Studying Punjab the scholarly way

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Participants of the 13th Summer Programme in Punjab Studies with Prof Gurinder Singh Mann and me (sitting, centre) in Chandigarh

A group of student-scholars comes to Chandigarh every year in July for a six-week summer program on Punjab studies. They come from all over— North America, Europe, Australia—for an intensive course that brings them in touch with eminent Indian academicians and experts, and takes them to places that they would normally not have access to.

Many are foreigners; others have Indian roots that they seek to connect with, since they are expatriates like Ajeet Singh Matharu, who studies at Columbia University after a stint at Cambridge University. “I like the way in which Punjabi was taught to us. My grandfather used to try to teach me earlier, but he would get irritated at my pronunciations and we would not make much progress. I also used to see Punjab as more of a Sikh space, and now I have been exposed to other Punjabi traditions like Sufis and Ahemadias.”

Everyone has to learn Punjabi, and out of their need has emerged a new book, which is due to be published by the Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, says Prof. Gurinder Singh Mann who conceived the programme and has steered it with remarkable focus and steadfastness over the past 13 years. Prof. Mann holds the Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA.

Harjinder Kaur Sandhu from the University of British Columbia, Canada, works as a school principal and has “returned to academia after 2002. It is refreshing to learn things I would not have otherwise”.

Julie Vig of the University of Montreal is still on an endeavour to fine-tune her area of study … and has narrowed it down to working on Punjabi women. She is among the 182 scholars from 71 universities in 10 countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, India, New Zealand, and Sweden) who are alumni.

“I like to learn different things—I am all for cross-cultural dialogue and I feel that this programme is a role model for others to follow,” says William Cullinan of Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.

Satjeet K. Nayar, a student of New York University, USA, points out that the diversity of the group, in terms of age, backgrounds, universities and areas of interest, was in itself a great learning experience. “After studying about Punjab, I feel that it has not been given as much credit as it should have been.”

Simaran Jeet Singh of Columbia University, New York, has developed a healthy respect for Indian scholars who are not recognised by their Western counterparts.

Participants also appreciated the flexibility of the programme. “When we enrolled, we gave our individual interests and they were worked into the programme,” says Nayar.

“I am working on a Ph.D programme and Prof. Mann offered to mentor me,” says an admiring Peder Gedda of Gotheborg University, Sweden.

Access to a fresh area of academic study, information about primary sources and mentoring—no wonder alumni of the summer programme have gone on to occupy faculty positions at 16 universities abroad.

“I am profoundly grateful to the cooperation he received from local scholars and also from Prof. Shinder Thandi, head, economics department, Coventry University, England, who has shared the responsibility of overseeing the work during the past years,” says Prof Mann.

Many of the alumni, who this writer has met over the last decade, say that they are grateful to this unassuming man who has put his heart and soul into the programme that provided a unique opportunity to them and exposed them to the region.

Punjab, its people, religions and scriptures are now being studied internationally, thanks in no small measure to the role played by the Summer Programme in Punjab Studies, Centre for Sikh and Punjab Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.

This article by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on August 19, 2009.

Earlier articles:

UCSB Summer Programme

No more foreign in Punjab