Nidar Singh Nihang engages with one of his students in Slough. Singh Nihang is thought to be the last surviving master teaching the dying martial art of Shastar Vidiya. Photo: Bibek Bhandari
On a sleepy Saturday afternoon in Slough, a borough west of London, Nidar Singh Nihang knows how to keep a group of young men awake.
Inside an empty hall of a church in London Road, Singh Nihang is an authoritative figure. As 20 men, most of them from the Sikh community, surround him in a semi-circle, he demonstrates some self-defence skills. With subtle hand and body movements, he exhibits a form of martial art that he has mastered over 25 years.
But more than 5,000 years after its inception, this form of Sikh martial art known as Shastar Vidiya could soon be limited to the pages of a history book. There aren’t many learners and there is a sole surviving master who embodies the technical and traditional expertise—Singh Nihang.
“My aim as a gurudev [teacher] is to ensure the art, in all its totality, survives,” says Nihang Singh.
In Slough, throughout the three-hour session, the man with an intimidating body structure standing at 6-feet-one-inch, explains about the various techniques and also history behind Shastar Vidiya to casually-dressed men, most of them in their traditional turban and beard.
Singh Nihang himself is draped in a blue robe with white trousers and sneakers. His sword and a traditional knife are neatly tucked between the white cloth belt wrapped around his waist.
His traditional get-up and a long beard with streaks of white hair might give an intimidating first impression, but he isn’t as fierce as he looks.
Singh Nihang is a combination of wit and a wealth of knowledge.
As the master sits down after his class, he is still energetic speaking about the art he discovered in 1984. He takes a memory train back to Jalandher in northern India.
Stroking his beard, flashing an apparent smile, he mentions his 80-year-old teacher who spotted him at a fair and asked him if he wanted to learn. A tall teenager with striking physical features agreed.
He tells the story, sprinkling some Punjabi words in between yet retaining his English accent.
“He gave me a stick and told me to hit him, but before I knew it, I was on the floor and he had the stick,” he says in a single sentence.
“The science of what he was doing, I didn’t understand then,” says Singh Nihang who then stayed back in India for 11 years. “But now I know the art and also the culture behind the art.”
For 42-year-old Iqbal Singh, a Bruce Lee fan, learning the Sikh Vidya is also understanding about his Indian and Sikh heritage.
“As a parent, I need my kids to know their roots and this is an all encompassing package to educate them,” an IT consultant and Singh Nihang’s student for five years says.
He defines his master as a “living entity and a torch bearer whose life is on a mission.”
Amrit Pal Singh, another student, speaks fondly of his master.
“The passion he has is addictive and he conveys it very well to his students,” the 25-year-old engineer says. “He is very inspirational that he dedicates his life to the art.”
However, not everyone agrees. Singh Nihang has received numerous death threats from Sikh fundamentalists who disagree with the ideologies of Shastar Vidiya.
But the determined and an assertive warrior gives an uncanny smile, explaining that his critics are not aware of the wider spectrum of their own culture.
He uses the phrase “intellectual rape” as the method he uses to tackle such problems.
Despite the mounting problems and challenges of saving a historical martial art with a cultural significance and finding a successor, he is still nurturing the knowledge he acquired in 1984. Finding a successor, he says, will not be an end to his pursuit.
“I’ll never retire,” he delivers promptly in a firm tone. “If I die and I can come back, I’ll train. We’re not meant to retire.”