedicated his entire life to the education of children and youth about Sikhi.

He was born on September 17, 1924 in village Bakharbar, District Sargodha, Punjab - now in modern-day Pakistan. He graduated from Punjab University and started his first enterprise in Moghalpura, Lahore under the name of "S. P. Engineering Corp." This unit started producing vegetable oil extraction machinery.

In 1948, after partition, he restarted the factory in Kanpur. In a period of 15 years, he became one of the leading
exporters of industrial machinery from India to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, etc.

For 16 years, he worked as member, secretary and general secretary of the Prabandhak Committee of Takht Patna Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master. Some of the new buildings of the Janam Asthan, the Takht Sahib, Darbar Hall, offices and various residential blocks were designed and built during that period.

Since 1960, he worked as a Founder Trustee and general secretary of Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib Management Trust. The buildings designed and erected at Sri Hemkunt Sahib, Gobind Dham, Gobind ghat, Joshimath, Srinagar (Garhewal), Rishikesh and Hardwar during this period, in his watch, are really amazing. The facilities created in difficult terrains has resulted in the number of visitors rising from 115 in 1960 to over a million a year.

In 1980, he established Sri Hemkunt Foundation Inc. in New York, U.S.A. for the sole purpose of conveying the
Guru’s message to the children and youth of the diaspora. He imported books on Sikh history, Sikh philosophy and
Sikh principles from India and distributed them widely. He organized symposiums on these books and awarded gold medals to winners.

In the last 30 years, the participation has grown from 19 to well over 2,000. The program has reached various parts of U.S.A., Canada, Kenya and London, (U. K.). Presently, 9 gurdwaras in the western hemisphere actively participate in the program.

In the year 2007 (at the age of 82 years), he started a Kirtan Darbar program. Under this program, youth (10
– 25 years age) recite shabads in the raags recommended in the Guru Granth Sahib. Every year, three different raags are prescribed, one to each of the three age groups. The primary objective of the program is to revive the use of string instruments - rabab and saranda, for example - which were used by the Gurus themselves. Participants are decorated with golden medals.

S. Shamsher Singh ji's sudden death has shocked tens of thousands of Sikhs around the world whose lives have been touched by him. He will be dearly missed. The Sikh community has lost a rare gem in his passing.

His wife, Jagjit Kaur (his companion since 1949), had passed away in 2003. He is survived by five daughters, one son, 11 grand children and 4 great-grand children.

 

 A PERSONAL TRIBUTE BY Dr. I.J. SINGH

Shamsher Singh died a few days ago, as all of us must. 

To my mind the ultimate test of a good life comes from the words of Guru Amardas [GGS:720] - “ae sareera merya iss jug meh aaye ke kya tudh karam kamaya” - in other words, what footprints will you leave in the sands of time.

He had a delightful sense of humor and a very methodical approach to life.  How he managed to be always so punctual and organized I do not know, for his large entourage and its responsibility consisted of five daughters and one son, and numerous friends and acquaintances the he managed to accommodate most graciously.

What I will remember him most is for the Hemkunt symposia that he initiated.  I forget the exact year in the 1980’s when the idea took birth. This project did something that didn’t exist at that time in the growing Sikh community of the United States and Canada.

It introduced young Sikh children from the ages of 6 to 22 years to writings on Sikhs and Sikhism. Participants were assigned a book and a set of age-specific questions from the book on Sikhi, and they were required to prepare a short presentation based on those questions. At regional and zonal centers, these young people competed for trophies and other awards.

It started small but in 25 years, it has now had more than 3000 enrollees.  Winners were generously rewarded.  The contenders got to read a book on Sikhi and, if they continued in the movement from year to year, learned the fundamentals of Sikhi. 

I suspect so did the parents who likely worked on the project with their children.  For many Sikh homes in the diaspora this was a way to begin building a library on Sikhism.

Don’t forget that in addition to the richness of Sikhi, so many young lives were also enriched by training in how to organize their minds and mastering skills in public speaking and presentations.

The winners were handsomely rewarded and their schools received a note on their achievements in extracurricular activities. 

I was involved with it for a number of years and have seen many young people now become professionals and they are better oriented and attached to Sikhi than many of us ever were.

The best compliment to the man and his vision is that now there are many more similar programs of symposia in North America and elsewhere in the world.

Shamsher Singh led a full life, productive and active; one that was dedicated to serving Sikhi.  His life deserves to be celebrated.

