Bhagat Singh and his tirade against British imperialism has largely been studied and analysed either through nationalist, Marxist and revolutionary perspectives, or through terrorist and communitarian perspectives. These perspectives have until recently been dominantly elitist and give little space to popular representation of history. The book under review is an attempt to construct the image of Bhagat Singh from the perspective of the people. The study attempts to ‘explain him and his revolutionary career from the viewpoint of popular literary and cultural traditions of Punjab; how the Punjabi people, the carriers of these traditions, look upon him’ as a bridegroom (p.xiv). It is also an attempt to enlarge the debate on ‘representations’ in Indian historiography.
Gaur has divided the book into six chapters. He tends to theorise the various trends in historiography and literary traditions of India and emphasises that while political and state boundaries are different from the boundaries of cultural heritage, legacies both sectarian and nationalist are also too narrow to accommodate folk heroes of Indian subcontinent. He situates his argument in the context of historically evolved Punjabi ethos of non-conformism, non-sectarianism and counter-hegemony, which have been crucial to an understanding of the history of Punjab. These folk representations testify that during the struggle against British imperialism, the general people of India were not passive and dormant participants. ‘They were an active social force who responded enthusiastically and culturally to their martyrs, their struggles and their martyrdoms.’ (p.9)
The author tries to locate the trajectory of ‘a Punjabi martyr’ and their martyrdom in tradition and history through various narratives of ‘Sikh’ martyr Guru Arjan Dev, ‘outlaw’ martyr Dulla Bhatti, ‘lover’ martyr- Hir-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnun and Sohni-Mahiwal, ‘patriot’ martyrs like Bhagat Singh and others. Bhagat Singh is understood as a human being imbued with emotions and sentiments, a social liberal crusader against caste through a network of alliances’, a prolific writer and an organic intellectual who through his art of rhetoric and metaphor uses various simile, metaphor and legends from Indian history, an actor who unfolds various hues of his personality and as a prisoner committed to intellectual growth and political rights of prisoners in colonial India. Thus Bhagat Singh emerged a hero even before his death and descended deep into the minds and hearts of the people of Punjab.
The most significant treatment of Bhagat Singh is the popular depiction of his martyrdom. These folk representations provide an alternative discourse for understanding the literary and cultural context of the ‘month of martyrdom’ when Bhagat Singh was executed. Gaur probes the writings of Kalidasa, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah and others, and locates the advent of spring season with social change, playing of Holi with self-sacrifice and eagerness to meet his fiancée, death. Folk songs, especially the genres of ghori, marhi and qissa, and their themes of love and eroticism, of heroic and chivalric activities and of sacrifice and martyrdom are instrumental in the evolution of death-bridegroom or marriage-martyrdom motifs in the historical trajectory of Punjab. The image of virgin-martyr Bhagat Singh, narrated in the folk genre of qissa, is more revealing and multifaceted than the nationalist and Marxist narrations. Folk culture reinvents the virgin-martyr and weds him to death.
Dialogical narration is a peculiar characteristic of Qissa Bhagat Singh. The range emotions, sentiments and the inanimate objects which are used as metaphors in qissa are essential to situate the history of emotions. Bhagat Singh di Marhi is an elegy written on the aspirations for freedom by Bhagat Singh who for their realisation wedded death and devalued the significance of the death penalty. Thus, Bhagat Singh belongs to the Punjabi space which resonates with the legends of the virgin-martyrs or martyr-bridegrooms like Salar Masud Ghazi, Haqiqat Rai, Ajit Singh, Jhujhar Singh, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh. His ancestors are ‘virgin’ martyrs and therefore he is well grounded in the history and culture of Punjab and is assigned vernacular sensitivity and specificity through cultural idioms, customs and traditions. This work is of immense significance for general reader and those interested in alternative discourse in Indian history.