Sikh paintings The glint of gold, the smell of the earth

Sikh painting was relatively unknown and unrecognised until recently and not many historians believed the Sikh chiefs to be inclined towards patronising artists, Goswami said. But Sikh art did exist in the form of the Janamasakhi paintings and other works depicting the chiefs and the Gurus. “The more one penetrates into the field of Sikh paintings, the greater is the respect generated for the artists who brought out the smell of the earth in their paintings,'' he said.  Paintings made for the Sikhs are not necessarily made by the Sikhs, Goswami pointed out. The early works originated from the Pahari school of artists from the different estates of the present day Himachal Pradesh while some paintings were made by Kashmiri artists, he said.  As far as the issue of patronage of these artists goes, Goswami said, his doubts were cleared when he came across a painting and some scrolls at the house of a painter in Himachal. “The painting depicted a devi standing on one leg. The grotesque looking figure had a number of arms, at the end of which were circles bearing the names of different estates which patronised the artists family. Notable among them were the names of three Sikh Misldars.''  Also, a number of old documents that have been found, bear proof of grants given to the artist's family by the Sikh chiefs of Lahore. “This was an undeniable proof that the Sikh chiefs did patronise artists,'' Goswami said.  Once the influence of the hill states waned, the artists of the Pahari school of painting came to the courts of the Sikhs. Artists and artisans were also attracted to the kingdom from the Mughal court and Rajasthan. In due course, the amalgamation of different art forms came to be called as Sikh art, Goswami opined. 

“The Sikh painters started their work only after 1840. The years between 1850 and 1875 marked the period during which the art of Sikhs developed the flavour of the earth,'' he added. The paintings and portraits of ordinary unknown workers and peasants have been made with such honesty and warmth that it truly reflects the bonding with the earth and the egalitarianism in the Sikh society. Though this phase lasted for only 25 years, it is of great significance in the study of Sikh art, he felt.  The importance, in the paintings, accorded to Gurus is also worth a mention. Goswami pointed presented a slide of a painting which appeared to be one of a royal procession of the Maharaja of Patiala, but on closer scrutiny turned out to be a procession of the Guru Granth Sahib in which the maharaja participated.  “Interestingly,'' Goswami said, “no contemporary portrait of Guru Nanak or any of the Gurus is known to exist. In the ones that are there, the artists have envisioned them in a variety of ways, in much the same meditative and evocative manner that the Gurus envisioned the Lord.''  “It would be a grave error to say that the portraits of the Gurus and the Janamasakhis were meant only for the Sikhs. There are instances where Hindus also had the portraits and the Granth Sahib etched for them. Conversely, there exist several paintings made for the Sikhs which are based on the stories of the Mahabharata.  “The evidence of art does not support the distance that has crept between the different communities,'' concluded Goswami.

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