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The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms


SAN FRANCISCO CALIFORNIA. JULY 15 1999: In celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, or "Order of the Pure," - a pivotal event in Sikh religious history - the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will host the first comprehensive international exhibition to present the artistic traditions of the Punjab under Sikh rule. Entitled The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, the exhibition, which is organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, features over 160 rarely-seen objects of the highest quality drawn from nineteen public and private collections in India, Pakistan, North America and Europe. The Asian Art Museum will serve as the only North American venue for this extraordinary exhibition which will be on view from September 22, 1999 through January 9, 2000.

The exhibition employs an array of objects - paintings, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, books, decorative arts, and photography - to explore the cultural richness of the great cosmopolitan kingdoms of the Sikhs. Eight thematic sections provide a historical overview, beginning with the origins of the Sikh religion and continuing through the period of British colonial rule. A comprehensive 256 page illustrated book, written by leading experts in Sikh history, accompanies the exhibition.

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms is organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The San Francisco presentation of the exhibition is organized by the Asian Art Museum in association with the Sikh Foundation. The exhibition is supported by generous contributions from Jagdeep and Roshni Singh, Kanwal and Ann Rekhi, and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The idea of an exhibition devoted to Sikh culture was first proposed by Narinder Singh Kapany of the Sikh Foundation in Palo Alto, California. From the beginning, his inspiration and support have sustained the project.

The exhibition focuses on the reign of Ranjit Singh, the celebrated Maharaja of Lahore, who reigned from 1801 to 1839 and is still revered by Sikhs as a great hero. In secular matters, the Sikh court followed the Mughal pattern, utilizing the Persian language and employing weaponry as a significant element of court costume. A set of intricately decorated tiles dating from the ~ 7~ century demonstrates the influence of imperial Mughal design. Prior to the reign of Ranjit Singh, painting in the Punjab was concentrated in the small Hindu principalities in the Pahari region. Following the accession of Ranjit Singh, these courts declined and their painters were gradually attracted towards a new, vibrant source of patronage. Artists from the important painting centers were now employed by the Maharaja and his circle to produce portraits of the leading personalities of the Sikh court, or paintings of the Gurus. They were also employed to decorate the walls of palaces with elaborate designs and vibrant colors.

Although famously modest in personal appearance, Ranjit Singh created a court of dazzling brilliance for the benefit of foreign visitors . At the center of the court was the splendid Golden Throne which is featured in the exhibition. This opulent symbol of rule, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, epitomizes the eclectic nature of artistic patronage at the Sikh court:

the throne, which is covered in pure gold, was made by a Muslim craftsman drawing on Hindu forms.

The woven silks, carpets, and embroidered and printed cottons of the Punjab are extraordinarily diverse in character. They range from the elaborate pictorial embroideries known as Chamba rumals made for the Hindu courts, to the highly refined carpets of Lahore and renowned shawls of Kashmir all of which were used at the Sikh court. Kashmir Pashmina (a highly valued type of goat's wool) shawls, several of which are featured in The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, were the most important textiles produced in the region during the Sikh period. They were greatly prized both at court and by those visitors to whom they were presented by the Maharaja.

Although Sikhism had always been essentially peaceful and harmonious, early in its history it acquired a militant edge as a reaction to Mughal persecution. The warriors of the Sikh army took to the field in brightly colored robes, wearing richly decorated armor. Their guns, manufactured in accordance with the latest European technology, were inlaid with leaping figures and cast with animal head finials. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms contains superb examples, including enameled gold medals set with emeralds and diamonds, a turban helmet, a sword hilt of jade inlaid with precious stones, a full set of armor - helmet, mail shirt and cuirass - and intricately decorated pistols and a matchlock musket.

European visitors to Lahore were dazzled by the splendor of the Sikh court. Western visitors recorded their impressions in enthusiastic prose, or in the case of both amateur and professional artists, on paper or canvas. John McCosh, a surgeon in the Bengal army stationed in Lahore in 1849, took the first known photographs of Sikhs. The first War of independence in 1857 led to a sudden demand for images of the Empire, and from that moment on, British amateurs, army officers, and professional photographers used the camera to document the people and places of India, including the Punjab. The European perspective is evident in paintings by George Beechey, William Simpson, and William Carpenter. Mid-century albumen prints by Bourne and Shepherd and Felice Beato document important sites and prominent individuals.

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms is the first exhibition to explore artistic patronage at the later Sikh courts, where architecture and painting flourished, and textiles of high quality continued to be produced. Included in the exhibition are robes richly embroidered with gold thread, intricately designed shawls, and a man's garment made of yellow silk with gold-wrapped thread.

By drawing on collections in North America, Europe, and Asia, the Victoria and Albert Museum has assembled a group of objects that provide a comprehensive view of the art of the Punjab during the Sikh period. The exhibition is particularly significant in that it shows how the artistic traditions of the Punjab under Sikh rule are rooted in the inter-relatedness of Sikh, Hindu, and Islamic traditions.

That loaned works are coming from both India and Pakistan is a particularly important statement about the shared history of this region.

For the San Francisco Bay Area, home to a large Indian population - a significant percentage of whom are Sikhs - the exhibition is an opportunity to examine the rich artistic heritage of the Punjab. It is also an opportunity to experience the cultural efflorescence of the Sikhs as an integral part of Indian culture.


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