The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 19, 2000
Lead Article

Portrayal of piety and splendour

As a part of the tercentenary celebrations of the birth of the Khalsa, the National Museum, New Delhi, has mounted a major exhibition, Piety and Splendour: Sikh Heritage In Art. Conceived and guest-curated by Prof B.N. Goswamy, the exhibition is among the most prestigious events that the museum has ever organised.

THE exhibition is designed to draw attention to Sikh Art: broadly defined, art made for the Sikhs and by the Sikhs. But religion, being the very marrow of Sikh society, shines through it in countless ways.

Strange as it sounds, a major work on the arts of the Sikhs is yet to be written. The exhibition, therefore, together with the book which serves as its catalogue, constitutes an attempt at exploring some significant aspects of the heritage. The substance of the show consists of paintings, because it is in them that contexts are most clearly established, and attitudes reflected. However, there are other riches in it: manuscripts and drawings, fine arms and glittering jewellery, textiles of different description, medals old and new. More than 200 objects are featured in the show.

  Guru Nanak dressed in an inscribed robe Here, whole sections are designed to invite the viewer to ‘enter’ the world of Sikh art and thought, through carefully chosen artefacts. There are, thus, Guru Nanak’s Encounters, being episodes taken from some of the finest painted leaves of the Janamsakhi that have survived; Portraits of the Gurus, especially those of Guru Nanak, drawing attention to the manner in which artists across time, and working in different styles, have tried to envision them; a number of fine arms, including some associated with Guru Gobind Singh’s hallowed name. Large sections deal with the arts as they flourished at the Sikh Kingdoms in the 19th century, some remark- able works, previously unknown or unpublished, having been brought together.

There are thus different themes that run through the exhibition, taking a distant cue from those that feature in ardas that finely phrased ‘humble petition’, which is recited at the conclusion of Sikh devotions. Piety figures among them, of course, as the title suggests, but also, woven into the show, are themes of splendour and valour and humble earthiness, which merge into the principal theme on the one hand and provide counterpoints on the other.

We publish here some selected works, together with notes on them written for the catalogue by Professor Goswamy, published with the same title. Clearly not meant to be seen as a connected account, these ‘entries’ will at least give the reader an idea of the riches that await him or her in this highly significant show.

Guru Nanak with a group of Sadhus (Pahari, end of 18th century)

Earnest conversation seems to be in progress. While Guru Nanak, dressed in that recluse’s cap with upturned flaps and a simple robe, which one sees so often in this series, is seated at left, a kamandalu by his side, armrest under the left armpit, right hand holding a mala of beads, Mardana and a devotee perch close to him on the ground, the rabab-player beginning to move his fingers along the stringed instrument. Just across from the group is a superbly conceived group of shaven-headed sadhus of all ages and descriptions, the chief of them, ash-besmeared, extending his hand as if making a point in disputation. But, characteristically, Guru Nanak fixes the speaker with his gentle gaze, aware that it is his own words that will triumph in the end.

Guru Nanak with a group of sadhusThe occasion or the episode is difficult to identify, but the inscription at the back seems to suggest that the place is meant to be seen as Rameshwaram — set bandar, it says, possibly meaning ‘the port with the bridge’, or setu bandha, "Adam’s Bridge" —, on the southern-most tip of India to which place Guru Nanak did travel, according to traditional accounts. But there is no town or architecture in sight. The scene is set on a grassy piece of land fronting which is a series of beautifully coloured boulders, just at the edge of a quiet riverbank. At the upper edge of the space, a row of stylised trees rises tall but, beyond them, also flows a river, equally quietly, as if suggesting that the group is seated on a river island. The light is somewhat dim as if dusk were approaching. An air of remarkable stillness pervades the painting, despite the streaks of rich colour that run through it and some scattered monkeys who hold their playfulness in check, as if aware of the moment.

Guru Nanak dressed in an inscribed robe (Punjab, end of 19th century)

