Sikh objects from the V&A Collections
The V&A was founded in 1852 as the South Kensington Museum and later absorbed the collections of the Indian Museum, established by the East India Company in 1799. Both museums collected Indian decorative art and paintings, including material from the Panjab dating from the late 16th to the 19th century.
The Panjab region, now divided between India and Pakistan, takes its name from the Persian for the 'five rivers' (panj ab) that flow through it. Its geographical position as the north-western gateway to the sub-continent means that invasions and wars have often swept across its plains, as have migrating peoples, ideas and aesthetic influences.
The Panjab was an important province of the Mughal empire. The city of Lahore was the northern capital where the emperor and the royal family often resided, building extensive forts and palaces. Later, Ranjit Singh was proclaimed Maharaja of the Panjab in Lahore, not far from the spiritual heart of the Sikh kingdom, Amritsar. Eventually the region become part of the British Empire. All this has influenced the rich art of the region.
Due to their position at the foothills of the sub-Himalayan forests, towns in northern Panjab evolved rich woodworking traditions. Techniques practised included wood carving, ivory carving and inlaying wood with ivory and brass. Traditionally these techniques were used for the decoration of doors and columns in household interiors.
However, under British patronage, craftsmen began to apply their skills to western-style articles such as decorative boxes, tables, screens and small cabinets. Such goods found a ready market, not only among the British in the Panjab and major cities, but also at international exhibitions and shops in London and New York that specialised in oriental 'curiosities'.
In the late 19th century, towns such as Hoshiarpur and Chiniot became centres of manufacture for vast quantities of inlaid or carved woodwork aimed at foreign markets, while Delhi and Amritsar monopolised the production and trade in solid ivory articles such as caskets and gift boxes.
Writing box, probably Muhammad Bakhsh
Probably Muhammad Bakhsh
Shisham wood inlaid with brass
Museum no. IS.2372-1883
Table, probably Ata Singh
Probably Ata Singh
Inlayers of Basi Gulam Husein
Shisham wood inlaid with ivory
Museum no. IS.2376-1883
Folding screen, Muhammad Yusuf & Nur Muhammad
Folding screen, Muhammad Yusuf & Nur Muhammad, about 1905. Museum no. IS.80-1977
Photograph of examples of ivory inlay from Hoshiarpur, 1901
Photograph of examples of ivory inlay from Hoshiarpur, 1901
An Akali is a staunch believer in Akal, meaning the Timeless One (God). The Akalis were the original Sikh warriors raised by Guru Har Gobind at the Akal Takht, seat of temporal authority for the Sikhs in Amritsar. They are also known as Akali Nihangs.
The most striking aspect of the Akali peaked turban is the metal emblem, the gaj-gah (conqueror of battle elephants), which represents superior strength, intellect and daring. The main elements of the gaj-gah are crescents and the double edged sword at the top, but some can also be seen with tridents, knives and tiger claws. It was kept fastened to the turban with quoits (chakkar and chakra) and plaited steel wire. Quoits represent the cyclical nature of life, which is repeatedly used in Sikh symbolism.
The Golden Throne
The Golden Throne was made for Maharaja Ranjit Singh by a Muslim goldsmith, Hafez Muhammad Multani, between about 1820 and 1830. The craftsman decorated thick sheets of pure gold with a design of flowering plants that cover the wooden core of the throne.
Hafez Muhammad must have been a leading goldsmith of the Lahore court as he is mentioned twice in the detailed inventories made of the treasury when the Panjab and Sikh crown property was annexed by the East India Company in 1849. The British Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, was not sure if the throne would be wanted. Writing to London he reported: 'It is set apart as an object which the court [of the East India Company] would probably desire to preserve, but as it is bulky, I shall not forward it until I receive orders to do so'.
The Company did wish to preserve it and in 1853 the throne travelled to Calcutta (where Dalhousie had a wooden replica made) before it was shipped to the Indian Museum in London. In 1879, Ranjit Singh's Golden Throne moved to the South Kensington Museum, later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Ranjit Singh's medals
The official history of Ranjit Singh's reign records his curiosity concerning the medals worn by the English Governor Sir Henry Fane, when he arrived at the court in 1837 for the marriage of Nau Nihal Singh. General Allard, the French general in Ranjit Singh's service, wore the Legion d'Honneur.
