In January 1706, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru conferred the title of “Guru ki Kashi” upon the city of Talwandi Sabo in Punjab after spending several months there, marking it as a centre of intense literary activity. Drawing inspiration from the Guru‘s scholarly legacy, Kashi House was founded exactly three centuries later in 2006 in the UK by British-born Sikhs who all shared a passion for the rich cultural heritage of their ancestral homeland.
Now, as then, it is the only mainstream publisher in the world focussed on the history and legacy of the Sikhs and the Punjab region (spanning both India and Pakistan). Kashi the illuminous, which in ancient literature is what the city of Benares is poetically referred to, lends itself to the company’s slogan: “Illuminating Books, Illuminating Minds”. Unusually, this independent publishing house is a community interest company, which is a particular type of not-for-profit social enterprise operating in the United Kingdom. It has no owners and therefore no share capital – so, rather than being used to pay out dividends, all of Kashi House’s profits are reinvested in new projects for the benefit of society at large.
My first introduction to Kashi House was when my father decided to gift one of their most popular titles to the ageing father of an old Sikh friend. The book, The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959), could well be mistaken for an artefact in itself. Delicately gilded, ornately designed with a handsome white and gold emboss, it is a masterpiece of pedagogical and visual delight.
The unique volume highlights the Sikh’s very own “Vatican City” through documentation of a vast collection of paintings, sketches, lithographs and photographs painstakingly sourced from archives around the world. They are complemented by intriguing quotes from 70 eyewitness accounts, ranging from a 1808 report by a one-legged British spy, right up to that of the Hollywood heartthrob, Lew Ayres, in search of the exotic and esoteric in 1959.
However, this was not Kashi House’s first title. One of its co-authors, Parmjit Singh, also a founding director and one of just three full-time members of the team (devoting almost 75% of their time as a volunteer effort to the company), describes how the very first book emerged as a result of his personal interest in Punjabi heritage. Once an accountant, he dropped the profession in 2002 to pursue “the creation of books that shed light on areas that have previously been overlooked or remain undiscovered, to impact the reader in a way that is transformative.”
Thus, in 2008, to mark the 300th death anniversary of the tenth Sikh Guru, In the Master’s Presence: The Sikhs of Hazoor Sahib (Vol 1) was published. It explored the history of “Hazoor Sahib” – the shrine in the Deccan, far from the traditional Sikh homeland and heartland of Punjab – where in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh, a warrior-poet who spent much of his life battling against the oppressive policies of the Mughal Empire, found his last resting place.
Drawing upon a wealth of written material and oral tradition to evoke a vivid account of empires, battles, ancient practices and manners of life, the book was co-authored along with Parmjit by Nidar Singh Nihang, regarded as the last great Indian swordsman alive, and the sole surviving master of a classical school of learning established in 1661 called the Baba Darbara Singh Shastar Vidya Akhara.
Several of the Kashi House books have since gone on to become collector’s items, celebrated for the time, effort, tireless research and production value that have gone into them. As a historian and scholar whose interests lie in 20th century Punjab, I have benefitted greatly from these books, given the inclusion of extensive archival material, which is quintessential to their work. They focus almost always on the cultural preservation of events that have largely existed as oral narratives.
When I ask Parmjit whether the extent of visual material would more likely befit a digital archive rather than a printed book, he is quick to come to the rescue of the traditional codex. “There is power in books,” he tells me over Skype, “They are robust, perpetual and remain a core repository of information. Books are a medium that will endure time.”
He tells me that since Kashi House is based in the UK, their access to archives is vast, to the extent that they have uncovered a considerable amount of research material that has never previously seen the light of day. Their strength and passion thus lies in the research and excavation of such items, and Parmjit and his editorial team get quite involved with all aspects of the book, at times, even gathering material to commission just the right author to work on a particular title.
With close ties to curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, National Army Museum (London), Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections at the British Library, British Museum, Royal Collection, Royal Armouries and Wallace Collection, as well as the famed Toor Collection, it is no surprise that Kashi House’s niche list has come to include household names of historical and cultural research by the likes of John Keay, Charles Allen, William Dalrymple, Kim A Wagner and Amandeep Singh Madra.