At first one does not even notice the wonderful new detail, for the image, the stance, are all too familiar from other works that one has seen before. Guru Nanak sits, meditating, immersed in thoughts of the Formless One on a small carpet spread out on a terrace with a tree rising behind it, left leg tucked under, and the right one bent and brought over the left knee. There is the serene, aged face with a full, grey beard: over the loosely worn robe a finely patterned wrap is thrown across the shoulders; tight striped paijama-trousers cover the legs; and the slightly inclined head, with a surround of a finely drawn nimbus, is covered with a cap with a high flap and a domed top. One sees nothing unusual about the work, till one’s eye lands upon the robe. The robe is inscribed all over with calligraphy, the entire front in Arabic characters, in naskh script, with verses from the Koran, and the sleeves and a part of the hem of the robe, with the Guru’s own great composition, the Japji. While the Koranic verses begin with the usual invocation, Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, from the Japji prayer can be read not only the opening passage, but also those moving, intensely poetic, words: Ad sach jugad sach, hai bhi sach, Nanak hosi bhi sach...." ("God as Truth there was in the beginning, at the very beginning of Time; Truth it is that exists, and nothing will survive but the Truth, says Nanak..."). Quite suddenly, as one realises what the painter has done — taken the holiest of words from different faiths and wrapped the great Guru’s noble figure in them — the work rises, from being only a competent ‘portrait’, to another, altogether higher level. It is more than likely that the painter is availing himself here of a Janamsakhi account, according to which Guru Nanak was given in homage, while visiting Baghdad, a cloak on which verses from the Koran were embroidered, and which is believed to be still preserved at Dera Baba Nanak. But one notices that the words are not from the Koran alone, including as they do those from the japji, and they are calligraphed, rather than embroidered.

Much of the background in this work remains uncoloured, as in so much of the work being turned out at this point of time by Punjab artists of no great distinction, but, unlike much of that work, it is very lightly tinted. One can see all kinds of factors at work: European influences on the ways of seeing and rendering, the coming in of water colours, new material in the form of smooth, machine-made paper. But there is some meticulousness in the drawing and, as one has seen, the palpable presence of thought.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh with princes and noblemen (Punjab, Lahore; c. 1850)

This richly coloured work with the air of an oil, and bearing the name of Imam Bakhsh as its painter, is essentially meant to be regarded as a record of the past, a memory. The mere fact that both Kharak Singh and Sher Singh are designated in the inscriptions as "Maharaja", as is Gulab Singh, provides firm indication of this, for during the life time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, these titles could possibly not have been used. It is also doubtful if the work is indeed in Imam Baksh’s own hand — that painter’s reputation might have induced Maharaja Ranjit Singh with princes and noblemensomeone else to ascribe it to him — for one associates greater fluidity of line with him. But as an image-kingly and rich, peopled with men of rank and power — it holds great interest. The old Maharaja, his stance reminding one of Emily Eden’s portrait of him, is in complete command here, as he fixes with his gaze the men seated or standing in front of him. The air of majesty is reinforced by the elaborate golden nimbus behind the Maharaja’s head, and the golden throne — one recognises this at sight —on which he sits. There is much glitter that the painter sets out to capture through the richly coloured clothes — it is interesting to see everyone wearing socks on their feet, incidentally — the elaborate jewellery, that everyone wears. But the characters are all cast in a conventional framework. The faces are familiar, having become, over time, part of the ‘mythology’ of the Sikh court of Lahore and the aspect of all the figures is entirely true to the iconographies established. The group is placed on a carpeted terrace with a marble balustrade at the back, from behind which highly stylised cypresses rise in a long row.

Maharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala in procession (detail) (Punjab, Patiala; c. 1850)

This uncommon painting — large for a ‘miniature’ — shows not the procession of a Maharaja, as one might initially expect, but a Maharaja in procession. An enormous, dense phalanx of men — riders on horseback, accoutred soldiers, footmen in neat uniforms - moves in slow, measured steps from right to left, keeping pace with a group of exquisitely decorated elephants ridden by princes and men of rank. The dark, smoky forms of the elephants, barely relieved by gold-worked caparison, rise like a cloud till the eye reaches the pre-eminent elephant, supporting a dazzlingly scalloped howdah in which may be discerned the figure of Maharaja, Narinder Singh: nimbate, grave and dignified, not shown over-sized, and seemingly oblivious of the panoply of power that surrounds him. A rank of men wearing blazing red turbans walks very close to the royal mount, like the most trusted of men keeping a close eye; a virtual forest of vertically held lances,and differently inclined ensigns of royalty held aloft by another group of unseen soldiers, creates one more shield for the royal rider. The entourage is extremely detailed: the serried ranks, the individuated faces of men in the crowd, the glitter of the uniforms, the minutiae of weapons and saddles and flywhisks. With all this, however, the procession is still not the Maharaja’s. For here he is a follower. This one realises only when one sees the painting with care. For, well ahead of him and his immediate companions, at aMaharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala in procession (detail) slight distance, is yet another file of elephants. On the back of one of these, also under a domed howdah, as if riding in state, is the sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, neatly covered with a textile, with a devout attendant waving a chauri flywhisk over it. It is the Holy book that is being moved, taken around: this is the Master, then, that the Maharaja if following. Despite all the rank and circumstance, he is simply in a procession, bringing up, like a devotee, the rear. The point made is sharp, and the impact stunning. There is much else to divert the eye in this exquisitely crafted painting, but one’s mind goes back again and again to the elephant with the Holy Book, for that is where the spirit of the work resides. Only hesitantly does one return to all the other details that the work is packed with, but clearly there is much to see. The walled city in the distance, the file of men walking along a ridge, some of them with falcons on their hands, the range of carriages that move along - elegantly carved state chairs and horse-driven phaetons and palanquins borne on shoulders — are all brought in with great care. Equally finely articulated are the characters of the men who form the Maharaja’s immediate entourage. Clearly, many of the persons could have been identified at sight by those who knew them — the prince on elephant-back, looking much like the Maharaja himself; the noblemen and high officials also on elephant-or horse-back — for each of them is closely studied. As in fact are a large number of lesser persons whose portraits remind one very sharply of the studies of common men that one knows were done in such large numbers at Patiala. The work cannot unfortunately be ascribed to a painter that one knows, but almost certainly it is in the hand of someone who owed allegiance to the Jaipur-Alwar style while being well aware of the work of the Pahari painters active in Patiala.