The only way to honor a life and its legacy is to carry forward the good that the man has done and build on it.

Sardar Shamsher Singh’s response to the challenging injunction of Guru Amardas is one that we can all envy; his footprints in the sands of time are larger than life..

ijsingh99@gmail.com                                       

 

A PERSONAL TRIBUTE BY T. SHER SINGH

I can't remember a time when S. Shamsher Singh ji was not part of our life in Patna, where I was born and brought up. He visited Patna (from Kanpur, where he then lived) at regular intervals because of his heavy (and seminal) involvement in the running of the Takht Sahib complex in Patna. As a close friend of the family, it meant that he came over for a meal each time and sometimes stayed with us overnight.

I looked forward to his visits. He regaled us with stories over dinner. I can still hear his rich deep voice, and his thundering and infectious laughter which would fill the house and warm it.

But I got to know him even better when - in 1962 or so, I think - as a pre-teen, my father, sister Davinder and I accompanied S. Shamsher Singh and a small group on a 3-week long trek to Hemkunt Sahib. Even though as the head of the Hemkunt management group, he had been up several times, this was the first trip up in June, when the snow was still on the ground - to explore the possibility of adding further tours to the usual September trek when the snows were long gone.

It was a tranformative time for me for many reasons, one of the main being able to see S. Shamsher Singh wielding his organizational skills and his oratorial muscle. He was inspiring in spiritual matters, and a leader of men at a time when facilities all along the journey, and at our destination, were primitive at best.

We were the first ones to stay overnight at Hemkunt, sitting next to a fire in a tent, listening to Bhai Mohan Singn Ragi of Bombay sing through the night. And watching S. Shamsher Singh chart out the plans for facilities to accommodate a burgeoning number of visitors he expected in the coming years.

A special delight for me was when I was able to take Amrit during the trip, along with my sister, Davinder. S. Shamsher Singh was one of the Punj Pyaras.

I also remember when we were moving to Canada in June 1971 and set out on our final road-trip from Patna to New Delhi, from where we were to fly Westward to discover America! It was only natural that we stopped in Kanpur to spend a couple of days with S. Shamsher Singh and his lovely family. The images remain etched in my memory, as part of our family history.

Since his move to the U.S. and the commencement of his latest project, the Hemkunt Symposia, I have had the pleasure of witnessing at close quarters over the years his most extraordinary contribution to the Sikh community today.

It no longer surprises me when I run into young GurSikh professionals around the world - including lawyers, doctors, professors, corporate executives, etc. - who tell me that they cut their teeth in public speaking and writing at some Hemkunt symposium somewhere.  

There is no greater legacy that S. Shamsher Singh ji could have left behind. He lives on in thousands of hearts and minds in geometric progression.

 

June 18, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 18, 2011, 10:00 AM.

I first met S. Shamsher Singh in September, 1968 during our first trip to Hemkunt. My friend Inderjit Singh who was also on that trip had known S. Shamsher Singh as a family friend since 1945. I remember S. Shamsher Singh's ebullient sense of humour and his dedication to lead at least 20 + trips to Hemkunt. He was such an inspiration. The second time I met him was in Kanpur in 1971, this was when my reverend 'Bhaiajee' passed away. It was during the bhog ceremony and he spoke eloquently on behalf of the sadh sangat of Kanpur. "Jo aa-i-aa so chalsee sabh ko-ee aa-ee vaaree-ai" [GGS 474.2] - "Whoever has come, shall depart, all shall have their turn."

2: Guldeep Singh Sethi (Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, U.S.A.), June 19, 2011, 6:23 AM.

Uncle Shamsher Singh was truly a lovely, sweet man. He inspired a generation of Sikh youth in reading the works of Bhai Vir Singh Ji. He will be missed. May you find the joy at Guru Nanak's feet.

3: Nirmal Singh, June 19, 2011, 8:32 AM.

The life of S. Shamsher Singh ji is really worthy of celebration. He inspired a generation of youth, many of whom found the learning at the annual Hemkunt Foundation events a source of abiding love for the Sikh way of life. At these gatherings, he himself was an exemplar, meticulous, well spoken, well-attired, always engaged and engaging. The 2007 Orlando International, mentioned in the message, did bring in an area additional to public speaking on selected themes - that of gurmat sangeet in raag format. The session was, even as a first, an uplifting experience to discover so much talent hidden among our shy and unassuming youth. The remembrance by I J Singh ji and T. Sher Singh ji sums up so well his variegated life. I only wish to add my admiration for his genius to cultivate and nurture a cadre of devoted volunteers, who year after year, organized the events in regions and then the International Assembly. This takes a lot of doing and if we could replicate such groups working with our youth to develop their interests in a friendly, yet competitive setting, we could in a couple of generations hope to see some great achievers emerging. My prayer is that his example lives and continues to inspire.

