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Sikh Heritage

The Images of Sikh Heritage

Introduction to The Sikhs – Images of a Heritage By T.S.Randhawa

Scholars and whatever little note taken of it has been in the context of portraiture have often derided Sikh painting. H. Goetz summed up what many Critics have said of it: In its late form Kangra painting was taken over by the Sikhs, at that time upstarts – boisterous, realistic and puritan. There was no room for Rajput romanticism and mystic symbolism. Like the early Mughals they appreciated a realistic portrait, enjoyed a foul zenana jest or could use a few religious pictures where Hindu mythology had intruded into the Sikh cult. Later they began to appreciate the whole range of Kangra themes, like the Hindus living under their rule. But then the Sikh kingdom was already disintegrating and Indian painting everywhere declining fast.

In view of the role of Sikhs in history and circumstances these have been harsh views. Sikhism is a comparatively young religion and after Guru Gobind Singh the holy book, the Granth Sahib, became the primary object of worship, limiting the role of religious imagery, which in any case was not for worship but symbolic. Secondly, Sikhism is a very open religion and even the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, is full of literature from other religions and languages. The subjects to be painted, therefore, were diluted by the Hindu pantheon, and many paintings and murals of the Sikhs feature Hindu themes, gods and goddesses. The painters at Sikh Courts even executed beautiful paintings on Gita Govinda and Bhagwat Puran subjects. Behind all this (in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth Centuries) was the background of Constant turmoil and war due to which they could hardly be expected to indulge in such luxuries in the same degree as done in the hills, and earlier in the stable Mughal order. During periods of strong rule and comparative peace, like that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, artistic activities were encouraged and flourished. Finally, traditional miniature painting in Punjab also lost out in time due to the advent of British painters and engravers and, finally, to photography.

Sher-e-Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh Illustrations from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Military Manual, prepared in Persian by his European Officers – seated opposite the Maharaja, General Allard & General Ventura
The painted images of the Sikhs fall into three types – miniatures, ivories and murals. Miniature painting was the exclusive preserve of the royal families and though courtiers and nobles were shown with Maharaja Ranjit Singh and later on his sons, their paintings are lesser in number and they were often relegated to the smaller ivory paintings. Naturally, the best painters also, like Imam Bakhsh of Lahore, preferred to paint for royal patrons where the monetary returns and fame were more. It was in murals and frescoes that the other Sections of society could indulge in freely, on the walls of their haveli and their local gurudwara, temple, akhara or dharamshala, though the range was still limited. It is unfortunate that we do not have substantial glimpses of the general society in those times but that is true of all miniature paintings, whether Mughal, Rajasthani or Kangra. There is tremendous vitality in the people of Punjab and its culture, and during the days of the Lahore court the richness of its crafts must have been considerable, but hardly any such images exist. Credit goes to later painters like Kehar Singh and Kapoor Singh who left some record of every day life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries, of the people, crafts persons and trades.
Artist Kapoor Singh – (courtesy Srivastav)
Court Artist Kapur Singh (courtesy Srivastav)
The two broad themes of Sikh painting were religious and court portraiture. Stylized paintings of the Sikh Gurus were being painted in Guler and other hill areas even before the advent of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Also popular were janamsakhi series based on the life of Guru Nanak. A typical janamsakhi would consist of a number of folios with paintings of Guru Nanak along with narrative. The paintings would be of notable episodes in his life and some were indeed well rendered. Even though the art of miniature painting in Punjab was soon to wane, some brilliant works were done. The paintings done at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court at Lahore and the paintings of the Sikh Gurus done at the Patiala court, around the middle of the nineteenth century, were as marvelous as the best of other miniature paintings.

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