Lahore City and Fort (detail) (Pahari-Sikh; c. 1825)

The work is remarkable as much for its uncommon size as for its quality. But it is not easy to ‘read’ it, for much patience, and closeness of attention to detail, is needed. Like most topographical renderings of its kind, at least from India, the image is not meant to be viewed from one fixed angle: it has to be turned slowly, or one has to go around it oneself, for the perspectives to fall in place, for one to be able to make sense of the conception. There are things here which are viewed straight on, frontally, others by moving to the right or left; some things are seen at the eye-level, others from a height, affording a balcony-view, as it were. But, once these initial strategies of viewing are worked out, there is much information, and delight, that this delicately coloured Lahore City and Fortpainting yields. There is no specific focus or moment, time of day or occasion, that the painter sets out to capture here: it is intended to be a generalised, abstracted, view of the walled city of Lahore and the tenor of the life that one sees in it. Inside the walled city, there is busy activity, much coming and going, the painter wishes us to see. In the streets, men walk about, riders move on horseback, state elephants are being led, carts and asses carry goods about. Inside their open-fronted shops, men are busy plying their trades: perfumers, goldsmiths, money-lenders, bow-makers, cloth merchants. At one place the painter also introduces the face of a woman—the only woman who figures in the entire painting, one realises — in the balcony of a house, meant to be seen by the viewer perhaps as a courtesan in her kotha, upper-storey place of business. Public buildings and private dwellings are all densely compacted, and present a card-board like aspect. Suddenly, from this one moves on to the area ‘above’, inside the fort, where the spaces are far more open. Here, a well-laid out garden, with regular partnerres of flowers, courtyards and colonnades, a stable with only the hind quarters of the horses tied in them showing, swing into view. Interspersed throughout all these, of course, are the great old monuments-mosques and mausoleums and other domed structures-which dot the city. Perhaps the most pleasing, and skilfully rendered, of all vignettes in the work, however, are those brought in outside the walled city, where the Ravi flows. Here, a wonderfully organised, and colourful, encampment makes its appearance; stacks of firewood occupy spaces round some structures; a group of camels sits huddled together; a range of wooden stakes standing in water hug the bank of the river. Nothing in the painting is quite like what it must have been in life, but obviously much is close to the poetic, if bustling, image in the painter’s mind.

  Sword (detail of hilt) (Panjab, end of 18th century (?)

The weapon is richly ornamented, with carved figures overlaid with gold both on the hilt and along the entire length of the blade. The curved blade is not marked by any rib, only narrow grooves having been incised along the edges. On the hilt, the short quillon ends in small, somewhat flattened knobs to one of which a curving piece is attached, like an elephant’s trunk, to form the knuckle Sword (detail of hilt)guard; the grip is fashioned in the shape of a leaf; the pommel is a circular disc with a smooth knob serving as a finial. All over the blade, there is rich carving, with gold overlay, combining figurative and floral work. On one side is rendered, close to the hilt, the revered figure of Guru Nanak, seen seated, with his two companions, Bhai Mardana with his rabab and Bhai Bala, flanking him. Continuing along the blade but separated from this group, through intervening motifs like a seated lion or a running deer, are four other, similarly seated, figures in the company of devotees. While initially these appear to be repeats of the figure of Guru Nanak and his companions, they can be seen to be different, and are probably intended to be representations of the Gurus who followed in apostolic succession. On the other side of the blade are hunting motifs, with figures of animals in combat roughly in a forest setting.

