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The Darbar of The Sikh Gurus:
The Court of God in The World of Men -
by Louis E. Fenech

Book Review by CHRISTOPHER SHACKLE

 

 

 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE

Today, we launch a new series on sikhchic.com titled “SCHOLARLY PURSUITS”.

A wealth of excellent work is being done by scholars in the field of Sikh studies around the globe and the fruits of such research and study are now available to us in the form of publications by the best publishing houses in the world.

Therefore, today we begin to introduce to you these books, one by one, which more often than not remain hidden from public view because of their academic affiliations.

They are all available for purchase by the public. We urge you to support the work by buying these top-notch publications, reading them, and sharing them with your friends and family.

We will attempt to bring you a different book every few days.

Today, we begin with the first in the series.

Also, we invite our readers to recommend new and notable books to which they would like to direct our attention.




 

“THE DARBAR OF THE SIKH GURUS: THE COURT OF GOD IN THE WORLD OF MEN”, by Louis E. Fenech, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, Hardcover, xv, 325 pp. ISBN 978 019 569423 9; ASIN: B009XQX9G4.

A Review by CHRISTOPHER SHACKLE



This is an important and most welcome addition to the scholarly monographs on Sikhism now regularly being published by Oxford University Press ("OUP") New Delhi in a growing list whose successful creation owes much to the prominent position in English-language Sikh studies so long occupied by the late Professor W. H. McLeod.

Louis Fenech was previously the author of the fine study of Martyrdom in the Sikh Tradition which was published in the same list in 2000.

In this new book, devoted to a very different topic in Sikh cultural history, he again shows himself to be one of the field's most creative scholars of the post-McLeod generation.

Here Fenech addresses the character and significance of the courts (darbar) traditionally associated with the Sikh Gurus. He successfully draws on a wide and heterogeneous range of textual sources in a variety of languages, including Persian and Braj Bhasha as well as other varieties of Punjabi and Hindi, to show how the courts of the Gurus may be understood in one way as constructed re-creations in the human world of the Divine Court first so memorably evoked in the scriptural hymns of the first Guru Nanak, while in another way they replicated on a local scale around the spiritual sovereigns of the Sikh community the overwhelming contemporary model of the magnificence of the imperial court of the Mughal rulers.

The broad adumbration of these themes in the opening chapter is set against a careful statement of the limitations of the Sikh sources, which become abundant only from the early eighteenth century onwards, i.e. when the age of the Gurus and their courts had been terminated by the death of the last, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1708.

The following two chapters, on the courts of the earlier Gurus, accordingly demand the exercise of some creative reconstruction. Having as its historical template what is described in hyper-Hodgsonian terms as "the Persianite [sic] court of the Eastern Islamicate" Fenech's suggestive evocation is based, for the most part convincingly, on the few early sources which are available.

Besides the panegyrics included in the Sikh scriptures and the few preserved edicts (hukamnamey) issued by the Gurus, these sources robust notably include the Punjabi poems (vaar) by their close associate BhaI Gurdas (d. 1630) and the extended first-hand account of the Sikh Gurus and their followers in the Dabistan-I-Mazahib of c.1650, that uniquely interesting Persian text on the religions of the subcontinent which is nowadays attributed to the Zoroastrian priest Kaikhusrau Isfandyar.

Firmer ground is reached in the fourth chapter, the longest in the book, which is devoted to the court of Guru Gobind Singh, the archetypal Guru's court in later Sikh imagination.

Drawing in part on Piara Singh Padam's Punjabi study Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji dey Darbari Ratan, Fenech pays particular attention to the poets associated with Guru Gobind Singh, showing on the one hand how his court apparently attracted writers looking for new patrons after the changes in cultural policy inaugurated by the emperor Aurangzeb had meant a reduction in opportunities for employment at the Mughal court, and on the other how the literary activities at his court mirrored those recorded for other rulers of the period, including the Pahari Rajas who were his immediate political rivals.

It is rightly suggested that this contextualization of the poetic production associated with Guru Gobind Singh is particularly important for a better understanding of the semi-canonical but problematic Dasam Granth.

Although Fenech does not quite allow himself space to do this important topic full justice, he more than compensates during the course of this rich chapter by coming up with several original insights, notably the idea that in the creation of his court Guru Gobind  Singh may have been directly inspired by the scriptural model of the Adi  Granth, and that "it was not only the structure of the Adi Granth's poetry which inspired the Guru but also the poetry of its structure" (p. 163).

The final chapter is in some ways an epilogue which brings the story of the poets of the Guru's court down to the present.

It is devoted to Guru Gobind Singh's close disciple Bhai Nand Lal, on whom Fenech has published several pieces over the years. Nand Lal was unique among the Guru's entourage both as an administrator also associated with the Muslim nobility, perhaps even with the Mughal court itself, and as a poet who wrote in Persian, not in the Braj Bhasha mostly favoured by the Guru and his other poets, so he is in both roles highly germane to the argument of Fenech's book.

Most of the chapter is usefully occupied with a further examination of the sources for Nand Lal's life, on which Fenech has written elsewhere.

But it once again ends most interestingly with an account of the "banification" of Nand Lal's Persian verse which together only with the poetry of Bhai Gurdas is uniquely sanctioned in the authoritative Sikh Rehat Maryada for the gurdwara recitation which is otherwise reserved for the gurbani of the scriptures themselves.

Not the least of the attractions of this most stimulating book is the evident enthusiasm with which Fenech cites his numerous sources, often at some length, with his notes occupying at least a third of the overall total of pages.

Since the publishers have maddeningly printed these citations as endnotes after each chapter the reader has to spend much time going backwards and forwards  between them and the main text.

But there is so much to be learnt from both text and notes that the required zigzagging may be recommended as well worth the extra effort.


[Courtesy: School of Oriental and African Studies. Edited for sikhchic.com]
May 6, 2014
 

Conversation about this article

1: R Singh (Palo Alto, California, USA), May 06, 2014, 6:30 PM.

Some suggestions for future columns in this series: a) The Social Space of Language - Farina Mir. b) Dhadi Darbar - Michael Nijhawan. c) Lions of the Punjab - Dick Fox. d) The Garrison State - Tan Tai Yong. e) Rural Nostalgias, Transnational Dreams - Nicola Mooney.

2: Jagpal Singh Tiwana (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada), May 07, 2014, 1:50 AM.

Excellent approach. Looking forward to the next title in the series.

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The Court of God in The World of Men -
by Louis E. Fenech"









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