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The question who Bhai Ram Singh is, will arise reading this heading. Bhai Ram Singh is not a household name, nor has he been accorded his due recognition. There had been some belated attempts, but we need to shine a light on his lasting legacy, commensurate to his legacy so that we all become familiar with his genius vision. I think the partition of the country at the time of independence of India in August 1947 and the resulting division of the country, along with the religion-based carnage, killings catapulting in migrations of population shifted the focus to survival mode, making interest in his accomplishments secondary. Additionally, many of the hallmark buildings were in Lahore which became part of Pakistan, and no one really bothered on either side of divide for a long time about his legacy. Also, the people were trying to forget the traumatic experiences associated with partition, so timing wise that did not help. The post-partition political climate between the divided nations did not help in polishing his legacy. So, let us try to correct this historical injustice to an architectural genius.

Brief Life Sketch

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Bhai Ram Singh (1858 – 1916) was born in Rasulpur village near Batala on August 01, to a traditional carpenter family. This was the period just after the annexation of the Sikh Kingdom of Punjab and the quelling of Sepoy Mutiny in most other parts of India by the British. His father was Baba Asa Singh, who had a modest land holding and was not doing very well economically. So, after selling his land holdings, he moved to Amritsar looking for a better financial success. Bhai Ram Singh had his early education in the Mission School there. He finished his matriculation from the Mission School, Amritsar. His teachers in the school saw his craftmanship and encouraged him to apply to new Lahore School of Carpentry, which was being opened in Lahore. John Lockwood Kipling, a sculptor, and a painter, trained in London and working in Bombay at that time, had arrived in Lahore to set it up. The first batch of students at the Carpentry School were enrolled in 1874. Bhai Ram Singh came to Lahore in January 1874 with a recommendation letter from Amritsar’s DC and was admitted in the first batch of the new school. As the school building was not ready, the classes were held in the verandah of Director of Public Instruction (D.P.I.) office. Upon completion of a rented school building in 1875, it was christened as Mayo School of Industrial Art.  After 8 years in April 1883, Ram Singh finished his schooling there and was appointed as Assistant Teacher at his alma mater school.   

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He learnt woodworking, wood carving, ivory carving, marble, brass, bronze, and copper engraving etc. Ram Singh, as Kipling’s star pupil, never abandoned his traditions, nor did he turn away from contemporary challenges of architecture or the western influence, but skillfully integrated them in a creative yet magnificent manner. While working at the Mayo School as a teacher he also participated in all the practical and commercial work that the school was commissioned to do. He was appointed as a Gazetted Officer (Drawing & Carpentry Master) and became Officiating Vice Principal of the School on 15 October 1894. 

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He was awarded titles of Sardar Sahib, and Sardar Bahadur on January 01, 1907, and June 25, 1910, respectively. He was made Officiating Principal of the school during 1902, 1904, 1905-06, 1907, 1909-1910 periods, but still never was formally offered the position. The position had become available with the retirement of Principal Kipling in 1893 due to his ill-health. He wrote a letter to Lt. Governor Sir William M Young and poked fun at the racism in successive denial of the position to him, because of his deep complexion (color). Finally on September 25, 1910, he was given the formal title of Principal, a first for the native. He was made Member of the Victorian Order (MVO) on December 12, 1911.

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In October 1913 he retired from the position of the Principal of Mayo School, coming back to Amritsar and took over the family business in Cheel Mandi at Mahan Singh Gate and set his business under the name of Ram Singh MVO & Sons. He continued his work on Chamba House, Lahore and Khalsa College along with other commissions. Ram Singh had 5 sons and 2 daughters. He died in Lahore 3 years later after his retirement. His impact on the architecture of the Punjab, and Lahore in particular, can be gauged by the fact that all buildings of the first half of the 20th Century carry echoes of his design. He was not just the legendary builder of his times, but he was also a philanthropist. 

