M. Pavan Kumar/ Region, Religion and Rituals: An exploration of Punjabi Art

M. Pavan Kumar,

Research Scholar,

Andhra University, Andhra Pradesh, India


Posters and hand painted visual art produced in the Punjab region are popular art amongst the Sikhs. It was produced by Sikh artists and offered a distinctive Sikh style, or produced in a territory dominated by Sikhs highlighting Sikh themes. They are unique because of the vibrant culture and iconic approaches. These visuals narrated the stories and movements of the warriors of Sikh history. These painted arts do deal with diverse themes propagating the interests of the individuals or the interests of the masses connecting religion and historical views. The present paper will focus on the painted visual art of Punjab exploring the popular perceptions and influences on Sikh art from the historical point of view. It will also discuss the religious influences over the visual arts of Punjab.

Key words: Sikhism, popular Sikh art, folklore, visual culture, iconography

 Sikh art practiced in the belt of northern regions of India, called as Pahari paintings, flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Punjab region. Under the Rajput rulers these arts were practiced in different parts of the Himalyan regions mainly Kangra, Chamba, Mankot and Mandi. History of Indian art having the importance of Pahari paintings is large and wide. The Mughal and Persian styles influenced Punjabi paintings. Many of Sikh paintings are documentation of Sikhism, its history and spiritual teachings of its gurus. Punjabi paintings did show both Islamic and Hindu influences. The reign of the Sikh Empire was given wider importance to project their culture through multiple art expressions. Many of British travelers who travelled through Punjab in the early nineteenth century collected most of Punjab Sikh paintings.

Sikh art is influenced by its own culture. Pahari paintings are filled with Sikh artifacts and weapons that reflect the military theme. The Sikh festivals are another great reflection of religion. The art and culture of Punjab has been mixed with that of other colonial cultures. During this period a lot of political Sikh art were established and described as religious art. Most of the court paintings depicted the flourishing of Sikh kingdom and its richness. Early recognized Sikh themes are mainly portraits of the great ten gurus.

Sikh art, born in janam-sakhis, apart from an isolated series of portraits, was evidently confined to this context for well over a century. The janam-sakhis are hagiographic accounts of the life of Guru Nanak, popular narratives which have enjoyed a considerable popularity through the history of Sikh Panth. The stories which they relate are readily represented in picture form and are obviously enhanced by such illustrations. The same natural development had already occurred within the folklore tradition which served as a model for the janam-sakhis. The example was provided by Sufi tradition. Surely, iconography in Sikh art is just as commonplace as it is in Christian, Hindu or Buddhist traditions. Sikh iconography represents the royal canopy of authority. This is so, even though there remains no record of any painting or any description of the physical attributes of any of the Guru-prophets of the religion. No replica exists of the image of any Guru on canvas, in clay, stone or any other media. Some historians contend that a likeness of the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, was painted during his lifetime. If so, it no longer exists. There can be no mistaking the figure which appears in each of the fifty seven illustrations. The figure plainly is of Baba Nanak and the iconography which surrounds him is patently Sikh. It is moreover, an iconography which constitutes an established tradition. In this term it is possible to identify a distinctively Sikh art and affirm that the tradition was well established before the middle of the eighteenth century. However, it cannot be affirmed that the style or the iconography is uniquely Sikh. Representations of Sikh Gurus, some surrounded with haloes of flashing lights, are not rare in Gurudwaras and market places all over the world that cater largely to Sikhs. Whether as images of Jesus, Madonna (the one who inspires saints, or the one who arouses baser passions), Marilyn Monroe, Elvis the Pelvis, or as spreads in Playboy, calendar or “bazaar” art is never very sophisticated, or intellectually and emotionally gratifying. But this art form exists in all cultures. During the past three decades, under the aegis of the Punjab and Sind Bank and, later PSB Finance, there has been a significant change in the quality of poster/calendar art on Sikh themes. It is a lineal descendent of the same genre of art, and the 1995 book by Bain’s is a collection of it. It is much easier on the eyes, showing improved technique and perspective. However, popular art, like its written counterpart – even dime store stuff – remains a powerful window into popularly prevailing notions and understanding of a people, in this case Sikhs, their Gurus and Sikh history. In that sense, they are no less valid sources of history, social and cultural constructs, than many first-person accounts of oral history recorded by non-historians. History doesn’t come to historians in neat packages. They create the discipline by mining data from such artifacts as art, diaries or letters. Notwithstanding Andy Warhol, pop art and pop literature are important to both defining and understanding a people.

