Puran Singh, Professor
Poet and Scientist (1881-1931)
Was born on 17 February 1881 at Salhadd (Abottabad) in a Khatri family (father: Kartar Singh; mother; Parma Devi). His father worked in the revenue department at Salhadd, though their ancestral home was in the village of Dera Khalsa in Rawalpindi district. A strikingly handsome young man, Puran Singh passed the high school examination in 1897 from Rawalpindi and his Intermediate examination from the D.A.V. College, Lahore, in 1899. He was still reading for his B.A. when he got a scholarship to study abroad. In April 1900 he proceeded to Japan to specialize in industrial chemistry. He learnt Japanese and German before entering Tokyo University on 28 September 1900. One of his favourite extramural activities at the University was making. public lectures, which were usually critical of British rule in India. He expatiated on this theme in a novel that he wrote. He published for some time an English monthly, the Thundering Dawn, which also mainly addressed itself to the theme of British repression in India. Puran Singh completed his education in Japan in September 1903, and returned to India. Before he left for India, he had met the Indian mystic Swami Ram Tirath who had made a deep impression on his mind. Under his influence, Puran Singh had shaved and taken the vows of a sanyasi. His mother travelled to Calcutta to bring him home. But he declined. Ultimately he was persuaded to visit his home to see his ailing sister. He ultimately returned to the householders way. On 4 March 1904 he got married to Maya Devi.
Four crucial events-his Japanese experience, his encounter with the American poet Walt Whitman, his discipleship of Swami Ram Tirath, and his meeting with the Sikh savant Bhai Vir Singh-left permanent marks on his impressionable mind. As a student in Japan, he had imbibed the ethos and aesthetics of a beautiful people. He had been wholly charmed by their ritual and ceremony, industry and integrity. The openness of their nature and the holiness of their heart’s responses made him forever a worshipper of life’s largeness and generosities. He was greatly influenced by the romantic aestheticism of Okakura Kakuzo, Japanese artist and scholar.
Walt Whitman, the American poet, had left a deep impress on his poetics and practice as on his world view. It was in Japan that he came under the spell of Ram Tirath, who regarded Puran Singh as an echo or image of his own self. The power of this spell was so strong that Puran Singh turned a monk. Although he eventually graduated to Sikhism, this was much too profound an experience to be entirely washed out of his consciousness: he subsumed it in the dialectics of his Guru’s creed. The meeting with Bhai Vir Singh in 1912 at Sialkot proved the final turn of a spinning soul in search of certitude: it was after this meeting that he regained his lost faith in Sikhism. Perhaps he had strayed to return with greater vigour and conviction; his bursting creative energy had now found its focus and metier.
Puran Singh commuted between science and literature with ease. His achievements in both fields are equally significant. He spent a great deal of his time on his scientific experiments and gave his time freely to visitors, monks and revolutionaries, who thronged his hospitable home from different parts. He was a lover of nature and beauty, and wrote beautiful and tender poetry both in English and Punjabi. Among his famous works in English are The Sisters of the Spinning Wheel (1921), Unstrung Beads (1923), The Spirit of Oriental Poetry (1926); in Punjabi, Khulhe Maiddn, Khulhe Ghund (1923), Khulhe Lekh (1929), and Khulhe Asmani Rang (1927).
Puran Singh started the distillation of essential oils in Lahore in collaboration with Ishar Das and Rai Bahadur Shiv Nath. He prepared thymol, and fennel and lemon oils. Owing to deceitful dealings on the part of his collaborators, he threw up the business and, in a fit of temper, demolished the kilns and migrated to Dehra Dun where he stayed for some time with Jyoti Sarup, a disciple of Swami Ram Tirath. He was soon back in Lahore to take up in December 1904 the principalship of the Victoria Diamond Jubilee Hindu Technical Institute. It was at this time that he restarted his monthly Thundering Dawn from Lahore. His contacts with revolutionaries, Har Dayal and Khudadad, also go back to these days. He resigned the Principalship in November 1906 to establish at Doivala (Dehra Dun) a factory for soapmaking but soon sold it off to a minister to join in April 1907 as a Forest chemist at the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun, from where he sought retirement in 1918. He had stints in the princely states of Patiala and Gwalior. At Gwalior (1919-23) he turned the scorching desert into a fragrant oasis of roshagrass and eucalyptus, interspersed with fruit trees. He gave up his appointment at Gwalior to join Sir Sundar Singh Majithia’s sugar factory at Surayya (1923-24) where he discovered a special method for purifying sugar without mixing it with charred bones. In 1926, he moved over to Chakk 73/ 19, near Nankana Sahib, where he got a plot of land on lease from the Punjab Government to grow roshd grass on a commercial scale. In 1928, his plantation suffered a heavy loss owing to floods. Yet he rejoiced that he had been able to salvage the manuscripts of his books. He took his losses in a philosophical spirit and wrote a poem expressing relief at the devastation of his property which had rid him of many of his worries. In 1930, he fell ill with tuberculosis and had to leave his farm for Dehra Dun where he died on 31 March 1931.