“I Really Love Reconnecting People To Their Personal History. Whenever I Am Able To Help Someone With A Bit Of WW1 Research, It Is Especially Rewarding” Amandeep Madra

Who is Amandeep

I’ve had a lifelong interest in Sikh and Punjabi history and heritage – I love researching, writing, presenting and constantly learning. In between I am a dad and have a full time job.

Who are your role models?

I strive to be as hardworking and wise as my parents

What is your day job?

I work for a Pharmaceutical company where I work on the business end of the complex world of Research & Development

What is your favourite book?

The most interesting book for me has to be ‘Construction of Religious Boundaries’ by Harjot Oberoi. He meticulously describes how the Sikh world changed about 100 years ago from an ancient, much more fluid conception of religious practice and identity, into something more rigid and strictly defined as a result of colonialism and a reaction to religious corruption. If you want to understand the Sikh world as it stands today you need to understand the revolution that took place at the turn of the last century. 

Have you always had a love for history?

I wasn’t  interested at all at school, but I read Khushwant Singh’s two volumes work ‘A History of the Sikhs’ at university and page after page was a revelation to me. Hooked from there

You are the co- founder and chair of UK Punjab Heritage Association. Can you tell me about that?

One of the biggest influences in my life is Parmjit Singh. When we first started working together the output and productivity was incredible – we wrote, researched, collected, made connections at a pace that still pays dividends today. We quickly realised that we needed an organisational vehicle (as opposed to being two blokes that do stuff). UKPHA was born, and it really is a mechanism for lots of really committed and very talented volunteers to learn and share their knowledge on Sikh & Punjabi heritage. I particularly like that it depersonalises our work – it is not about me and Parmjit – UKPHA is all about the heritage.

You are a co author of 5 books. What are they? How did this happen?

Yes co-author in all instances with Parmjit Singh. Warrior Saints (1999) was our first book and was a search for the authentic in Sikh history. It was a collection of the images that we had researched with a narrative about the Sikh martial experience. It went onto becoming a bit of a classic, with 1st editions now being sold for s lot of money. I am the proudest of our second book ‘Sicques, Tigers or Thieves’ it’s a series of Eyewitness accounts of Europeans encountering Sikhs for the first time and is a window into the Sikh world of the 17th and 18th century. When Parmjit founded the publisher Kashi House we intended to republish Warrior Saints but we had gathered so much more materials that the project became a two volume idea – the first of those volumes (a new much enlarged and revamped Warrior Saints) was published in 2013. 
The book ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past’ accompanied the exhitbion of the same name in 2011. It’s a synthesis of 20 years of collecting images of The Darbar Sahib and the city of Amritsar with an introductory essay and lots of historic written accounts. While my name appears as a co author (with Parmjit) that book really was the work of a fantastically committed team who bought together an incredibly complicated book in a beautiful manner. 

Finally, to properly commemorate the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre, we were honoured ot team up with Prof Kim Wagner on the book ‘Eyewitness at Amritsar’

Tell me about the book Eyewitness of Amritsar?

I’d had a small hand in supporting Kim Wagner on his very important book ‘Amritsar 1919’ which is the very best history of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. The publisher of that book was disinclined to publish much of the photographic material and as Kashi House specialises in art books we were really pleased to be able to team up with Kim to produce a really accessible history of the event told through the eyewitness accounts of the people who were there (victims, families and perpetrators) and through archival photos from before and after the massacre itself as well as some of the really important documents

The Empire Of Sikhs exhibition I visited and honestly really glad I did. Full of valuable history. How did this happen?

It was the brainchild of Parmjit and very ably converted from idea into an actual exhibition by a huge team of people. Volunteers wrote, curated, showed people around and ran the show for 12 weeks. At its heart was a desire to tell one of the great stories of Sikh history – the very short-lived but epic period of history (that we think that we know about) but which contains so many hidden layers. We were of course really fortunate to be able to display  some of the finest pieces from the Toor Collection in addition to being able to borrow priceless artefact from the V&A, British Library and Her Majesty The Queen. The ability to do that was a result of 20 years of working with integrity and a huge amount of trust that we have built up with major national institutions. 

You were awarded an OBE, for services to Punjabi and Sikh Heritage and Culture.

For me the OBE represents the country recognising the value of Sikh & Punjabi heritage and history as an integral and important part of the cultural landscape in this country. Accepting it was easy, I see this as a recognition of the work of the wider team in making a massive contribution to British culture over many years.  

Where did the love for researching history come from?

I have literally no idea ! I’d love to give you a snappy origin story but its just one of those things! I do know that what really motivates me to research and write is the idea of ‘that which you think is right is actually wrong’ eg that no one threw themselves into the well at Jallianwala Bagh, that Ranjit Singh wasn’t a peerless hero but actually a very flawed individual. I find the real history often much more revealing and characters from history much more interesting as a result. 

I have listened to you speak at events and you are very knowledgeable do you know that people want to come to you to gain advice in regards to the history world as you deemed someone that knows his stuff?

An academic and friend Dr Jeevan Deol published widely in the early 2000s about the early Sikh manuscript tradition in academic journals. His work on the very early development of Sikh ‘scripture’ and language were really influential to me. With immense knowledge and great dexterity he carries out textual studies in Sikh scripture. I remain in awe of his ability to articulate really complex ideas and the academic rigour that he brings to a topic which otherwise attracts controversy. If pushed I would say ‘Text and Lineage in Early Sikh History: Issues in the Study of the Adi Granth’

If somebody wanted to research their history within their family what advice would you give to the person who wanted to try and gain that information?