The hilt of the sword is, again, sumptuously decorated. On the grip, accommodated within the leaf pattern, on one side, is the standing, crowned figure of a Hindu deity, possibly Krishna; on the other is carved, in equally low relief, the figure of the Goddess, shown seated on a throne, carrying in her hands a trishula-trident, a pasha-noose and a flower. On the inside of the pommel-disc is discernible, among others, the figure of Ganesha, remover of obstacles, presiding deity of all new enterprises. Above and below, and along the quillon, are animal and bird figure-tiger, hare, deer, peacock, etc carved with gold overlay of the same kind.

Shield (Punjab; 19th century)

This finely crafted shield, with very elaborate patterning on it, is said to have belonged to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. His own image, in fact, figures as its centre, within cartouches that alternate with the predictable four bosses: one sees him twice, on horseback, face in three-quarters profile, beard flowing, holding the reins of his galloping mount in one hand and a rumal-kerchief in the other. The other two equestrian figures are visibly different: one is a much younger person, and the other bearded, somewhat older. As a guess, these could be renderings of Hira Singh, the Maharaja’s great favourite who appears on so many paintings with him, and the heir-apparent, Kharak Singh.

Shield (Punjab; 19th century)The shield is almost completely filled with arabesque patterns and floral decoration, done on brass in relief. A circular band, filled with floral work, runs round the central part. A broad outer band features, within eight cartouches, other figural work: scenes of hunt and combat and equestrian skills. One sees, thus, two wrestlers; a soldier on horseback aiming his lance at an object on the ground, as in tent-pegging; a warrior taking on two pouncing lions; a lion and a dragon in combat; two camels fighting; a horseman, sword raised, slaying an adversary; and the goddess on tiger-back attacking the demon, Mahishasura. The carving is of refined workmanship, and in some of the imagery one can sense the craftsman looking back over his shoulders towards Mughal work on the one hand, and Pahari on the other. On the inner side, the shield is lined with fabrics, the knuckle pad specially padded.

A block printer at work (Punjab; c. 1875)

Related to, but not belonging to a known series from which many studies of artisans come, is this meticulously done painting of a block-printer at work. He would be described, in local terms, as a chhimba or chhipa chhapegir or chhipi, sometimes — and Ibbetson placed him, painting with a broad brush, in the broad category that covered dyers and tailors, etc. But the block-printer whom the painter renders here has the bearing almost of a man of rank, the face A block printer at workmarked by much dignity, and the general air around him that of refinement. As he sits — not on the floor, one notices, but on a striped satranji-floorspread - with a low table in front on which the cloth to be printed is spread out, wearing a shirt with a side-slit opening close to the neck and a finely tied turban, he cuts a strikingly handsome figure. The manner in which the craftsman sits on his worktable is extremely well-observed, judging from the way the one visible foot is bent and pressed against the thigh. It is, however, to the tools of his work, his materials, and the work he is doing, that the painting is dedicated, one recalls. There is a considerable, colourful range: dye-soaked pads lying in wooden frames, wood-blocks of varying sizes and shapes, earthen vessels holding water and other fluids. The block he is using to print with, the printer holds firmly in his right hand as he presses down firmly, the other hand holding the cloth in place. On the cloth, there are rough markings of horizontal rows along which the printing is to be done, a detail that the painter does not miss he ‘records’ the work and the artisan. The painting has a precise, clean look: well-observed, rendered with respect for the craft and the craftsman.

Portrait of Deep Singh, seated (Punjab, Patiala; c. 1875)

Bare in the upper part of the body, the lower clad only in a simple dhoti. Deep Portrait of Deep Singh, seatedSingh sits, cross-legged, hands clasped and resting in the lap, body inclined slightly forward. The head is singularly well rendered: broad forehead, deep-set, slightly tired, eyes, small ears, lips firmly pressed together, neatly tied beard with a parting at the chin. On the head is a turban worn slightly tilted towards one side. But it is the face that is truly arresting. It is a thoughtful face, serious but not grave, kind in some ways, informed by an awareness of the world that he is part of. Deep Singh is barely dressed in this study of his, and yet there is no sign of self-consciousness on his part that one sees on this account. One is constantly struck, in fact, by the dignity of the men — simple, ordinary men whom one might expect to run into on the street — who people this world of sketches that the painter has brought into being.