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Sikh Heritage

The Images of Sikh Heritage

It has been one of the biggest ironies of princely India that the rajas and maharajas could build majestic palaces to mark their greatness only when they were subjugated by the British. When they were actually independent and fighting they could not afford to do so, in terms of time or finances. Similarly in painting, once the princes were free from guarding their borders they hired the best artists in Europe to paint their portraits in majestic postures. The periods of rule of the various Maharajas was limited only by their state of health, given the excesses they could indulge in. One Sikh maharaja ‘ruled’ thus for seventy five years, just before the independence of the country. Actually, even a much lesser period of independent rule by any maharaja would have been more eventful, and there was to be no comparison with the powerful reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The British added to the drama by giving exalted titles to the Rajas and Princes. The title of Raja of Jind, for example, read His Highness Raja-i-Rajagan, Raja Raghbir Singh Bahadur, Grand Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, Companion of the Indian Empire, Farzand-i-Dilband, Rasik-ul-Itikad-daulat Inglishia, Councillor of the Empress of India, Chief of Jind . Similarly, the Raja of Faridkot was called His Highness Brij Inder Singh Bahadur Barar Bans, Hind, Chief of Faridkot. With such grand titles it was only natural that these Rajas turned to England, France and Italy for getting their portraits done in oil by famous European painters, or get photographed by Samuel Bourne. The days of the local court painter were clearly numbered, and the Sikh school of painting gradually disappeared, merging towards its end into what later came to be known as the Company style of painting. In fact when Baden Powell did a survey on the indigenous crafts and industry of Punjab in 1872 he could not find a single good painter in Amritsar. The next step was also obvious and the British proceeded to establish their own Mayo School of Arts in 1875, at Lahore. Wherever local traditions remained it was more due to ruler specific encouragement, like that of Maharaja Narinder Singh at Patiala, and later Maharaja Bhupinder Singh.

Maharaja Balbir Singh of Faridkot

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala

Stimulus for wall painting and frescoes had been provided by religious establishments like Gurudwaras and the various dharamsalas and akharas like those of the Udasi and Vaishnava sects all over Punjab, and the large establishments at Pindori and Damthal. Since Sikhism was a very open religion the Hindu pantheon and legends provided for some images, and common celebrations of Hindu festivals deepened the bond. The themes from Hindu myths and epics included those of the Bhagwat Puran, Ramayna and Mahabharatha. Also painted were incarnations of the various avatars of Vishnu like Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana (fish, tortoise, boar, dwarf), Shiv and Parvati, Lord Ganesh with Riddhi and Siddhi. Popular themes were the churning of the ocean and the lifting of mount Govardhan by Krishna and his hoIi lila, chira harna and daan lila were vividly painted. Also shown are Dharmaraj and heaven and hell themes. There were ragini, baramasa and nayita themes, as well as the love stories of the Mirza Sahiban, Heer Ranjha, Sohini Mahiwal, Sassi Punnu and Laila Majnu. A favourite subject of the muralists were the janamsakhi series of Guru Nanak, or depicting him with the other Sikh Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh, mounted on his horse and with his falcon, was prominently painted. Martyred sons of Guru Gobind Singh and other heroes were also painted. Some of the best murals in Amritsar are in the akhara of Balanand which was founded in 1775 AD. There is also a janamsakhi series in the Baba Atal Gurudwara, in the vicinity of the Golden Temple. This Gurudwara was built in honour of Guru Hargobind Singh in the late eighteenth century and the janamsakhi paintings appeared to have been done in the late nineteenth century. Apart from the religious themes and images of the Sikh Gurus, portraits of rajas and maharajas, courtiers, nobles, generals, jagirdars, sardars and martyrs were profusely painted. Ranjit Singh and his sons were profusely painted on walls in Lahore and Amritsar, and so were the respective rulers in the other Sikh states. The Nihangs made colorful subjects, including the Akali Phula Singh. According to the accounts of travellers even the European generals in Ranjit Singh’s court patronized muralists and had done in their residences murals on a wide range of themes, including those from their home countries. Specific occasions were also painted for posterity, one of the famous ones being the meeting of Raja Ranjit Singh with the Governor General Lord William Bentinck, at Ropar in October 1831. After the collapse of the Lahore court the Anglo-Sikh wars were often painted by muralists, who were often the masons who built the structures. Many other akharas, temples and samadlus (tombs) also had wall paintings, all over Punjab, but are now in disrepair, some having been pulled down already.

Maharaja Brijinder Singh of Faridkot with the British Political Agent on an elephant.

When the first wave of European artists left Punjab in the middle of the nineteenth century, they were soon replaced by a new group of artists, all over India, working in the new medium of photography. Photographic processes were discovered in Europe in 1839 and it took a decade for them to become commercial. In 1848, this medium came to India and soon commercial photographers were established in Bombay and Calcutta, though they were not many. The first Indian photographic society was founded in Bombay on October 3, 1854, followed by those in Bengal and Madras the next year. Competing with professional establishments for attention were amateur photographers, who were often employees with the East India Company and army officers. The various census reports were soon embellished with the portraits of ‘natives’. Lord Canning, the Viceroy at that time, and Lady Canning were great patrons of photography and encouraged civilian officers to photograph native lifestyles and submit them. Before long, by 1865, the India Office in London was deluged with over 100,000 photographs of Indian subjects. Between 1868 and 1875 the treatise ‘The People of India’ was published in London, in eight volumes.

Maharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala

Anthropologists delighted themselves with this new medium to illustrate visual proofs of their research and theories, like Risley’s famous conclusion that, In India the status of a man is indirectly proportional to the width of his nose, since proto-australoid tribals had short and flat noses! The folks back home got to see the ‘tough’ lives of their compatriots in the colonies, with the incredible mix of tribes and castes, trying to improve their lot. The Mutiny also gave rise to the spirit of photo-journalism in the photographers.

Samuel Bourne was amongst the leading British photographers and, like many artists, had switched over from painting to photography, and continued to indulge in both. He came to India in 1862 and became associated with the firm of Bourne and Shepherd, and photographed people, princes and places. Bourne and Shepherd also brought out a book in 1874 titled the ‘Photographs of Architecture and Scenery in Gujarat and Rajputana’. Others like Maurice Portman reached out to the Andaman islands. The Archeological Survey of India was established in 1870 and the British took great pleasure in documenting photographically the immovable assets of the Raj. Amongst the leading Indian photographers was the great Lala Din Dayal, who established shop around 1862 and was the official photographer of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The maharajas continued to be the greatest patrons of this new art and some, like the Maharaja of Benaras, employed permanent court photographers. All of a sudden the art of portraiture had been liberated from the confines of royal courts and made accessible to any one who was interested, could understand the new processes and afford to set them up. For the benefit of women in purdah there were even zenana studios. Punjab and the Sikhs too had their share of photographic documentation.

Perhaps the first British photographer to leave photographic impressions of Punjab was John McCosh in 1848. The other photographic firms operating in Punjab, besides Bourne and Shepherd, were Sachs and W. Baker, founded in 1862. Some great photographs of Punjab were taken by Felice Beato in 1857-58, on his going there in search of post-Mutiny images. The convenient realism of the photographic print, which could also be tinted, was the final blow to the art of traditional miniature painting.

Tomb of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Lahore. Eleven of his wives and female slaves immolated themselves in his funeral fire (Sati).

Medals of Punjab with images of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Guru Gobind Singh


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