This is a really good question. The answer starts and ends with ‘Talk to your elders’ – gather their stories, mine their memories, become a magnet for your family stories. There is no archive in the world that will compete with the colour and the richness of family memory. At best you might build a long list of men called ‘Singh’ who were farmers or carpenters but what you are really searching for is the colour of their lives, their relationships, the history that they lived though.  Remember that lots of Indian families dismiss these kinds of stories as being irrelevant, but once you start digging it becomes fascinating. Also read around a topic, Parkash Tandon’s two volumes ‘Punjabi Century’ is a vivid description of the life of a common Punjabi family. That kind of thing is invaluable in understanding the lives and challneges of your own ancestors. 
My own dad only told me of one of his uncles, Bishen Singh, being in the First World War in 2014, he didn’t think it was an especially interesting or heroic story, but of course it’s a vitally important one because without recording that memory Bishen Singh disappears. 
Beyond all of this the ultimate resource is a trip to Hardwar where, if you find the right person and pay the right money, you should be able to get access to your family’s family tree which was created an updates whenever a family member died and took the ashes to Hardwar 

Since lockdown you have started a virtual book club. What was the reason behind that?

It struck me that the isolation of lockdown and the cessation of all public culture created a void that needed filling. I was also really inspired by the museums in the US who were moving a lot of their output online. What started as an idea to connect and engage the UKPHA volunteers to bit of culture quickly snowballed. When I started to look at the list of really fascinating people that I am personally connected to and who were willing to speak for an hour on zoom it just felt like the right thing to do. It would only have lasted a few weeks had some really key volunteers not stepped forward to help. Its become a major production each week but despite the challenges a really committed team has created a phenomenally valuable resource for the future in addition to a moment of cultural escape each week 

 You have helped a lot with history projects is there 1 project that sticks in your mind that has gone on to become a success?

I really love reconnecting people to their personal history. A few months back I found a picture of a Sikh soldier during the Italy campaign in WW2 and confirmed that it was the grandfather of a friend – a really very satisfying and rewarding moment. Whenever I am able to help someone with a bit of WW1 research in particular it is especially rewarding.

There is now a lot of really good resources on all kinds of platforms (books, podcasts, YouTube) – it really is up to the audience to engage with it. It is annoying that our community resources are rarely directed toward our culture and history and when they are its usually very garish and very poorly presented. 

Do you believe in regards to WW1 and WW2 that of Indian soldiers mainly of Sikhs should be put on the school curriculum?

I think it’s a broader topic than Sikhs or Indian contribution. The story of the non-white contribution to British history needs to be included, as does the story of British Empire. However, we mustn’t outsource our responsibility to teach our to the Dept of Education. You have ot educate your kids and family members about their culture and history . Our own understanding of these events is pretty poor. My advice is to fill your houses with culture, put great books on the shelf, put beautiful books on coffee tables – it invites people to learn and ask questions. Every Sikh, who is able should buy one of every book from Kashi House – its an instant way to create a fascainting and well researched library and make you look smarter at the same time 

Are you seeing as time goes on more people are becoming interested in  history than before?

Definitely, it’s partly a generational thing, its partly a result of lots  more material being available in English and to a quality that inspires people but its also due to technology. The internet has made a massive difference, the ability to instantly access digitised resources has given people instant access to materials that were diffuclt to access before. The major problem is language – both Gurmukhi and Persian.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

I’ll let others judge that 

What advice would you give to someone that wants to get into this field?

Publish. You have to learn to write well, have the humility to be edited, have the courage to be challenged and ultimately present some kind of original idea. It’s a high bar but its one that should be aimed for. 

I love your Twitter page its full of really interesting photos and articles. Tell me about that?

Really glad you like it. I really like Twitter, it has interesting people on it, and I enjoy sharing ideas and findings there. I particularly like the challenge of getting complex ideas reduced to 280 characters although I regularly cheat and create long twitter threads on bigger topics which are equally as satisfying to create.  Earlier this year one of my long threads – on the role of the Indian army in the first world war – seemed to catch the public imagination and has now been seen by 1.3million people. It was helped along by some very ill-informed comments by right wing commentator Laurence Fox. 

Tell me one interesting fact about yourself?

Olympic Gold Medallist and one time fastest man in the world, Linford Christie, is a neighbour of mine

What is next for Amandeep?

The Book club is wrapping up later this year but I’m fairly confident that we will be back for a season of new talks in 2021. In the meantime I am writing with Parmjit an introductory essay for a very exciting project headed by a major cultural legend (but we cant talk about it yet). Longer term, I have toyed with a few writing projects such as; ‘Tracing your Sikh Family Tree’ , a book about historical Punjabi food and a search for the contents of Ranjit Singh’s treasury. However, to do any of these topics real justice I really do need a lot of time and that is something that I am struggling with.   

1 Comment

  1. Hon’ble S. Amandeep Singh Madra, OBE, whom i know is one from less than 5 persons living in UK and has done n doing deep research in Sikh History and published finest books. Well organized 2 great exhibitions on Sikhs & World War 1 & Empire of The Sikhs. A presentation in a class of its own and once in a life time event for community. My observation is that S. Madra is so helpful and neutral most of the time on critical issues with balanced views. No greed about anuthing to be in limelight, doing work for sikh community as a True Sewadar. I appreciate as Sardar Sahib has helped me a lot when ever required. A few can do such selfless services. Akaal Purkh blesss Sardar Sahib S. Amandeep Singh Jio in all his future endeavors. I would like to meet him in Punjab in coming times when Almighty will permit.
    Highest regards,
    Bhatti Harpreet Singh
    Batala, Punjab
    Descendent of WW1 Martyr

    Like

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