Architectural Legacy

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University of Punjab, Lahore

He realized that in west’s eyes there are two traditional schools of arts in India – Hindu Architecture and Muslim Architecture. In his eyes those distinct styles belonged only to places of worships, but its extent did not apply to non-worship places as palaces, hospitals, forts, and residential places. Thus, his designs reflected fusion of these two schools, along with the western approach, while using the locally available building materials.

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National College of Art, Lahore
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John Lockwood Kipling

He had been under Kipling's tutelage for 6 years when in 1881, he got an opportunity to work on an important architectural project: the new building for the Mayo School of Arts at Lahore. Kipling had convinced the authorities of the need of the school’s own building. The School of Arts’ building designed by Ram Singh in 1882-83 is a brick-faced, imposing structure, facing the Mall, but set back from it, opposite the Punjab University and next to Lahore Museum.

When the design was presented to Government for sanctioning of funds, the plan was approved, but only meagre Rs 37,000.00 was sanctioned. Also, a note was appended to the approval that there is no need for such a grand building, nor funds are available for it. Kipling was crestfallen and shared the response with Ram Singh. Ram Singh asked him to write that we accept the sanctioned amount and will build partially using the sanctioned amount only. The whole project can be completed later on, as funds become available either when sanctioned or raised through private efforts. Today, that art school is known as National College of Art. It boasts of an impressive number of undergraduate, graduate students and also offers M Phil. and PhD programs.

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Lahore Museum
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Principal Kipling (whose son, Rudyard, went on to win the Noble Prize) took Ram Singh to Calcutta in 1883 for an exhibition and introduced him to the Duke and Duchess of Connaught there. Principal Kipling was so impressed with Ram Singh that he would introduce the visitors with these words; “Our most accomplished architect, Bhai Ram Singh, Sir.” When in the winter 1884, Duke and Duchess of Connaught visited Lahore, they also visited the Mayo School there. So impressed were they with the craftmanship that they commissioned him to do the billiard room back home. Bhai Ram Singh with the assistance of Sher Muhammad created 241 panels in Indian Motifs. These panels were shipped in 1888 and were installed there, creating the Indian Billiard Room for the Duke and Duchess of Connaught at Bagshot Park in Surrey. 

At the young age of 28 years in 1889, he was declared a co-winner with the famous architect Col. Swinton Jacob, in an all-India competition for the design of the Aitchison College, Lahore. In 1889 he prepared the design for the Punjab showcase for Paris Universal Exhibition of 1890. Later in 1900 to 1902 period he also designed the residences of Principal and Vice Principal of the Aitchison College respectively.

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Aitchison College Lahore

In 1890 Kipling went back to England on a vacation. There he was summoned by Queen Victoria, who asked him to design an Indian Room in one of her palaces. Kipling asked to summon Ram Singh for the project. He was granted a month’s vacation so that he can go there and explain the work, such that it would not require his full-time presence during construction. The prime contractors were Jackson and Sons Co. When Ram Singh was planning his return at the end of his one month stay period, the craftsmen there insisted on his physical presence and supervision. His stay was extended by 6 months, but he was forced to stay till the project completion. It took addition 1.5 years and finally it was completed on March 31, 1893. Queen Victoria was so impressed with the design of her Durbar Hall, that she asked her court artist, Rudolph Swoboda, to paint Ram Singh’s portrait. The portrait now hangs in the lobby of the Durbar Hall, Osborne House.  

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Durbar Hall Osborne House 
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Khalsa College, Amritsar

He was the man who designed the Khalsa College (now the home of Guru Nanak University), Amritsar, in 1892. He also designed the Gurudwara and Dharamsala in 1896 and Hospital and Gymnasium in 1896-97 in the college complex. The foundation stone of the main building was laid on November 17, 1904. On October 09, 1910, the complex was officially inaugurated, but still some work was yet had to be completed.

