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Sikh historical photographs

Felice Beato, 'Interior - The Sikh Temple - Marble Mosaic', about 1858-60. Museum no. 80091.

Felice Beato, 'Interior - The Sikh Temple - Marble Mosaic', about 1858-60. Museum no. 80091.

The last one hundred and fifty years have seen incredible changes in the fortunes and development of the Sikh people. For the Sikhs, the last century and a half have seen a sovereign Sikh kingdom, two major wars, life under a British Empire, two World Wars and the freedom movement. Over the last fifty years alone, the Sikh people have seen independence followed by incredible prosperity and a failed attempt at self-governance. At an international level the last fifty years has seen the coming of age of the Sikh diaspora around the world.

The last one hundred and fifty years also coincide with the age of the development of photography. In 1849, on the eve of the Second Anglo Sikh War that ended the kingdom created by the legendary Maharajah Ranjit Singh, John McCosh took the first grainy shots of the Sikh people and palaces of Lahore. Since then the incredible history of the Sikhs has been played out in front of the camera's lens. McCosh heralded the first of the military photographers who went on to capture the Sikhs in the British Army. Early Victorian photographs of Sikhs highlight attitudes connected with the British presence in India, indicating the power of photography as a colonial tool of classification and appropriation. The photographic medium was later used for wartime propaganda and as an anthropological research tool.

In the heyday of British rule of the Panjab, at the turn of the century wealthy Sikhs and other Indians had started to use photography to capture everyday life in turn-of-the-century Punjab, revealing details vital to the researcher, historian and general public. During the period of the Second World War and Indian independence, a series of press photographers, official photographers and ordinary people captured forever the often-cataclysmic events that shaped the history of the Sikh people. Margaret Bourke White's powerful and heart-rending photography for Time Magazine, during the mass exodus of Sikhs during Partition bears witness to the power of the photograph.

Remarkably, no central resource exists to catalogue or view these important Sikh-related images. This is partly because of the democratic nature of the photograph and partly because recent history has often been overlooked by collecting institutes. Such a resource would create a central source of information for images which would shed light on Sikh history and give the historian, the publisher and the writer valuable insight into the intimate and often routine details involved in some of the greatest changes in the Sikh community.

A creation of a central Sikh photographic archive would exploit, in an important way, the global nature of some of the new internet technologies that are available today. Given the global nature of the Sikh community, a web-based resource could bring items of Sikh heritage to members of the community around the world. A central database of images would not just be a valuable research tool in its own right, but could also give rise to printed catalogues of images, an online photo-library and CD-ROMS. Further development of the collection by commissioning photographic documentaries and survey work (architectural, landscape and manuscript-based) could add considerable valuable material to the archive.

The UK collections are very well known and, to a large extent, already well catalogued by Parmjit Singh and Amandeep Madra. The US collections, whilst thinner, are generally well known. Indian resources are likely to provide the largest resource for the more modern period (1947-current). There are a number of private collections with individuals in India that could be purchased outright, and the rights to reproduce smaller collections in public institutions could be negotiated. Given the immediacy of the material and the nature of the audience, this is likely to attract great interest.

'Sikh Historical Photographs' was a talk by Parmjit Singh and Amandeep S. Madra, given at a conference in July 2001 at the V&A in association with the UK Punjabi Heritage Association. The conference addressed the current state of Sikh material heritage and the challenges in its preservation for future generations.

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