However, popular art, like its written counterpart – even dime store stuff – remains a powerful window into popularly prevailing notions and understanding of a people, in this case Sikhs, their Gurus and Sikh history. In that sense, they are no less valid sources of history, social and cultural constructs, than many first-person accounts of oral history recorded by non-historians. History doesn’t come to historians in neat packages. They create the discipline by mining data from such artifacts as art, diaries or letters. Notwithstanding Andy Warhol, Pop art and Pop literature are important to both defining and understanding a people. Sikh history has been most colorful. From the Gurus to martyrs like the sons of Guru Gobind Singh or Baba Deep Singh, figures larger than life have dominated the canvas. They live through Punjab’s folk art, however uninformed it may appear at times. In the newer Sikh calendars, each panel presents an accompanying parable from the lives of the Gurus or martyrs, illustrating some vignette or lesson of Sikh history and religion.

Sikhism rejects any form of idol worship including worship of pictures of the Gurus. Although some of the Gurus did pose for paintings, unfortunately none of these historical paintings have survived. Artists renditions are for inspirational purposes only and should not be regarded as objects of worship themselves. Sikh painting is primarily of portraiture. It deals with historical characters and historical events. Sikh portraiture developed from the political struggle and it is through understanding the roles which certain individuals played, that we can understand their significance in painting. The Sikh school of painting is a distinct contribution to Indian art. The School originated in the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who was a liberal patron of arts.

Woodcarving and metal work are also ancient and popular crafts in Punjab. The woodwork of Punjab has been traditionally famous. The common use of metal objects in daily life necessitated the evolving of various products and techniques. Metal pots and utensils, objects like lamps and trumpet necessary for religious rituals and some decorative items like lamp shades etc are some of the items on which these artisans work on.

While Sikh art largely celebrates the unique spiritual and secular identity of the Sikh people, it also reflects the artistic diversity of the Punjab region (an area now divided between India and Pakistan) where Sikhism originated. From social customs to costumes, to the painting styles of the Mughal dynasty and other kingdoms in the region, Sikh artists synthesized a wide range of elements to create their own distinct imagery. The followers of Sikh religion are disciples of 10 esteemed gurus, or teachers, the first of who was Nanak (1469–1539), Sikhism’s historical founder. Although Hindu by birth, Nanak’s teachings is centered on the concept of one sovereign god and Sikh beliefs embrace aspects of other religious traditions, including Islam. Nanak has said, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” His life and teachings are compiled into texts known as janam sakhis (life stories)n The paintings in illustrated versions of this text bring to life the guru not only as an older spiritual leader, but also as a young man.

The outward emblems of Sikhism, such as uncut hair and turbans, were not formally adopted until 1699, when Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the 10th guru, established the Khalsa (Order of the Pure) in order to provide persecuted Sikhs with a cohesive identity. The spiritual lineage that began with Nanak ended when Gobind Singh named as his successor the Adi Granth (Primal Book), Sikhism’s sacred text. The Adi Granth, considered the eternal guru, is the devotional focus of all Sikh temples. Under the patronage of Sikh rulers, art production reflected the splendor of the royal courts. The Sikh clans ruled a number of small kingdoms in the Punjab area. By 1800 these kingdoms were unified by the general Ranjit Singh, the “Lion of the Punjab.” He was crowned “maharaja” (literally, “great king”) in 1801 and built a stable north Indian kingdom centered on the city of Lahore. A brilliant general and strategist, he successfully negotiated with surrounding powers — the Afghans, the Marathas, and the Rajput chiefs of the hill states — and managed to halt the advance of the British into the region.

Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 was followed by a bitter struggle for power, and later separated the Sikh kingdom into several smaller independent kingdoms in the Punjab region — such as Patiala, Kapurthala, Nabha, Jammu and Kashmir. Sikh royalty commissioned paintings, jewelry and architectural structures that reflected their positions as cultured patrons and also celebrated their identity. Finely made objects were produced for and used in a devotional context; they were also used in other aspects of courtly and everyday life. The splendor of the Sikh kingdoms also impressed European artists, some of whom attempted to capture something of the unique character of Sikh culture and the Punjab in their works.

 Thus, the land of Punjab has often witnessed invasions and political upheavals in its history. Owing to this, the people have seldom experienced peace for a long time and have been sufferers of war and destruction. Nevertheless, they have had a taste for beauty and art perhaps because of their land being in such a location which is surrounded by natural forms and beauty and also because of it being a primarily agrarian society. Punjabis are also known for their tradition of beautiful crafts and folklore which have been famous and popular worldwide. Region, religion and rituals are collective determination of art. Although rich in different arts, the visual arts for religious worship could not get boost because of the Sikh’s belief and ban against idol worship.

Along with the time these visual art forms require special attention to be their original splendour. These excellent craftsmen skills form a very precious art, culture and spiritual heritage. It is very essential for the present and further generations’ to give this valuable treasure to its progeny in its true form.


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