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Papa ji


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Papa ji
Capt. Sardar Kanwar Harbhajan Singh




We have just received word that Capt. Sardar Kanwar Harbhajan Singh ji - known around the world to family, friends and the IIGS (International Institute of Gurmat Studies) family simply as "Papa" - passed away on the morning of Sunday, January 30, 2011. Our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones ... our thoughts and prayers are with them. The following excerpt from an article, written about Papa a little over three years ago, is reproduced here to honour his memory.



Wisdom, true wisdom, they say, comes only from the school of hard knocks.

No amount of bookish knowledge necessarily helps. Neither age nor silver hairs guarantee it. Worldly wealth is, if anything, a hurdle and distraction.

And it is only to be found, like the Great Bard Vir Singh's banafsha flower, deeply hidden away, a closely-guarded secret.

In my own perennial search for those who are heir to this Philosopher's Stone  -  I have this notion that proximity to them will rub off on me a bit  -  I am delighted to report that I've had two recent sightings.

In both instances, the doyen was spotted  -  not surprisingly  -  in the company of children. That's a sure giveaway: the truly wise one is, by definition, also a teacher. He or she imparts knowledge, real knowledge, through osmosis  -  freely, effortlessly, selflessly.

The first one - Prof. Darshan Singh ji - I've already introduced to you at length in an earlier column, in the context of his music and spiritual discourse.

My visit with the second philosopher  -  and I use the word in the highest sense of the term  -  I approached with an acute degree of trepidation. Because, this time around, I did not have the option of withdrawing into the creature comforts I have surrounded myself with at home, which is but a short distance away from Prof. Darshan Singh's Guru Granth Sahib Academy in Brampton, Ontario, Canada.

My second discovery entailed a flight to the Ontario (California, U.S.A.) airport, which stands at the fringe of the much-dreaded Los Angeles sprawl in southern California, from where I was whisked away eastwards into the San Bernardino Mountains, to a spot minutes from the magical Lake Arrowhead.

Camp Seely is ensconced deep in the lush growth around the town of Crestline, but far enough from the latter to be free of cellular-phone and internet wave-flows.

This was a welcome change from what I had left behind on the automobile-plagued plains that I could easily see, stretching precipitously into the hazy horizon. But what I was worried about was being surrounded by, and unable to escape from, a hundred and thirty boys and girls, and scores of camp counselors, parents and sevadars, all converging here from every part of the continent, and some even from across the seas.

I needn't have worried.

My apprehensions were laid to rest the moment I met the grand patriarch of the high-energy scene that unfolded before my very eyes.

Capt. Kanwar Harbhajan Singh is no ordinary man.

A stint with the Indian military, in a distant past, has given his large frame a tall and erect posture. Add to it a gentle face, piercing eyes, a warm and infectious smile, a snowy-white and flowing beard, and hands that easily pat children on the head or the shoulder or the back, as he talks or listens to them ... as if in blessing ... and you'll get a feel for why all, young and old, call him Papa.  

This particular children's and youth camp, popularly known throughout the Sikh world by the letters IIGS  -  International Institute of Gurmat Studies  -  is the 67th manifestation of a movement which began well over half-a-century ago.

Since then, and particularly in the last thirty-five years, they've been held on an average of two per year, at different locales around the world, with the sole purpose of teaching children the values of the Sikh Gurus, the discipline of Sikhi, leadership, self-confidence and self-esteem.

The last one was held in Dehradun, India. Earlier ones have included locations in Australia, Thailand, England, Canada and Nepal. The next one is scheduled for June 2008, in the Himalayan resort of Mussoorie.

I arrive at Camp Seely approximately half-way through its week-long sojourn.

It's 7.00 am. I can see from a few stragglers, as they scurry towards and converge on a large log-cabin type structure, that it is the focal point of whatever is happening in the camp at this time of the morning.

I walk towards it, and recognize the wisps of music that float out of it: it is the Durbar Hall and time for the morning service.

I am impressed by the neat rows of sandals, slippers and shoes neatly aligned outside the main door. Irresistibly drawn in by the shabad kirtan I can hear clearly now, sung in chorus by the congregation, I skip the lure of tea from the langar cabins beyond, and enter.

The morning divan is in full swing. Young ones, ranging from ages five to eighteen, are sitting, surprisingly alert and attentive, in smart-straight lines. A girl, not much into her teens, is seated behind the Guru Granth Sahib, with the chaur in her hand.

I plunk myself amongst the counsellors and parents seated in the back.

It takes me mere seconds to tune into the environment: it requires no effort, because the kirtan is divinely beautiful. The only distraction is the thought: who is leading the singing? Has she recorded? Where can I get the CDs?