The Saragarhi Gurudwara memorial at Amritsar was unveiled on February 14, 1902, and Ram Singh was assigned the job of designing the building earlier in 1898. He used his knowledge of Sikh architecture and came out with a beautiful, yet traditional design. The Gurudwara, was declared open by Sir Charles Pvez (Lt. Governor of Punjab) in 1904, it is a tribute to 21 Sikh soldiers’ courage and bravery in the Saragarhi battle. He also designed the Saragarhi Gurudwara in Taran Taaran.

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GurudwaraSaragarhi Amritsar

In 1911 he designed University of Punjab, Lahore building, followed by the design of Islamia College, Peshawar in 1913. He also designed the Chamba House in Lahore, which after partition became a state guest house for VVIPs. 

He also designed the buildings in the princely states of Jind, Nabha, Patiala, Bahawalpur, Jammu and Kashmir, Mysore and so on. Additionally, he also designed the Governor's House in Shimla. For more than two decades, he dominated the architectural scene without a rival. He was the chief designer of buildings in Punjab in those years, and the man who built them was Sir Ganga Ram. Between the two of them, they shaped pre-1947 Lahore.

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Islamia College, Peshawar
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Interior Design

He was so versatile that he could design a piece of furniture, screen, a shamina, or a certificate with equal flair. He also designed wooden boxes and almirahs, dressing tables, dining table sets, using indigenous motifs and design. The exquisite craftmanship of these objects was so admirable that they were considered suitable to be housed in a palace alone. 

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He was the pioneer who took the exquisite Pinjara Woodwork and wooden carvings of Amritsar and made them popular all over the world. In 1894 he designed the interior and ambulatory in wood for New Mission Church, Peshawar. He prepared Punjab showcase for Paris Universal Exhibition which was held from 14 April to 12 November 1900. In 1904 he designed the railing around the tank of Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple).

Honoring the Legacy

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The legacy left behind by Bhai Ram Singh needs to be commensurately honored. The D.C. building in Amritsar with a cafeteria and a small garden will soon house the municipal library-cum-cultural center to be named after Bhai Ram Singh, is a good beginning. His legacy disapproves the English saying of Rudyard Kipling; "Oh! East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." His architectural landmarks are amalgamation of east and west, becoming lasting testimonials that “the twain of east and west can meet” (words changed by author from the original). To honor his landmark contributions, an architectural educational facility should be named after him as he was both in his illustrious life – architect and educator. A very simple way to spread awareness about him will be to issue a postage stamp in his honor. This is a very simple and cost-effective method of spreading his name and fame. I am wishing that one day, both India and Pakistan will claim him to be the son of the soil, like the legacy of Nikola Tesla is being appropriated by both Serbia and Croatia.  

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Khalsa College, Amritsar

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References:

  1. Vandal, Pervaiz, and Sajida. THE Raj, Lahore and Bhai Ram Singh. National College of Arts, Lahore (2006)

  2. Pannu, Harpal Singh. Ik Vilakhan Shaksheeat (In Punjabi). All India Pingalwara Charitable Trust, Amritsar (2021)

  3. Tarar, Nadeem Omar. JOHN LOCKWOOD KIPLING, RAM SINGH AND THE MAYO SCHOOL OF ARTS, LAHORE. Kipling Journal: John Lockwood Kipling special issue (2018)

  4. http://lahore.city-history.com/bhai-ram-singh-an-unforgettable-architect-of-lahore.html

  5. https://sikhchic.com/architecture/bhai_ram_singhthe_grand_architect

  6. https://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/finally-amritsar-to-pay-tributes-to-its-19th-century-master-architect-bhai-ram-singh/story-SDAGk62lNBPn4RWGwxaoaM.html

  7. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/amritsar/treasure-trove-of-the-past-sikh-research-centre-at-khalsa-college-amritsar-379994

  8. https://worldarchitecture.org/architecture-news/eencz/bhai-ram-singh-inventor-and-master-of-sikh-architecture--a-tribute-by-dr-ss-bhatti.html

  9. http://lahore.city-history.com/bhai-ram-singh-an-unforgettable-architect... 

  10. https://www.antiquesandthearts.com/john-lockwood-kipling-arts-crafts-in-...

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