Meri chhipe rahen di chaah
Te chhip tur jaan di Hai
Poori hundi na Mai tarlei lai reha.
(I desire to live unknown in seclusion and to pass away unnoticed. Alas, this desire remains unfulfilled, even though I yearn for it.)
Thus spoke poet Dr Bhai Vir Singh. These lines epitomise the sublime spirit of humility that characterised Dr. Bhai Vir Singh. It was he who brought dignity and respect to modern Punjabi language at a time when a person had to be a master of either braj bhasha or Persian. Punjabi was looked down upon as a gramin bhasha; it was he who adopted Punjabi as a source of literary expression and elevated it to the status it now enjoys.
Number 60, Lawrence Road, the residence of Bhai Vir Singh, is akin to a holy place to his innumerable admirers. Born on December 5, 1872, at Katra Garbha Singh, Amritsar, Bhai Vir Singh is credited with the establishment of the first printing press—Wazir-i-Hind in the city. Also known as the ‘saint poet of Punjab’, ‘the sixth river of Punjab’ and ‘the Tagore of Punjab’, Bhai Vir Singh is renowned for the mystic aspect of his work as well as his love for nature. His biographies of Sikh Gurus are vastly read and he also prepared Guru Granth Kosh, a dictionary of Guru Granth Sahib. His Santhiya Pothies, a commentary on Guru Granth Sahib in seven volumes, was published after his death in 1957. His collections of poems entitled Lehran de Haar, Lehar Hulare and Matak Hulare reflect his close bond with nature.
He has been awarded various distinctions for his contribution to Punjabi literature, the main being the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1954 and the Padma Bhushan in 1956. However, it is only after a visit to Bhai Vir Singh Sthan at Lawrence Road that you can actually begin to understand the legendary figure. As you enter, it seems you are transferred into another world. The noisy traffic in the crowded market of Lawrence Road vanishes as if by magic and you find yourself surrounded by tall trees and flowers, especially chrysanthemums (Bhai Sahib’s favourites).
In the middle of these four acres is the residence, turned into a museum in 2003, under the aegis of Bhai Vir Singh Sahit Sadan, New Delhi, with financial grant from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. As you move towards the house, you can see Bhai Vir Singh’s poems written on display boards placed at several points.
Navneet Kaur, curator, graciously takes us around. The furniture remains untouched, Kaur informs us. “The house had already been the property of a Nawab for 200 years before it became the house of an English pastor, from whom Bhai Vir Singh bought it around 1915 and shifted in around 1917.” The elegant drawing room has an enlarged portrait of Bhai Vir Singh and in one corner is placed the urn in which his ashes were carried to be immersed.
All the rooms are inter-connected and as we move into the adjoining one, Kaur tells us that it had earlier belonged to Bhai Vir Singh’s brother, Dr. Balbir Singh, but it has now been converted into a library. The collection available includes old issues of Khalsa Samachar, a weekly paper started by Bhai Vir Singh in 1899, which continues to be published today by Bhai Vir Singh Sahit Sadan. He started the Khalsa Tract Society in 1894 for the propagation of religious and social reform. One can find a series of framed pictures that are prints of paintings based on his Mahakaav or epic poem Rana Surat Singh.
This room opens into another where one can see on the floor the writing desk of Bhai Vir Singh. It is here that he penned Sundari, the first ever Punjabi novel. Sarabjit Singh Likhari, former deputy commissioner of Amritsar, presently the chairperson of the trust that looks after the Nivas Sthan, points out a safe placed in a corner. “Surprisingly, this safe has remained unopened all these years as no one has been able to unlock it.” Due to the sanctity attached to the poet’s belongings, no one wishes to tamper with anything.
As you are guided into the bedroom, you can see his slippers placed below his bed. At the back of the bed, is a small room also called ‘Simran’ room, where he used to do his meditation. A unique feature is the prayer room, a beautifully shaped structure in a space of its own. The gurudwara at Hemkunt Sahib is structured on similar design, we are told.
Based on the documentary evidence that Bhai Vir Singh found in his study of Bachittar Natak and other historical texts, he wrote Hemkunt ton Sachkand and Sachkhand ton Maatlok. These tracts inspired Bhai Sohan Singh to go and discover the location of Hemkunt Sahib. After his successful discovery, he wanted to build a gurudwara there but was unable to find financial support. He approached Bhai Vir Singh, who gave him the Bir Romala Sahib and other items. Thus, Bhai Sohan Singh, along with Hawaldar Modhan Singh, set up the gurudwara at Hemkunt Sahib in 1936. The garden exemplifies Bhai Vir Singh’s love for flora. Kaur says, “All these trees are almost 100 years old and some even more. They were all planted by him. There are so many fruit trees that are rare in Amritsar which you can find here. In fact, Bhai Vir Singh used to carry two bouquets of flowers picked from his gardens, every morning to the Golden Temple and the tradition continues to this day.”
As you walk out of the place, you can’t help musing over a poem written on a display board: “Kyon hoya te kee koon hoya Khap khap mare sayane… Hoshan naalon masti change Rakhdee sada thikane.” (What happened and why? These are questions over which many wise men have fretted… Better lose yourself in love for the Divine so that there are no more questions.) Yes, this place embodies a wonderful oneness with the divine. Just walk in.