Bhai Kahn Singh was a celebrated scholar and encyclopaedist, born on August 30 1861 in a Dhillon Jatt family at the village of Sabaz Banera, in what then used to be the territory of the princely ruler of patiala. His father was Narain Singh and mother Har Kaur. Narain Singh was a man of saintly character and he succeeded to the charge of Gurdwara Dera Baba Ajapal Singh, at Nabha, after the death of his grandfather Sarup Singh in 1861. Kahn Singh was the eldest of three brothers and one sister. He did not attend any school or college for formal education, yet he mastered several branches of learning by his own effort. By the age of Ten he could recite freely both the Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth. He read Sanskrit classics with Pundits in and around Nabha and learnt music from a famous Mahant Gajja singh. He sought Maulawis in Delhi to teach him Persian. In 1883 he went to Lahore where during his two-year stay he studied Persian texts and assisted Professor Gurmukh Singh, a leading figure in the Singh Sabha, in the publication of his Sudhararak. In 1887 he was appointed tutor to Tikka Ripudaman Singh, the heir apparent of Nabha state. From the Maharaja’s private secretary to judge of the High Court, he held several different appointments in the state, serving for a brief interregnum, 1915-17, in the neighbouring Sikh state of Patiala.
In 1885, he had a chance meeting with Max Arthur Macauliffe which led to a life-long friendship. Macauliffe depended a great deal on his advice and guidance in the work he was then doing on Sikh scriptures and on the history of early Sikhism. He took him along to England when his 6-volume The Sikh Religton was in print at the Clarendon Press. Such was his admiration for Bhai Kahn Singh that he assigned to him the copyright of the book .
From among Bhai Kahn Singh’s works, Gurushabad Ratanakar Mahan Kosh (1930), an encyclopaedia of Sikh literature, will remain a permanent monument to his unmatched industry and erudition. His maiden work Raj Dharam (1884), written at the instance of Maharaja Hira Singh of Nabha, was followed by Nanak Bhavarth Dipika (1888), an exegesis of extracts from the Hanuman Natak, based on his notes prepared for the instruction of the young prince under his tutelage. In 1898, he published Ham Hindu Nahin which set forth forcefully the Singh Sabha standpoint with regard to Sikh identity. The Gurmat Prabhakar, a glossary of Sikh terminology, concepts and institutions, was published in 1898, and Gurmat Sudhakar, an anthology of important Sikh texts, scriptural and historical, in 1899. His Guru Chand divakar (1924) and Gur sabad Alankar (1925) deal primarily with rhetoric and prosody employed in the Guru Granth Sahib and some other Sikh texts. His Gur Gira Kasauti answers some of the questions raised by his pupil, Tikka Ripudaman Singh, about the meanings of certain hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib, and his Sharab Nikhedh (1907) is a didactic work stressing the harmful effects of drinking. Among his other works are tikas or exegeses of Jaimant Assamedh (1896), Visnu Purana (1903), Sadu and Chandi di Var (1935). From among his works which were published posthumously, Gurmat Martand (2 volumes) which essentially follows the format of his earlier Gurmat Prabhakar but includes much more explanatory material was published in 1960. A travelogue was published in 1984.
Bhai Kahn Singh lived in seclusion, totally immersed in his scholarly pursuit, yet his influence transcended the bounds he had created around himself. From the privacy of his study, he continued to enrich contemporary Sikh life in its diverse aspects. A man of aristocratic bearing, he was extraordinarily handsome, with sharp, chiselled features. He had the interests of an aesthete and loved art, flowers and music. In several spheres, he was the arbiter of taste Through his writings, hc subtly moulded the course of Sikh awakening at the turn of the century. On latter-day Sikh learning, he has left a permanent imprint. Bhai Kahn Singh died at Nabha on 24 November 1938.