The list currently runs to ten titles. However, the emphasis here is on quality rather than quantity. Parmjit notes that while he was growing up, people from the community were not keen to spend on books necessarily, apart from booklets in Gurmukhi brought across from India. And though some of Kashi House’s books might seem more expensive than those offered by mainstream publishers (the more lavishly illustrated ones being heavily subsidised), he does believe that they are of the quality that the culture deserves. The team is keen to build a patronage among its readership that regards the purchase of books as an investment in both historical preservation and generational education, centred on exploring one’s identity.
Each title is a valuable object in itself, uncovering a hidden history, a spiritual or philosophical tradition, a unique translation of a classical text, the artistic, architectural and military traditions of a region, and the many links with the empires of the Punjab, Britain, the Mughals and the Afghans. Kashi House has never recoiled at publishing controversial titles such as Pav Singh’s 1984: India’s Guilty Secret (2017), based on harrowing victim testimonies and official accounts, revealing how the largest mass crime against humanity in India’s modern history was perpetrated by politicians, or the more recent Eyewitness at Amritsar: A Visual History of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre by Amandeep Singh Madra & Parmjit Singh, with a Foreword by Kim A. Wagner (2019), which has brought them deep into the heart of the conversation on an apology from Britain on Dyer’s actions.
Besides history, Kashi House has over the years, branched out into fiction, art books and prints, and well as their most recent release, Stories for South Asian Supergirls by Raj Kaur Khaira. This anthology of 50 illustrated biographies of inspirational South Asian women brings together formidable characters from history like Jhansi ki Rani, Noor Inayat Khan and Cornelia Sorabji, alongside contemporary heroes like Jameela Jamil, Indra Nooyi and Sania Mirza.
Alongside its publishing programme, the Kashi House team has curated three major exhibitions at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS (London), extending its portfolio beyond literary endeavours. These have been on the history and traditions of the Golden Temple of Amritsar (2011), the contribution of Sikhs in World War One (2014) and, most recently, the remarkable story of the Empire of the Sikhs (2018). The epic story of the latter was told through a glittering array of over a hundred works of art and objects, including stunning jewellery and weaponry belonging to a number of historic figures such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Maharani Jind Kaur and General Hari Singh Nalwa. These were borrowed primarily from the Toor Collection and several major institutional lenders, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Collection and British Library.
Like much of Kashi House’s work, the 11-week show attracted thousands of non-Sikhs, who were drawn in by national coverage in the media as well as from an explosion of social media interest. A key element behind the success of these exhibitions is that the story is brought to life for thousands of visitors with insightful, personalised gallery tours delivered by the curators.
An interesting aspect to note is that a publisher like Kashi House, focussing the entirety of its list on undivided Punjab, does not exist in either India or Pakistan. Its full-time, part time and even volunteer staff is comprised almost entirely of British-born Punjabis, who share a passion for their heritage and homeland. “The United Kingdom has a particularly intimate history with Punjab,” Parmjit tells me, and then, within minutes, swept by enthusiasm, he transports us back from 2019 all the way to the beginning of Sikhism.
He had never even visited India before he was 24 years old, but now he seamlessly becomes a repository of his history, a living embodiment of the work that he and his team do. “It was very important for us as British South Asians to understand where we came from, who we were, what connections we had to the land our ancestors had left behind. The UK’s social landscape is incomplete without the Punjabi piece, not just with the diaspora today, but also the longstanding history. But growing up, we heard only parts of that story and not in the most articulate or contextualised way. Kashi House is about stories that create a doorway into ourselves; they illuminate Punjabi history in a way that is meaningful, balanced, well-researched and accessible, written by our people for the world.”
When I ask him how difficult it is to sustain an independent endeavour such as this publishing house, particularly when other large companies produce hundreds of books a year, he smiles warmly into the screen. “We’re on a mission – to try to propagate the history of a collective Punjabi identity, devoid of nationality or religion. It’s a difficult quest, but it’s worth it to establish something so much larger than our individual selves.”
Kashi House’s next books include Mantra Art: The Journey Within, by Juss Kaur and Sikh: Two Centuries of Western Women’s Writing & Art, by Eleanor Nesbitt, both due for release in June 2019.