4: Amardeep (U.S.A.), June 19, 2011, 3:33 PM.

I wonder why his life and work (and other great people) was not admired on pages like sikhchic.com when he was alive. May be some person like me would have got inspired to meet him. [Editor: His work was widely known around the world, including across North America. It is up to those who work closely with such personalities to write about them. The media - on its own initiative - can only ensure that proper coverage is given when the information is made available. The community has to take the responsibility of ensuring that the stories are brought to the attention of the media. But, it's another topic for another day.]

5: Maj. Harinder Singh (Bethpage, New York, U.S.A.), June 20, 2011, 9:45 AM.

I came to be acquainted with S. Shamsher Singh only recently when I was exposed to and joined the group of sevadaars of Sri Hemkunt Foundation, an organization set up by him and which has flourished under his guidance and leadership. My limited exposure to his persona was enough to generate reverence and deep respect. Little did I know that all I saw was the proverbial tip of the iceberg. A lot lay below the visible portion and it will take time to really imbibe and appreciate the man's great achievements. He was a true leader; a man with a vision, with the tenacity that befits only the great. He was a man larger than life. His frail body deceptively hid his inner strengths and traits that show a man's real personality. After India's partition, a large Sikh population was uprooted and had to migrate to India from areas that now form Pakistan. It was a tumultuous time and horror stories abound of the loss and hardship that the quom had to undergo. Sikhs were by far the biggest sufferers as erstwhile Punjab was split into two halves and forced cross-migration resulted, leading to severe hardships. It would take several years for most just to get settled so as to be able to support one's family. Religion often takes a back seat at such instances. But here was a man who immersed himself in not only establishing himself in his profession but taking on the voluntary tasks of contributing to Sikhi's well-being; whether it was at Patna Sahib or Hemkunt Sahib. His migration to the U.S., later on, did not come as a hindrance in his passion for such activities. He continued with the same zeal and endeavor as is amply evident by the founding and success of Hemkunt Foundation. The high standards of integrity and transparency that he advocated and practiced in the day-to-day functioning of Hemkunt Foundation is a shining example for others to emulate, by those at the helm of Sikh religious bodies. Sadly that is not true this day. If this inspires a change and throws up even a handful of dedicated leaders, Sikhi would be well served. His physical presence will be sorely missed, but his guiding light will forever be a beacon for many in the years to come. His foot-marks in the sands of time are indelible; a true hallmark of a great leader and visionary. May the spirit he embodied continue to guide us all in the path he set himself upon.

6: Jodh Singh. Arora (Jericho, New York, U.S.A.), June 20, 2011, 12:58 PM.

In the early seventies, I ran into a visitor - S. Shamsher Singh ji of Hemkunt fame at our gurdwara (Sikh Cultural Society, Richmond Hill). After fateh and introduction, I offered to take him around and asked him where he would like to go? He mentioned S. Atma Singh Gidwani - I drove him to the latter's house. On the way, he told me of his impending plans to move to Ne York. What impressed me was his appearance, speech and piety. After he moved here, I once treated him for a serious ailment. And he never forgot to appreciate it. An year ago I heard that he was not keeping well. I called him and asked him if I could visit him. He said yes, but he insisted that I have lunch with him. We were together for four hours talking about gurmat, gurbani and naam juppna. And I still follow his advice. May Waheguru bless him eternal peace!

7: Manprit Singh Chawla (Lindenhurst, New York, U.S.A.), June 22, 2011, 8:12 AM.

He was a very good person. I will miss him. May Waheguru bless him with eternal peace.

8: D.J. Singh (U.S.A.), June 23, 2011, 2:14 PM.

I did not know S. Samsher Singh Ji personally. I however know that his daughter and son-in-law at Youngstown are excellent folks. May God bless them all!

9: Manita Kaur (U.S.A.), June 27, 2011, 6:49 AM.

