By Turbaned Man | OPINION
“Why don’t you paint the 10 masters?” I asked the young Sikh artist. A master at Panjabi landscape and Sikh portrait painting, he was saying no to commissioned work that required painting the Gurus. Two fresh immigrants nostalgic about mango trees and people we left behind, we met in his small studio in the suburbs of Vancouver.
In Sikhi Guru refers to one of the ten Sikh teachers that lived between 15th and 18th century, before Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of Sikh scriptures was declared the last Supreme Spiritual Authority and Head of the Sikh religion in 1708 AD by the tenth teacher of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh.
“My manifestation of Guru is so limited and the Guru is so complete. I would end up painting my limited vision of the Guru, limiting those who see it. When the Guru himself has said, if thou seek me, you will find it in the Shabad (words of Guru Granth Sahib), would that not be against the will of the Guru?” said the young painter.
I realized there are two types of people — those who live within the faith, and those who observe it from outside. I was the latter, observing the faith as an outsider. The Artist was relishing the nectar of the faith — as Gurbani refers “Goonge Kee Mathiayi ”(the sweet tasted by the mute) — a living body of his master’s teachings.
On the first look, a movie like Nanak Shah Fakir appears like another exploration of the founder of the Sikh faith. As one digs deeper into religion and its history, one starts to wonder such a film’s impact on the Sikh community.
People, cultures and beliefs
I have broken bread with people of many faiths and nationalities traveling around the world. And I have come to realize that there is no absolute one universal exposition of the truth. People have their own beliefs, practices and their own interpretations of divinity. And they do so for good reasons. As free men and women, every community should be able to celebrate and relish their own ways of life.
You cannot walk bare-shoulder in the Vatican or when traveling to Qatar or Iran. You cannot drink in Doha, and you cannot eat beef while on the ghats of Benaras. Christianity celebrates Michelangelo’s paintings of the Christ. Muslims consider it blasphemous to paint Prophet Mohammad. In the progressive corners of the earth, people learn to respect each others’ beliefs while celebrating and minding their own. In other parts of the globe yet, groups try to define faith for other cultures and that is where the trouble starts.
Free Men and Slaves
If history is any indication, the people who became slaves, lost their own ways of life — often in the name of progress. Generations of Native Canadians and Indigenous Australians were removed away from their own cultures into residential schools. This happened all under the guise of “cultural civilization”, a term often used for cultural assimilation. The African slaves brought into Americas lost their language, identity symbols, and culture of their own origins.
Cultures that evolve with time by the people who live in them survive; others that change under forced persuasion often don’t live long. Free folk have their own way of life that they wear on their sleeves when co-existing with other cultures. The slaves rarely enjoy that privilege.
Limitation of visual media
The limitation of the film as a medium is that it curtails that personal exploration of an idea and limits it to the vision of the film-maker. This may not be as important when making a film on a fiction book, but it gets hairy pretty quickly when exploring faith.
As a kid, listening to Sakhis or stories of Sikh Gurus, I would imagine the era and characters of Gurus. As a Sikh child starts exploring Guru’s written word — Gurbani, it adds to his understanding and personal connection with the Guru. Sikhi is a religion which advocates Sikh’s personal connection to his Guru, without the intermediation of the priest.
Visual medium is such a rich sensory medium that it is hard to break away from visual messaging once exposed to it. It severely handicaps the essence of a complex relationship, that require introspection over time. Just like one cannot extract the taste of slowly cooked saag (mustard greens), by fast processing it in a pressure cooker.
For example, Ramanand’ Hindu epic Ramayan was a highly successful broadcast in 90’s across Indian television. Since then, almost every character of Lord Ram in theatre plays or Ram Leela appears to be a copy of the actors of the two-decades old TV show.
I have observed that Sikh kids who grow up exploring Gurbani (hymns of Gurbani), grow a unique worldview as a consequence of that personal exploration. A Sikh kid grows up not hating Muslims despite reading about stories of constant conflict with Muslim rulers. Neither does she hates Hindus despite listening to stories of deceit by Hindu Kings of the Hills and of Gangu Brahmin. Because via personal exploration of Sikh history, Sikhs would also come across Pir Budhu Shah and Moti Ram Mehra — a counter-narratives to the characters above. One realizes that a Sikh is to only look at other’s personal conduct and not their faith, race or origin.
Now, counter that with a cinematographic story-telling. When it comes to the matter of faith, cinematographic story-telling very rarely does not have a point of view or in extreme cases, a propaganda. More divisive an idea is, more is the money to be made for the filmmaker. Even if the film-maker started with all the right intentions, he or she is often facilitated by those that benefit from challenging the belief systems of a community or creating conflict within it.
Case in point — in 80’s and 90’s era Punjab, a strong Sikh separatist movement was being fought together by men and women from different stratas of society. 79% of Sikhs in Panjab lived in rural areas. Majority of these rural Sikhs wore turbans. The films that were pushed into Punjab in this era however, emphasized casteism (every other Panjabi film in 90’s had Jatt — a vanity name for land owners), mostly showed protagonist without turbans, normalized booze and drug abuse and displayed cat-calling women as protagonist’s way to find affection of opposite sex. To someone who was comparing the media to the ground truth, this display of Panjab appeared alien at that time. Two decades later, Panjab is the largest consumer of alcohal in India, casteism in Sikh community is a huge issue, female foeticide and gang-violence has increased at an alarming rate.
Sikhi and Theatre
It is often incorrectly assumed that a visual representation of Sikh Gurus helps younger generation easily connect with the Sikhi. If history is any witness, it can be observed that as Sobha Singh’s paintings of Guru Nanak Sahib became widespread, calendars of the Guru became far more common in Sikh households, over the scriptures of Gurbani.