I find out later, that the camp is blessed with a wonderful team of kirtan teachers, including the one I had been mesmerized by that morning: Sardarni Gurpreet Kaur.   

Over the course of the next three days, I witness the multiple goings-on at the camp.

Depending on the activity, the kids get divided into age-groups at different times, and re-assemble for the plenary sessions. There are gurmat classes ... and history, kirtan, music, public-speaking, turban-tying, ethics, language ...

Gatka and sports, parades and physical exercises, and even sessions such as "How to Deal with a Bully".        

I sat through the latter  ...  run jointly by Dr Gurpreet Singh Ahuja and Jagjot (JJ) Singh. And was privately moved to tears, listening to some of the questions from the little ones, I was reminded of my own schooldays ... and to laughter, hearing the common-sense advice from the brilliant duo, and recalling my own escapes and escapades.

I must confess I felt like a voyeur who has been given a flight back in time,  Dickensian "Christmas Carol" like, into my own childhood and my boarding-school days. The only difference was that these kids were all Sikhs ... and I had been the lone one.

But, it's an absolute delight.

I love watching them during their free time as they group and scatter in new-found friendships and alliances. I see them gambol on the grass, and prance about in the ball-courts. Giggles and frowns, and free, full-throated laughter, hesitations and aggressions, shyness and oh-so-American bluster! I soak it all in and feel this is a dream.

I am quite taken by a slew of little, special moments that pop up from unexpected quarters.

The morning hukam in the Durbar Hall, received by one of the teenagers, and then extemporaneously and lovingly translated into English by Jessi Kaur (who, incidentally, is also a columnist for The divan, conducted by the children themselves, under the gentle mentorship of Kavi Raj Singh.

The P.T. (physical training) parades that use to advantage Papa's skills from his former life, to the max.

The names on the tags! I love the way Sikhs grab names out of the blue, inventing with total abandon. Jaitsiri Kaur. Jujhar Singh. Gurbani Kaur. Anhad Singh. Zoravar Singh ... and each with the Sardar/Sardarni honorific!

The bee-hive busy-ness of the langar area, under the keen eye of Ranjit Singh (also, a talented music teacher) and the loving hand of Manjit Kaur: the labour of love produces gourmet meals over and over again, spiced by the relentless seva of the kids in serving and cleaning up ... and the sight of photographer and master-of-all-trades Gurbux Singh, perennially stirring the dal pot, will forever remain etched in my mind's eye as an icon of langar seva.

The kesh-darshan one morning, when the entire camp lets its hair down. Literally. Each attendee  -  camper, counselor, parent and Papa himself  -  has a hair-wash and leaves it open to dry ... and for others to admire, all day. They gather on the grass, boys and girls, men and women, surrounded by the cabins and dwarfed by the giant trees circling them, admiring each other's hair. Rapunzels and lions' manes abound. What a natural and inevitable idea! After all, this is a SIKH camp, isn't it!    

And then, the camp fire! The Talent Night. Skits and jokes, mimicry, songs and ... of course, bhangra. [I recall, we used to call it the "No-Talent Night" in law school!]

A good time was had by all, thanks to an entire team of volunteers (Daljit Singh, Karan Singh, and nameless others) that puts in countless hours before, during, and long after this fun-filled week is over.

I had a ball at the camp, and, I could see, so did the kids. And the counsellors, parents and sevadars, too.




January 31, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: I.J. Singh (N. Bellmore, NY, U.S.A.), January 31, 2011, 11:16 AM.

Some lives are worth remembering for their influence outlasts their sojourn on earth. Captain Harbhajan Singh belongs to that category. Truly a 'gentle' man, totally dedicated to the cause of Sikhi with memorable contributions to the cause.

2: Gurbux Singh (Chatsworth, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), January 31, 2011, 12:32 PM.

I was blessed to have known Papa and words cannot describe his demeanor and infectious smile. Humble, down to earth and unpretentious to a fault, Papa served the community in his own way and taught us all the meaning of seva. May Waheguru bless his soul and we thank Him for the opportunity of knowing such a Gurmukh.

3: Bakhsish Singh (Canada), January 31, 2011, 6:55 PM.

It's a great loss to the Sikh community. He was such a wonderful man. He had the vision and mission to serve the community through conducting gurmat camps all around. I attended three camps and had a great experience. Targeting the younger generation and teaching them the core values of Sikhi was a tremendous effort. A great loss ...

4: Gurpreet Singh  (Ambala, India ), May 29, 2011, 1:58 AM.

He did extraordinary service to the community.

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Capt. Sardar Kanwar Harbhajan Singh"

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