Sikhs on the western easel

A rare show of paintings on the Sikh community by western artists of yore across the globe was recently held in India

Golden Temple by William Carpenter
Golden Temple by William Carpenter

Rana Siddiqui Zaman

We didn’t know that the Sikh community attracted attention of the western painters from across the globe for various reasons. Hence, they were painted in all their grandeur and found spaces in the homes of the royalty and nobility and prestigious museums in Europe, America, United Kingdom, France, Austria, Germany, Japan, Spain, Hungry, Russia and other such nations, in the 19th and 20th century. They still hang there, and are considered a heritage.

This is revealed in a rare exhibition of some 80 archival museum replicas of the Sikh community, viz its famous maharajas, nobility and common people and their lifestyle, horse riding, bravery, having fun, family life, showing kindheartedness, humility, grace and valour. The show, aptly named “The Sikhs - An Occidental Romance” was held at All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) in New Delhi and concluded last week.

The exposition unravelled untold stories of the Sikhs
A portrait of a Sikh Noble by Prince Soltykoff 
A portrait of a Sikh Noble by Prince Soltykoff 
A peek at the train by Rudolf Swoboda
A peek at the train by Rudolf Swoboda

Brought for the public for the first time in India by the Indian chapter of the US-based Hubris Foundation, a non-profit organisation that exhibits rare works of art, free of charge, the exposition unravelled untold stories of the Sikh community and known foreign artists such as Alfred De Dreux (France), Valentine Prinsep (UK), Rudolf Swoboda (Austria), William Bartlett (UK), Frank Salisbury (UK), Sydney Hall (US), Emily Eden (UK), Charles Hardinge (UK), Francis Grant (UK), Alexis Soltykoff (Germany), August Schoefft (Germany) and many more. So what have they painted and why?

Let’s see in brief the topics of the paintings. They include the “Portrait of battle-hardened Ranjit Singh in reverential tranquillity” by Emily Eden (UK), Edwin Lord Week’s iconic painting of the Golden Temple and Rudolf Swoboda‘s portrait of a Sikh under commission by Queen Victoria. August Schoefft, Sher Singh’s court painter, painted a credulous Akali surrounded by the thugs of central India. The Russian prince, Alexis Soltykoff, painted “Ladies of Pleasure,” a rendition of the grandeur of Lahore during the Sikh Empire and Charles Hardinge, son of Viscount Harding, the Governor General of India, painted the infamous Gulab Singh of Kashmir, accused of betraying the Sikh Empire. Alfred De Dreux, who was commissioned by an Italian General, painted Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s portrait which was presented to the King of France. In addition, it has German painter and lithographer Franz Winter Halter’s portrait of The charming Prince, Duleep Singh painted under Queen Victoria’s commission and more.

The exhibition also displays works of art that depict The Anglo Sikh Wars, Viscount Hardinge, the cities of Amritsar and Lahore, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and The Princess Bamba Collection. Bamba was Duleep SIngh’s eldest daughter and last surviving member of the dynasty.

She inherited a good collection of articles and paintings which is called Princess Bamba’s Collection. Before she died in 1957, she sold her collection to Pakistan. They are now in Lahore Fort.

So, why did the western painters paint the Sikhs? Gautam Srivastava from Hubris, who has been collecting Sikh art amongst others for over two decades from across the globe, has an interesting story to share. “While collecting the works on the Sikhs, I noted that most of the works were painted in admiration of the community. So, they depict their fun-loving nature, valour, their attitude and physique, humility and spirituality. Three Japanese and others from the UK and the US also painted the Golden Temple.”

Bringing Ranjit Singh’s replica from Pakistan was tough
Portrait of Prince Victor Albert Duleep Singh by George Richmond 
Portrait of Prince Victor Albert Duleep Singh by George Richmond 

It perhaps began with Emily Eden who came to India in 1838. Eden was an author, poet and painter. She was the sister of the Governor General of Auckland. She published a book on the Sikhs and painted them back home. Her show was a hit and people were surprised to know that such a community existed in India. Soon, a Hungarian artist came to India in 1840 and painted Maharaja Sher Singh in all his grandeur.

The portrait has him wearing a Kohinoor in his right hand and a ruby on the left. He was broad-shouldered, brave, handsome, good-looking but very simple at heart. “The artist painted all his characteristics to the perfection. It created a shock among the viewers. It drew tremendous interest,” narrates Shrivastava.

On a lighter vein, he says, “If you see that painting, you will realise what 56 inch ki chaati is, I call this a 56 inch ki chaati. Mr Modi should see for himself.”

August Schoefft came to India during Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire before the whole of India was taken over by the British. He painted them exhaustively, showed them back in Vienna in 1850. It shocked people there. Similarly, Russian Prince Alexis Soltykoff came to India in 1847-48, painted exhaustively, published a book, all in admiration of the Sikhs. The British were impressed by them that they later had them inducted in their Army when they conquered the Sikh Empire for their strength, style, bravery and physique.

The works were replicated by bringing high resolution museum quality archival prints. Bringing the replica of Maharaja Ranjit Singh from Pakistan was toughest. Singh was in Lahore in the last many days. “I had to wait for four-years-and-a half for that, and spent ₹5 lakh for the same,” he added.

The show was aimed at paying tribute to Guru Nanak sahib, the Sikh community and the artists who painted them and coincided with the Baisakhi Week.

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Published: 28 Apr 2019, 11:30 AM