Type to search

Sikh Heritage

The Images of Sikh Heritage

Thus we have Emily Eden mentioning that Sher Singh was inviting himself too often to her dinners with his son Pratap Singh with eyes as big as saucers, and emeralds bigger than his eyes, and Allard with his great black and white beard resembled a piebald horse. She found Gulab Singh to be quite horrid though his brother Dhian Singh was uncommonly good looking and Lal Singh, Rani Jindan’s paramour, was sensually built. Vigne easily saw through Dhian Singh’s sham display of trying to throw himself in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s funeral pyre (he would have been greatly disappointed if he had not been prevented from doing so). From a cheeky account we learn of how a ‘wretched’ painting of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was sought to be presented to the Queen along with rich Kashmiri gifts, and that the chief painter in the Lahore court is certainly not a Raphael. Vivid descriptions of scenes at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s parties are given where liquor and wine flowed freely. Many, like Barr, could not comprehend with their European sensibilities the Indian form and perspective of painting. This brash young lieutenant escorted Col. C.M. Wade on his mission to Afghanistan and, en route, visiting the Lahore court he wrote: We were admitted through a low archway beneath the throne to a small court, and close to a building which contains the regal entrance to the hall of justice. The exterior of this is covered with paintings in oil of a very extravagant description, and evidently of late construction, as one subject represents the interview of the Maharajah with Lord William Bentinck at Roopur. The parties are supposed by the artist to be assembled in the audience tent, the Sikhs being arranged on one side and the British on the other. The two great potentates occupy the center of the scene, and Lady William, accoutered in white trousers, boots, and gold straps, is seated a few paces behind her husband. An uglier set of vagabonds than the man of daubs has made of our countrymen cannot well be conceived; though the people who accompanied us regarded them as likenesses, and were eager to point out Macnaghten Sahib, the Bakhshee Sahib’, and others, who have only to see their portraits to be grateful. We were subsequently shown into what may in truth be termed the Painted Chamber, as it is adorned with pictures of battles in which the two Generals (Allard and Ventura) were engaged, and executed on the chunam walls by native artists. The perspective of these scenes is most ridiculous; and at the siege of Moultan the cannons are turned up on end to enable the gunners to load them, the figures overtop the fortification, and the cavalry seem to be maneuvering in the air; and absurdities of a similar nature are perpetrated throughout them all, and no doubt afford much amusement to their gallant owners, whose policy has led them this far to assimilate their dwellings with those of the native population; for it can hardly be supposed their taste is so far vitiated as to regard these embellishments as ornamental. Barr did not spare even Lord Krishna and his comments are amusing! Crishna’s exploits occasionally partake of the ludicrous and disgusting. In one compartment he is portrayed with a milkmaid shampooing his great toe; in another, he is perched up in a tree, from the branches of which depend various articles of dress he has stolen from some fair damsels who are refreshing themselves in a limpid stream below, and whose heads and hands, clasped in a suplicatory manner, appear above water beseeching him to return their apparel, but to no purpose, as he is only laughing at their distress. In a third, he is dashing out the brains of a man with his club; and in a fourth, tearing out the entrails of a prostrate foe with the most brutal ferocity. It needed the sensitivity of a scholar like E.B. Havell to appreciate the subtleties of Sikh miniature painting. In his book ‘Indian Sculpture and Painting (1908)’, describing a painting (done during the period of Sikh influence) showing Mian Jai Singh of Guler hearing musicians, he wrote, Like the pure melody of an old folk-song, it is a true creation of national sentiment, of the poetic impulse which flows spontaneously from the heart of a people inspired by the joy of life and love of beauty. Here we have the ‘sunshine of sunshine’ given with pure delight with which the lark trills his song of joy in the high heavens on a summer morning. The figures in the picture are by no means attractive types or very deeply studied as to character; but their flowing draperies and the gay colours of the musical instruments, together with the pearly whiteness of the marble and the bright hues of the flowers, serve the purpose of the artist – to express the beauty and gladness of the radiant Indian sunlight. There were also Britishers like Macauliffe, who left his comfortable career in the Indian Civil Service to translate the religious texts of the Sikhs, a job which he did admirably well and ran up a debt doing so. Overall these are interesting accounts which help in giving a perspective to the characters painted in the miniatures as well as the later lithographs and paintings. Once these personalities are understood the images of that period seem to spring to life, and the series become like pages from one big family album of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Even certain nuances at the court of Lahore seem obvious, like Maharaja Ranjit Singh having to periodically restrain Sher Singh from becoming too close to British guests and influences. It was also ironical that the real son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Kharak Singh, was no match compared to his great stature, was an opium addict, and did not receive good mentions by chroniclers. Even in paintings he does not stand out as a personality of significance.

Kunwer Partap Singh s/o Maharaja Sher Singh. According to Emily Edenwith eyes as big as saucers and emeralds bigger than his eyes.

Maharaja Gulab Singh-Horrid!

Raja Suchet Singh

Prince Kharak Singh & Naunihal Singh in presence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh


Raja Lal Singh, Rani Jinda’s paramour


Leave a Comment