These European decorations seem to have intrigued the Maharaja. Discussions took place about Fane's suggestion that medals be introduced at court, and it was decided to make three fixed awards. The highest was reserved for the princes, the second for the 'relatives and brotherhood' of the Maharaja and the third rank would go to high dignitaries, colonels and those providing honourable service. The European practice of awarding service medals was also discussed at length with the British local representative, Captain Wade, in April 1838. This seems to have led indirectly to an order that henceforth the uniforms of all his platoons should have their own identifying mark.
Medals were given out to a range of royal and other individuals including Allard, Avitabile and Court, Faqir Aziz ud-Din, Raja Hira Singh and Lehna Singh Majithia. The order was called 'Star of the Prosperity of the Panjab'.
The Kashmir Shawl
This embroidered bird's-eye view of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, shows the main streets, buildings and gardens of the city, and even includes tiny boats on Dal Lake and the River Jhelum. On the lake is an elaborate boat bearing a ruler (with a halo) who may be Maharaja Ranbir Singh, ruler of Kashmir from 1857 to 1885. There is evidence that he ordered two shawls to be 'worked into the map of Kashmir' in 1870, and it is quite likely that this shawl is one of them. It was his intention to present these shawls to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) during his visit to India, but the Prince did not visit Kashmir.
The shawls lay in the royal stores for a time, until it was decided to sell them to raise revenue for the state. Only three other shawls with this sort of design and detail are known in the world: one is in the museum in Srinagar; another belongs to HM the Queen, but is on loan to the V&A, and the third was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia.
Phulkari is the term for a range of embroidery styles from the Punjab and surrounding areas in both India and Pakistan. Literally meaning 'flower work', the most basic form of phulkari is a simple flower pattern embroidered in untwisted floss silk on home-spun cloth (khaddar).
A more elaborate type of phulkari work is called bagh (garden). The floss silk is worked in straight surface darning stitches to cover the surface of the khaddar entirely. Baghs are usually worked in one or two colours only, with the play of light on the smooth silk embroidery creating pattern and contrast. These special embroideries are made by female members of a girl's family and given to her when she marries.
Blocks of wood were carved with the outlines and shapes of pictures. These could then be inked and printed onto paper. This technique for mass production was adopted in Panjab in the 19th century and enabled artists to reach a much larger market than previously. The pictures were no longer confined to the wealthy. Sometimes modelled on standard portraits, they were printed in hundreds and sold in all the main bazaars.
The V&A's woodblock prints were collected in the 1870s by J. Lockwood Kipling, when he was Principal of the Mayo School of Art in Lahore. He was the father of Rudyard Kipling, who presented them to the museum in 1917.
The documented history of painting in the Panjab dates to at least the 16th century, when the region was part of the Mughal empire. Artists produced works on paper for the court as well as painting pictures and other designs on the walls of monuments.
Meanwhile, in the hill states stretching from Jammu in the west to Sirmur in the east, the great Pahari (literally 'of the hills') styles of painting were flourishing. From the late 17th century, and throughout the 18th century, the rulers of these Hindu kingdoms employed families of artists to produce works at first free from all sign of Mughal influence, and, later, in a more hybrid style.
By the 18th century, there is evidence that artists trained in the hills were working for patrons in the plains. So when Ranjit Singh was proclaimed Maharaja of the Panjab in 1801, there was already a vigorous painting tradition in the region involving Muslim, Hindu and Sikh artists, who were employed by the Maharaja and others at court.
Themes that are recognisably 'Sikh' include sets of idealised portraits of the ten Gurus, and paintings or drawings illustrating the Janam Sakhi, the traditional and much revered account of the life and travels of the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak.
In the late 19th century, designs were produced at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore deriving in style from the interior painted decoration of the Harmandir at Amritsar found on many other monuments still surviving in the region today.
Photography arrived in India in the 1840s. Some of the most spectacular early images captured by the camera were of the architecture, people and landscape of the Panjab. Beautifully detailed photographs of the Golden Temple were taken by Felice Beato, an Italian-born photographer who travelled through India between 1857 and 1858.
A few years later, in 1864, Samuel Bourne, the most famous commercial photographer in India at the time, took photographs of Amritsar and Lahore which included Ranjit Singh's tomb, his marble pavilion, and Lahore Fort. While in Srinagar, he captured this image of Colonel Alexander Gardner, known to have been in Ranjit Singh's court in 1831, dressed in a tartan suit and matching turban. The people of the Panjab, including Sikh soldiers, maharajas and Akalis were also frequently photographed.