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Exhibition Review: Ranjit Singh – Sikh, Warrior, King

I’ve never visited India. I can barely tell the different between Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu. I am Sikh, but don’t strictly follow the religion or traditions. I consider myself East African before Punjabi, and British above both of those. Yet I am deeply spiritual. I see hope in the culture of my ancestors and pride in the true meaning behind the creation of the Khalsa. 

For me, representation went as far as seeing people with the same skin colour as me with a name people wanted to know the meaning of. Growing up in multicultural London, I got that representation: Meera Syal, Indira Verma, Nina Wadia, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Archie Panjabi, Parminder Nagra, Riz Ahmed, Gurinder Chadha… 

When booking my ticket to the Wallace Collection’s Ranjit Singh: Sikh, Warrior, King, I wasn’t expecting much more than another thoughtful, beautifully curated exhibition. But I left feeling seen in a way I hadn’t before. I was surprisingly emotional. Proud. Extremely grateful.

The exhibition opens with a map of the Sikh Empire (from the Khyber Pass all the way to my Dad’s birthplace of Ludhiana), rooting you in geography before proceeding to the history – faith, spirituality, and service in three images of the Sikh Gurus: 

  • Guru Arjan Dev Ji who compiled the Adi Granth (later expanded to the Guru Granth Sahib Ji),
  • Guru Hargobind Singh Ji who constructed the Akal Takht and first introduced the process of militarization into Sikhism, and 
  • Guru Gobind Singh Ji who founded the Khalsa in 1699, introduced the five artiles of faith into Sikhism (the Five Ks), wrote the Dasam Granth and enshrined the Guru Granth Sahib Ji as the Eternal Guru. 

Only then does Ranjit Singh himself appear. Not a guru, but an ordinary man. 

One who was short in stature, contracted smallpox as a child resulting in blindness in one eye and marks covering his face, was uneducated and illiterate except for the Gurmukhi alphabet… but shrewd, brave, tolerant, wise.  A martial artist, great horse rider, and incredible ruler. 

This was a man who defeated invading armies, encouraged religious tolerance, rebuilt and expanded Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar (the Golden Temple), and introduced an artistic renaissance that included Muslim mosques, Sufi shrines, and Hindu temples (specifically the Temple of Shivji in Varanasi). 

In a space filled with deep reds and exquisite lattice work (one which partially conceals a panoramic of the Harmandir Sahib), the Wallace Collection tells us this story. First in weaponry and armour, then ivory sculptures and miniature paintings, then in larger paintings, cloth, and his throne, and finally his legacy.

Here are three of my personal highlights: 

Painting of Maharaja Sher Singh by August Schoefft (c. 1841)

Towards the end of the exhibition, this portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son stands in stark contrast to the picture painted of his father throughout. There’s something reminiscent of a child playing dress up – wearing all the jewellery the family owns, sitting on a throne not made for him, holding a sword, awkwardly but with excitement. It emphasises just how unique Maharaja Ranjit Singh was – a man who didn’t need expensive clothing or to be dripping in priceless stones. Whose pugh (turban) was the only crown he needed.

The Royal Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh by Bishan Singh (c. 1863)

This painting, highlighted in gold and silver, depicts the Lion of Punjab surrounded by his heirs, ministers, generals, administrators, and attendants. The level of detail is spectacular, with elephants and horses outside the gates, the notes being taken in the foreground, and the decoration of the buildings themselves. But what I particularly like is how Maharaja Ranjit Singh is so easily lost in the sea of portraits, almost all of whom are clad in brighter colours, wearing more jewellery, and armed more heavily.

Panoramic Depiction of the Fort and Old City Walls of Lahore

I read about this rare scroll painting of the city walls going through conservation at the British Library a few years ago, and having the opportunity to see it up close was incredible. Roughly two and a half meters in length, the image depicts the heart of the Sikh empire in its seat between Kabul and Delhi, on the Grand Trunk Road. The walls were later pulled down and the course of the River Ravi altered, so this is a real treat to see, and those elephants are gorgeous!

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s failing was that he constructed a government so dependent on his presence that it was unable to outlive him.  Though a commendable exhibition, the Wallace Collection’s failing was that it did not showcase the extraordinary women he inspired, namely Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s granddaughters Bamba, Catherine, and Sophia, all of whom became suffragettes and fought for women’s rights in both the UK and India. 

Find out more about the Wallace Collection’s spectacular exhibition and book tickets here.

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