Amritsar: A City in Remembrance by Gurmeet Rai, visual documentary, literary effort: The Tribune India


Nonika singh

When you look at a city, it’s like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of all those who built it. – Hugh Newell Jacobsen

AND when the city in question is Amritsar, founded in 1577 by Guru Ramdas, with more than one history (Sikh, British) embedded in its walls, one can only expect its myriad facets to unfold, especially when an entire book is dedicated to him. In fact, the book edited by Gurmeet S Rai, a conservation architect who has done a remarkable job of preserving its architectural history, is a tome. From its historical-religious significance to its emergence as a cultural nucleus, passing through its literary heritage and traumatic past, there is little left to discover. With photographs of Gurmeet’s husband, famous lensman Raghu Rai, this is as much a visual documentary as it is a well-documented literary endeavor.

As might be expected, given that Amritsar takes its name from the abode of nectar around which the Golden Temple is located, the very first chapter deals with the holiest of the holy shrines of the Sikhs. Written by Rai, while speaking of its metaphysical and spiritual relevance as well as its exalted place in “Guru Arjan Dev’s view of things”, it gives an elaborate account of its architecture as well, even calling it “a dissenting form.” One that emphasizes inclusion in relation to the exclusion standard then in effect. We also learn how the architectural principles are vernacular and “Sri Harmandir Sahib rises from the center of the sacred pool which measures 158.50 x 159.30 meters and is not a rectangle but a parallelogram”.

With a conservation architect at the helm, the architectural details abound. Not only in this chapter, but also those who describe the Ram Bagh complex built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh as a testament to his “belief in the inclusiveness of all traditions”, and the Gobindgarh fort as a symbol of the martial past of the Sikhs and the citadel of Amritsar whose control ensured a hold on Majha. Filled with drawings and rich in information, Rai also connects to conservation efforts that reveal the Sikh and Anglo-era layers of the fort.

In this volume, which is not a coffee table publication, the photographs live up to Robert Frank’s adage: “There is one thing photography must contain, the humanity of the moment. Seen through the insightful eye of Raghu Rai, these capture the spirit of the Sikh faith, the splendor of Sri Harmandir Sahib and the contrasting hues of the city. Carefully captioned, each photograph tells a story. The articles, of course, are well researched and give due credit to the sources. Perhaps they are of greater interest to academia. However, with nuggets of information, an average reader can also gain a lot. Even when he explores aspects that we already know, like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, he offers much more than what we already know. Writers Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh, while reviving the searing pain of the event, end it on a note of redemption: the assassination of massacre apologist Michael O’Dwyer.

Urvashi Butalia delves into the trauma of the score, which she says has been “an ever-present familiar” as the impact of the division was felt on this border town. While some chapters are written in a pedantic style, she writes fluently, incorporates the incidents into a narrative format, and also asks relevant questions such as: “Is it possible that the memory of a troubled past can inform the quest for?” ‘a future? of peace?”

Moushumi Chatterji’s chapter on Lok Virsa (People’s Museum), coupled with superb photographs, navigates the unique concept of the 5 Rs; Reverence, revelation, resonance, remembrance and reconciliation. For those who may have missed a tour of the museum, which reinvents the connection between people, places and heritage and includes a majestic installation created by Manish Arora, she not only informs, but almost begs to visit.

The story of a place is just as much that of its people and more than one chapter brings us to the Sikh gurus and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who, in the words of Jigna Desai, “maintained Amritsar as the religious center of the faith. sikh ”. Modern city icons like Bhai Vir Singh, Nanak Singh and Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari and others find pride of place in Nadia Singh’s article “Writers Artists Thinkers”. She also recalls that even the giants of literature like Sadat Hassan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz had a link with Amritsar.

But for minor overlaps, since many authors have been forced to dwell on its many dimensions, it’s a treasure. Among other things, it tells where the fabulous Kohinoor diamond was kept by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Not to be read in a hurry, like the city and its essence that it reconstructs with pride and pain, its multiple layers are meant to be explored at a leisurely pace, to be cherished as a jewel of an entire community. life.

Let us not forget, while mapping the memory of the city, the book resists the temptation to devote a full chapter to Operation Bluestar, but does not ignore the cataclysmic event of 1984. In an incisive analysis of the The spiritual economy of the city, Dr Pritam Singh, while recalling that “religious distress is real distress”, underlines: “Demolition and reconstruction are religious acts as well as politico-economic declarations.” The book is more than a statement, more than a memory, it not only reveals how the city lives up to its name, but adds significantly to the “Waters of Immortality”.


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