A Thing of Beauty: A Book Review by T. SHER SINGH
The Golden Temple of Amritsar:
Reflections of the Past
1808 - 1959
The following book has been selected sikhchic.com's "Book of the Month" for December.
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE OF AMRITSAR, REFLECTIONS OF THE PAST (1808-1959), Edited by Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh, Designed by Juga Singh, Kashi House, United Kingdom, 2011. Hardcover, English, pp 303, colour. ISBN-10: 0956016812, ISBN-13: 978-0956016812.
I recall when the joint venture by Khushwant Singh and Raghu Rai -- the ‘coffee-table’ book, “The Sikhs” -- first burst into the market almost three decades ago.
It was a game changer.
It was a marked departure from the quality of books we had had on things Sikh until then. And I mean the form, the presentation, the vehicle for the message, not the message itself. Even though Khushwant’s essay in it was also a pleasure to read.
That one book, single-handedly, brought home to our wannabe writers and publishers that they needed to move up the quality of our publications several notches if they were to meet our needs.
It opened the flood-gates. It began with a trickle, and then gradually grew into a decent torrent. What followed has been an epicurean delight.
Patwant Singh’s book on the Darbar Sahib, and then the one on Gurdwaras. Marg’s special edition on Ranjit Singh. The volumes on the two exhibitions: “Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms”, and “I See No Stranger”. Bhupinder (’Peter’) Singh Bance’s excellent works on Duleep Singh and the Sikhs of Britain. A revised and improved edition of the original Khushwant Singh and Raghu Rai book. The many volumes - each designed by themselves - introducing the magical artwork of the Singh Twins. Amandeep Singh Madra’s and Parmjit Singh’s “Warrior Saints”. Jean-Marie Lafont’s “Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Lord of the Five Rivers”.
There are many more, I’m sure, that have escaped my memory.
Each new publication has pushed the envelope a wee bit further. And exactly what I expected, certainly what I had hoped, happened: the quality of the substance shot up, along with the quality of the form.
The two, form and substance, I believe, are intrinsically intertwined: married to each other, if you will, for life. The result, of course, is what the poet promises us: Truth and Beauty.
This, I find in my own life experience, is particularly true when I encounter passion in people who dedicate themselves to creation and innovation. I’ve been taught that the ultimate test of the truth of what one does is in its beauty. Without beauty, there is no truth.
And by ’beauty’, I do not mean the prurient or manufactured kind. I speak of what leaps out at you; it requires no promotion, no introduction, no fanfare.
I can offer you no better example of what I mean than the latest creation of the pair, Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh, in conjunction with designer Juga Singh: “The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808 - 1959)”.
Cliches abound: It is another game changer. It moves up the ante a number of notches. I trust, I hope, I pray, that our publications will never be the same again, after this exquisite offering.
I have followed the work of this duo for a couple of decades now. There have been times when I do not necessarily agree with their research or the conclusions that they have drawn, but never, ever, have I had any doubts over their passion and commitment, their dedication and their industry.
They have learnt as they have progressed, from one book to the next, and used the challenges they have encountered to their advantage.
This latest publication is a landmark in an additional way: it marks the coming of age of their nascent publishing house, Kashi Books, of which this is but a second project.
The subject of this new book was not an easy one to tackle. Umpteen books have been published on it. It is one of the most visited, written about, photographed and hailed spiritual and religious site in the world. How does one come up with something new, something interesting … and something that wows all over again?
They found the niche.
And it is one that begs attention. No doubt, individuals and families will pore over the pages to utter delight. But it is also an extraordinary tool for future researchers on the subject, not only of the Golden Temple / Darbar Sahib complex or the City of Amritsar, but of the history and development of the Sikh Religion.
“A picture speaks …!”
This book brings together a complete itinerary of a journey through time, with the help of historical sketches, drawings and paintings … of photographs … picture-postcards, posters, book and magazine illustrations, maps, architectural drawings, artifacts … and travelogues.
The latter are of particular interest, because the motives of the authors have been, not surprisingly, varied: intelligence reports, correspondence, diaries, history, memoirs. They were not written with the 21st century reader in mind … certainly not a Sikh voyeur of history.
Some are filled with awe, some seen through a critical and questioning eye, some even incorrect and erroneous. But like all history, whether recorded well or poorly, they teach and inform us a little more about ourselves.
The editors haven’t rested on the beauty or import of the rich images, or the mesmerizing passages.
They have catalogued, indexed, cross-referenced, researched and footnoted every bit of text and image like only the English can. Both the editors are Sikh-Britons and have, mercifully, grown up and trained in England. Digging through the enormous wealth of material that lies buried in libraries, museums and private collections in that country alone -- possibly more than even Punjab and India -- they have proved to be a much-needed shot in the arm for Sikh scholarship, especially at a level directed to the average Sikh or enthusiast.
As for its greatest appeal, it is a joy to hold and behold. For me, it has achieved the greatest rule of asthetics: to understate when everything militates in favour of hyperbole.
If I were you, I wouldn’t wait for someone to gift this book to me. I would get online immediately and buy one for myself.
It is a must for every Sikh household.
Christmas is coming up. No matter what, especially if you live in the diaspora, you’re going to end up buying gifts for friends, neighbours, colleagues … If you’re in India, you’ll probably need something to bribe someone for some favour.
Well, here’s the ideal gift … or bribe! It’s a gift that will bring joy to both the giver and the receiver, as all good gifts are meant to do.
You’ll help support the work that these good men do, and encourage them to come up with more and better.
And you’ll help bolster a much needed Sikh publishing house. If you help make this a success, who knows, many more will crop up, and even existing ones will find publishing Sikh books an attractive proposition … which is exactly what we want.
This gift-giving season, please buy a book. Buy a Sikh book. Buy this book. Certainly, one. But more, if you can!
The book is currently available at a special discount by CLICKING here, for shipping to anywhere on the globe.
December 7, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Harry Mann (Canada), December 07, 2012, 9:03 AM.
It is always an honor to have such a thought provokingly and thoroughly critical, unbiased book review by stalwarts of the community such as your self! Thank you for bringing light to this endeavour.
2: G Singh (London, United Kingdom), December 07, 2012, 9:09 AM.
What a great and honest review. I couldn't have said it better. I've had this book in my lounge for over a year and every time I look through it, I notice something new, learn something, imagine something new. As you put it: "The editors haven't rested on the beauty or import of the rich images, or the mesmerizing passages. They have catalogued, indexed, cross-referenced, researched and footnoted every bit of text and image like only the English can ..."
3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), December 07, 2012, 6:06 PM.
This book does wonders ...
4: Harinder Singh 1469 (New Delhi, India), December 09, 2012, 9:20 AM.
In 6 years of Sikh art retail, we have sold books in great numbers among people who come from government service and professional backgrounds, but not much from among business families. Will have to wait and see how this book pans out with the different groups.
5: Harnam (London, United Kingdom), December 17, 2012, 9:14 AM.
A lovely book.