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Amritsar: Reflections on the Past

14 July , 2011

An insightful new exhibition at London’s Brunei Gallery promises to be the most interesting collection of Sikh arts, artefacts and history in the capital since the V&A’s major exhibition on Sikh art in 1999.

Identity shifts

Amongst the familiar assortment of nineteenth century miniature paintings of the Lahore court, and a resplendent set of warrior’s armour from that same nineteenth century court, the exhibition’s unusual touch lies in the emphasis placed on the literary and photographic perspectives of nineteenth century European travellers to this sacred city which lies at the spiritual centre of Sikhism, one of the world’s youngest religions. A world timeline pits Amritsar’s development against global events and is a useful barometer of how the city began to develop and change between the Middle Ages and the Victorian era. The gradual shift in attitudes towards an individual identity, both in an Indian and an international context are demonstrated by well-considered curation that explore external perceptions of a culture that is not well-known beyond its immediate historical context.

“The fascinating Eastern-ness of it all”

Amristar’s mysticism, “the fascinating Eastern-ness of it all”, has long fascinated travellers to India, even up to the modern day. Set in a dusty northern Indian city just before the plains give way to the grace of the Himalayas, the splendour and serenity of the Golden Temple seem always to have come as a distinct surprise to the visitor, “an illustration of an Arabian night fairy scene”, said J.B. Ireland in 1859. “It is called golden because the upper part of it is gilt all over, like the dome of the Isaac’s Church in Petersburg. There is a great deal of mosaic work on the marble of the temple and nothing can be prettier than the gilding of the interior, which is more like what people in England associate with the Alhambra than anything else which occurs to me. It is very small, little more than a chapel. The Capella Palatina at Palermo comes into one’s mind, but the feeling of the Golden Temple is quite different, and much more riant”, wrote Montstuart E. Grant Duff in Notes of an Indian Journey (1876). Amritsar, set in the crossroads of the Greek, Persian and British invasions into India, somehow reflects it all.

Black and white

The exhibition features paintings and photographs only as far as 1959, partly because the temple has not changed greatly in the last fifty years and partly because the advent of colour photography meant that modern coppery images of the temple do not convey the sense of a distinct past that the curators intended viewers to reflect upon. In particular, there was a deliberate decision not to bring the exhibition up to date to reflect major political shifts and disturbances in the late twentieth century, notably the invasion of the temple by Indira Gandhi’s government and subsequent massacres of Sikh communities in Amritsar and north India in 1984. With so much other material focusing on that period, the individuals concerned with the project wanted visitors to reflect on what the past meant to Sikh identity, and how that was viewed by outsiders, rather than the definitions which have been cast upon it by insiders and outsiders today.

Juga Singh, one of the organisers, explains that there is a common tendency by people to cling onto their past, or more accurately, their nostalgic vision of a past. “But the past is not static”, he says, “and if people try to claim it is such, they are warping their own past and history. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, himself was a revolutionary forging change in a time of great disturbance in India, but like all the Gurus of the Sikh religion, they were sages of their particular eras. They saw the need to re-interpret knowledge in a modern way in their time, and now people need to do the same”. The message is not lost as I walk around the exhibition. It forces you to ask why the building was built, why it has such strong Moorish and Muslim architectural features such as the Ramgarhia minarets, why the temple was built where it was, and how its features and tenements changed over time.

Why, I ask Singh, was the pool of immortality which surrounds the central tenet of the Temple so small when there is such a large area of space for buildings? Singh explains that in India, historically there was no sense of congregation. Prayer, he says, was a personal contemplation between the believer and his god. The idea of congregation came from the Islamic and Christian traditions, and thus a space for congregation is created in the faith, through the langar food hall and external bunga buildings which were centres of learning until they were demolished in the reform movements of 1947, post-Partition.


The 1959 break in the exhibition is also an unspoken acknowledgement of the substantial changes that the religion, and its chief city, were undergoing during the first half of the twentieth century. There is early twentieth century film and aural footage, which hauntingly sings out the religious hymns, or kirtan, by Muslim rababis, representing Bhai Mardana, the Sufi Muslim companion to the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak. The Muslim singers were a composite part of the temple’s structure until Partition forced them out. By the late 1950s, the tradition of Muslim singers in the precinct had disappeared along with the thousands of Muslim residents of Amritsar who had crossed over to Lahore and Pakistan when the new borders were determined in 1947. The demolition of the bungas also marked the determinative shift from a more inclusive Sikh identity, which reflected a bygone India, to a more fundamental need to identify who constituted a Sikh.

Davinder Toor, one of the chief lenders to the exhibition, explained to me that even in today’s India, a Sikh may frequently visit a Sikh gurdwara, a Hindu mandir (temple) and the shrine of a Muslim Sufi saint. None of that precludes him from considering himself a Sikh, and the exhibition shows that Amritsar itself defined itself in those terms during the nineteenth century. Photographs show Tibetan people and Hindu Sadhus wandering around the pool. The exhibition focuses on these subtle twists and turns in identity without ever forcing the visitor to resolve the questions posed.

Perspectives from the inside-out?

I asked Davinder Toor why they focused on European perspectives of Amritsar, rather than Indian viewpoints. “It’s appropriate to the theme of British Indians and of the exhibition taking place in London”, he says. “It focuses on the ‘outside looking in’. People who are outside a culture can have a unique viewpoint of it, and that is a valuable asset in itself. We see that the early travellers reflected positively on the inclusiveness of Amritsar, and that is something which today’s generation and community need to consider themselves.”

Set against black and white images of the ancient heart of Amritsar, whose buildings and lanes looks remarkably similar today , the words of Robert Chauvelot, author of Mysterious India (1921) ring in my ears as I leave the gallery:

“This sacred metropolis contains a marvel which the most blasé eye cannot contemplate without profound artistic emotion…There are no other guardians to protect these riches from theft or spoliation other than a few old turbaned fellows who are without arms. One would say that a sort of sacred terror protects their temple against any profane or sacrilegious violence.”

I left the exhibition contemplating whether the spiritual riches of an inclusive faith could survive in a world increasingly dominated by the need to demonstrate an allegiance to a particular God, and a particular way of being. I left wondering whether the serenity instilled by that inclusive approach, and so evidenced by the reflections of the past, brought together here at the Brunei Gallery, would bring food for thought to our multicultural, multi-faith London. Are there lessons in the past for us all, regardless of our religious identities?

July 14th 2011


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