Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 1999
Kerry Brown, ed. Sikh Art and Literature New York and Palo Alto, Calif.: Routledge in association with Sikh Foundation, 1999. 217 pp.; 42 color ills.; 94 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (0415202892)
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This long-awaited volume springs from a 1992 conference at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Sikh Art and Literature, held in conjunction with an exhibition focused on Sikh painting, Splendors of the Punjab: Art of the Sikhs. Generously illustrated with many color plates and almost one hundred pictures in black and white, the book provides a fine compilation of visual arts we may associate with Sikhism, including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting, architecture, and the artistic documentation of colonial observers, as well as, importantly, photography and paintings by contemporary Sikh artists. Essays concerning accomplished Sikh authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries offer readers a taste of some of the best Punjabi literature, including lesser-known writers.

The volume brings together many of the best minds in the fields of Sikh religious and literary studies, where a tradition of erudite scholarship already exists. From the art world we find essays from the most active and creative art historians, curators, and collectors concerned with visual arts created by, for, and about Sikhs. The vast topic of Sikh visual arts is rather new to academic art history. Most undergraduate and graduate courses concerned with South Asian art do not include Sikh material. Likewise publications on the art of South Asia that are generally accessible in the West rarely address Sikh subjects. Admittedly, academic neglect of Sikh visual materials may be attributed in part to disinterest in any Indian art of the nineteenth century, the period to which most of the art in this volume dates.

Until 1999, only a few small exhibitions looking at Sikhism in the visual arts had ever been held. With the fruition of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s major international exhibition The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, currently on view in San Francisco at the Asian Art Museum, a new era may have dawned in the awareness of the material and aesthetic achievements of Sikh culture. The collected essays in Sikh Art and Literature certainly serve to further this important cause, and will leave a lasting impression in the minds of scholars and South Asianists in particular, as well as those with a general interest in Sikhism, and in Indian art, literature, and religious history.

This book responds to very real political circumstances, as anyone familiar with Punjab of the 1980s will immediately recall. “In recent years the Sikh community has frequently felt under siege and has responded by consolidating its efforts in the religious, political, and economic arenas,” write Narinder Singh Kapany and Kerry Brown in their reasoned introduction, “Hence art and literature, which lie at the very core of the community’s existence, have not received their rightful recognition and support.” This is not, however, a chauvinist or apologist publication. The authors are careful to emphasize the universalist, progressive, and secular character of Sikh philosophy, and the rightful place of Sikh-inspired art and literature on the global stage.

A range of voices and interests is expressed in these essays. Many communicate themselves in a refreshingly straightforward and graspable fashion, in contrast to the dense theoretical tone of much current art-historical and literary scholarship, making this book well-suited to a general audience as well as to scholars. Gursharan Singh Sidhu’s “From Gurus to Kings: Early and Court Painting” offers an excellent overview of Sikh-related imagery, as well as a fine introduction to the principles of Sikhism and seminal events in its history, focusing on the nineteenth-century reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sidhu does not shy away from presenting challenging issues in his essay, for example the appearance of the Hindu goddess Durga on Sikh battle standards, and apparent sanction of the goddess in Sikh scripture. That this volume is unafraid to offer critique of the Sikh community is demonstrated by Sidhu’s assertion, “The Sikhs remain a casteless community, although at times we tend to forget it. I feel that it is to our shame when we do, and a signal disrespect to Nanak’s genius and founding leadership” (p. 33). Robert Del Bontà’s “An Illustrated Life: Guru Nanak in Narrative Art” offers detailed examination of a prolific yet little-studied arena of art production, the illustration of Janam Sakhi manuscripts, or life stories of Guru Nanak. Del Bontà judiciously identifies themes and continuities among some known manuscripts, and brings to life the interconnectedness of Sikh and Hindu imagery. He also notes that “Sikh art varies widely in style,” even among contemporary manuscripts of similar subject matter, a truism that holds the promise of further study. “The Sikh Treasury” by Susan Stronge, curator of The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, offers a fascinating glimpse into the magnificence of Ranjit Singh’s court, and the eventual dispersal and loss of its singular treasures. Henry J. Walker’s “Golden Temple, Marble Forum,” offers a personal, impressionistic comparison of Ranjit Singh’s Golden Temple (and other Sikh gurudwaras) and the Marble Forum of Roman emperor Augustus, with a breath of originality of the sort that is possible in what we might prosaically term an “emerging field.”

The literary portion of this volume is given a genteel air of authority in a foreword by Patwant Singh. An essay by Gobind Singh Mansukhani, “The Unstruck Melody: Musical Mysticism in the Scripture” offers a lyrical overview of basic tenets of Sikhism, and the centrality of music and performed scripture to the faith. Other essays address singular events and personalities in the Sikh cultural landscape. The achievements of M. A. Macauliffe, the late nineteenth-century Irish convert to Sikhism and esteemed translator of the Guru Granth Sahib are commended by Harbans Lal in “The Western Gateway to Sikhism.” Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh brings to light evocative verses of the Sikh scriptures and the intimate, passionate poetry of Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957), inspired by the Guru Granth. Surjit Singh Dulai presents in “Critical Ecstasy” a vivid, complex portrait of mystical poet Puran Singh (1881-1931), a seminal figure in Punjabi literature who is, in Dulai’s estimation, a poet before all else, passionate in his love for Punjab and its people. The importance of the prolific but lesser known author Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid, for Ardaman Singh and Nirvikar Singh (“Old Culture, New Knowledge”), lies not only in his attempt to modernize the Punjab of his day through his translations of scientific and other literature from English and Indian languages (in addition to his own Punjabi literature), but his presentation of the ideals of Sikhism as a way of life in response to contemporary crisis and transition. Amusing and powerful episodes from the short stories of celebrated contemporary author Khushwant Singh are presented by Abdul Jabbar in “A Mirror to Our Faces,” giving the reader a glimpse of the writer’s greatness.

The assembly of essays in this inviting and very readable volume spans a great breadth of subjects, time periods, circumstances, and authorial styles. If a single unifying theme is not immediately apparent, the richness and diversity of Sikh voices from the historical and contemporary worlds ring clear.

Basic information about Sikh history, texts, and art collections is included in a series of appendices, which are extremely helpful to the beginning student of Sikhism. The detailing of the authorship of the various hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib,as well as its musical structure, are especially praiseworthy in their concise utility. The bibliography is thoughtful, while the glossary disappoints in its brevity. Indeed a note on transliteration and transcription of Punjabi language would have been helpful to the overall presentation of this volume. One of the questions that most naturally arises from the volume, and indeed from any project that proposes to address the subject of Sikh art, is whether or not we may say that such a thing as Sikh art exists, with precise and identifiable qualities of style, subject, method, and intention. With their wide-reaching concerns, the essays compiled here do not problematize these issues, and this general-interest book which introduces little-known visual material is probably not the appropriate forum for their hashing out. The academic reader might wish for more thoughtful consideration of the implications of Sikhism in the arts by art historians in particular, or a considered statement on the meaning of the term “Sikh Art” as it is used in this volume. Perhaps such scholarship will follow in short order, drawing upon the groundbreaking contributions of this inspired book.

Kristina Youso
Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.