Sikhi is a way of life that worships the word of the Guru, or Gurbani as the source of light navigating this vast ocean of life. A Sikh (literally meaning student) without reading Gurbani — the poems of love for humanity, separation songs for the creator and the multiple reminders to find the source of light within oneself, a consistent reminder to raise one’s moral standing — cannot understand Sikh faith. It is Gurbani through which a Sikh’s heart is in an everlasting spring, elevated from fears of death or others (nirbhau) and without consistent enmity with anyone (nirvair).
When copies of paintings of Sikh Gurus became common in Sikh households, bowing heads to the paintings became a common occurrence. Such a practise is repeatedly debunked by Sikh Gurus in Guru Granth Sahib.
ਜੋ ਪਾਥਰ ਕਉ ਕਹਤੇ ਦੇਵ ॥ ਤਾ ਕੀ ਬਿਰਥਾ ਹੋਵੈ ਸੇਵ ॥
Those who call a stone their god, their service is useless.
ਜੋ ਪਾਥਰ ਕੀ ਪਾਂਈ ਪਾਇ ॥ ਤਿਸ ਕੀ ਘਾਲ ਅਜਾਂਈ ਜਾਇ ॥੧॥
Those who fall at the feet of a stone god, their work is wasted in vain. ||1||
ਠਾਕੁਰੁ ਹਮਰਾ ਸਦ ਬੋਲੰਤਾ ॥ ਸਰਬ ਜੀਆ ਕਉ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਦਾਨੁ ਦੇਤਾ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
My Lord and Master speaks forever. God gives His gifts to all living beings. ||1||Pause||
ਅੰਤਰਿ ਦੇਉ ਨ ਜਾਨੈ ਅੰਧੁ ॥ ਭ੍ਰਮ ਕਾ ਮੋਹਿਆ ਪਾਵੈ ਫੰਧੁ ॥
The Divine Lord is within the self, but the spiritually blind one does not know this. Deluded by doubt, he is caught in the noose.
ਨ ਪਾਥਰੁ ਬੋਲੈ ਨਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਦੇਇ ॥ ਫੋਕਟ ਕਰਮ ਨਿਹਫਲ ਹੈ ਸੇਵ ॥੨॥
The stone does not speak; it does not give anything to anyone. Such religious rituals are useless; such service is fruitless. ||2|| (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 1160)
On 20th February 1934, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee’s (SGPC) Religion Advisory committee made a recommendation to bar representation of Sikh Gurus, Sikh Martyrs and Gursikhs of the past to cast as characters in theatre. SGPC made it a declaration on August 7, 1940, by passing a rule that Sikh Gurus, their families, and Guru Granth Sahib cannot be brought to the stage.
When the producer of the film Nanak Shah Fakir got permission from the controversial current SGPC, behind closed doors, a few weeks ago after being denied last year, which time and time again has proved to be under the control of Punjab’s political family, Sikh protests against this decisions were to be expected.
It is for independent Sikh organizations like Sarbat Khalsa to reconsider and make amendments to such rules if the community sees the need. Any external agency, who is making a for-profit venture for the Sikh community, while challenging its beliefs, value systems, and rules, is trying to force an agenda on to the Sikh community. And the community has every right to protest and oppose such nefarious plans.
Free Speech and the right to protest
It is often insincerely propagated that a community’s right to protest is somehow suppression of free speech. It is a fool’s errand to think so. In fact, protesting is an excellent expression of free speech. When two opposing ideas come across each other, it is far better for ideas to clash in peace — to test their strengths and come to a consensus. Wherever in the world, free speech is suppressed with an iron hand, it is commonly observed that violence starts to take root.
How to protest in the 21st century
One of the ways in which the world protests are economic boycotts. It is an effective and non-violent way of getting one’s message to commercial producers.
In 1955, when Rosa Parks was denied a seat in the segregated bus in Alabama, she sparked Montgomery Bus Boycott, losing the company 65% of its income. The small act of defiance and the boycott led to the beginning of American Civil Rights movement, ending segregation.
A divestment boycott — which is the use of a concerted economic boycott to pressure a government, industry, or company towards a change in policy — led to the downfall of South Africa’s apartheid government.
There needs to be a concerted effort with clear outcomes, instead of signing online petitions to voice community’s opposition to this unholy precedence.
There seems to be a race going on in Bollywood and Indian media industry to redefine Sikh history — Ranjit Singh’s serial on Life Ok is a prime example, as well are four films on Battle of Saragarhi.
Film Nanak Shah Fakir will act as another salvo in the same direction. It will also be used as a precedent by filmmakers in Bollywood, to portray any Sikh character in a light that the director wants to convey.
Almost every Panjabi character in Bollywood has been cast in Indian nationalistic hegemony often in Islamophobic undertones, the damage from casting of founders of Sikh faith in similar light would be disastrous for the future generation of Sikh children who will be exposed to hacked-job storytelling.
TLDR: The film Nanak Shah Fakir is a misrepresentation of Guru Nanak and Sikh community’s belief system and is against the guidelines set by its representing bodies on the representation of Sikh historical characters. A forceful economic, divestment and social boycott is required to ensure such plans do not succeed.
The author is a techie, language aficionado. Owns 50 turbans. Tweets at @TurbanedMan
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com] 18692
Nanak Shah Faqir: An Epic of Sorts – PART ONE (Asia Samachar, 4 June 2015)
Artee and Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 10 Mar 2015)
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