S. Shamsher Singh was a gem of a grandfather who has inspired me in life. In his honor, I would like to share a poem that sums up how all of his 11 grandchildren felt about him: OUR DEAREST NANA PAPA: "Our dearest Nana Papa, you were an amazing soul;/ You were our role model, our leader with a heart made of pure gold./ Your intelligence, organizational skills and meticulous sense;/ Made you so successful whether it was your business, travels or leadership you were never tense./ You had a million dollar smile and a laugh that could brighten up any room;/ You always had a positive attitude, were in chardikala and never believed in gloom./ You raised a beautiful family with such devotion;/ You were a man of compassion, loyalty and endless emotion./ I have learned so much from you and am honored to be your grandchild;/ All the sweet memories, love, advice you have ever given me will be forever filed./ You instilled Sikhi, seva and strong roots in all of us;/ It's amazing that even at the age of 80 you were the leader of the Hemkunt Sahib jatha/ And were saying jakaaray at the front of the bus./ I admired your courage, strength and faith in God;/ You gave us all advice, taught us and gave us your approval nod./ You have no idea how much we all respected you;/ You were the strength, the foundation of the family that held us together like glue./ I wish I could have said my final Fateh on June 13 to you;/ I truly loved you from the bottom of my heart and always will do.

10: Gurdip Gujral (San Francisco, California, U.S.A.), June 28, 2011, 9:59 AM.

I am a family friend of S. Shamsher Singh ji's son in law, Dr. Surinder Singh Sethi from New Jersey. I congratulate my friend, Surinder, for being so fortunate to have had such a great father-in-law. Uncle ji gave me a lot of warmth every time I met him. Every word that came out of his mouth seemed like a flower to me. He surely made an unforgettable and everlasting image in my heart. I wish I could have spent more time with him. I have had the opportunity to meet Uncle's family on a few occasions and have always felt that the entire family has something special about them and that something special was the life-work of this great human being who was no less than a saint. I have had the opportunity to meet the managing staff of the Hem Kunt Trust in Gobind Ghat and Gobind Dham and was amazed at how they all admired uncle. Uncle ji's efforts to make the Hem Kunt Trust so popular in the entire Sikh community throughout the world is really commendable. The improvements made on the entire route to Sri Hem Kunt Sahib, all the way from Rishikesh, was due to Uncle ji's efforts throughout his lifetime. Once again, I want to congratulate to S. Shamsher Singh ji's family for being so fortunate to have had a father like that. May Babaji bless Uncle ji's gentle soul with love and peace. He will be in our mind, heart and thoughts all our lives and will be missed very dearly.

11: Darminder Singh (England), September 27, 2011, 9:12 AM.

S. Shamsher Singh had a vision and he achieved the objective in his lifetime and left behind a legacy for the future Sikh children. He faced life with a can-do approach and surmounted all obstacles with his unique charm. All the children who participated in the competitions have done well in life, equipped by skills and knowledge which the Foundation gave them. My wife Gurdeep Kaur first met S. Shamher Singh in New York when she took our daughter Rasmeet as winner from the London Zone in 1984. After the conclusion of the final international function, S. Shamsher Singh announced that a new zone is being set up called North England Zone and Gurdeep will be the Zonal Convenor. Gurdeep's mother, Ajeet Kaur, was the zonal convenor of the Kenya zone. Thus started a very useful and a worthwhile relationship with the Hemkunt Foundation. In 1997 the North England Zone hosted the International Symposium with 120 participants from all over the world. We salute a man who was and continues to be a role model for our children.

12: Harmeet Singh  (China ), February 03, 2012, 8:47 PM.

S. Shamsher Singh was like a godfather to me. I remember when I was young he used to come to our house, stay with us, and I can never forget him all my life because, to me, he was the one who very politely told me to do simran every morning for 5 minutes without fail. This was when I was about 13 years of age. I started it the next morning and till today now, at 52 years, have never missed it. This is his biggest gift given to me for which I can never ever repay him back in anyway, but can just say many, many thanks to him. I have been asking so many people about him, but I could not get any information about him from anywhere. Just last night it came to my mind that let's try on the google search and there ... I got this sad news. Today is the 4th of February 2012, as I write here. He also encouraged me to do kirtan at Takht Sri Patna Sahib, and once he asked me to do the Jaap Sahib seva during Amrit Parchar at Gobind Dham, giving me another blessing to be one of the Punj Pyarey in 1981. Apart from religion, he was a master in all fields of life. Any subject you touched, he had deep knowledge in that and would guide you very well. He will be always in my heart; I can never forget him.

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