"Art from the Punjab"
by Joanna Shaw-Eagle
The Viewers who visit the National Museum of Natural History's intriguing "Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab" will first notice an impressive, spotlighted Sikh "nishan."
The handsome, geometrically designed steel symbol — also known as a "khanda" — is a significant Sikh emblem. Exhibit curator Paul Michael Taylor says the double-edged sword at its center symbolizes divine victory; the kettle, associated with charity, is represented by a circle; and the two swords set at the perimeter imply spiritual and secular justice.
The nishan, typical of the many-layered, multicultural Sikh art, introduces the exhibit's some 100 Sikh artifacts and artworks handsomely installed in a small gallery. Mr. Taylor has performed an almost superhuman feat in detailing 500 years of Sikh history and culture through these well-chosen original works of art, photographs, reproductions and interactive panels. The curator says he hopes for more gallery space and loans of original art in the near future, adding that fragile objects will be rotated every six months.
The works, dating from the 18th century through today, include a variety of paintings; texts from the Sikh holy book; elaborate velvet-and-pearl covers called "rumalas" that cover copies of the book; appealing musical instruments; brilliantly colored textiles from which elaborate female clothes are made, especially for brides; some jewelry; and glistening, substantial-looking arms and armor from the battles the Sikhs fought against the British.
Sikhism was founded about 500 years ago — fairly recently by the standards of other major religions — by Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539), a Punjabi visionary and teacher raised as a Hindu. (Guru is a Sanskrit word meaning "teacher," and the name of the religion means "disciple.")
When the holy man was 30 years old, he began preaching that God honors the way people live more than the religion they follow. His ideals of equality, compassion, truthfulness and generosity drew many of the creed's early followers. The belief in equality was and is especially popular, as it runs counter to India's elitist caste system.
Like its religion, Sikh art is also a hybrid. Styles of painting vary. They range from the portraits of Sikh gurus — there were nine Sikh leaders after Guru Nanak — painted in the classical Indian miniature style to good-sized expressionist paintings by contemporary Sikh artists. Among the latter are Arpana Caur; Sobha Singh; Gursewak Singh ; and Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, the enormously successful London-born twins who paint each picture in shifts.
The exhibit's first portraits of Guru Nanak are the early 19th-century Indian-style miniatures to the left as visitors enter the gallery. In "Ten Gurus," the artist placed a large image of Guru Nanak in the top center, with the other gurus arranged below and in four panels on each side. Here, the artist outlined in black paint the flattened, richly patterned figures seated or kneeling on rugs, then spread a heavy gouache pigment (a kind of thickened watercolor) across the paper support.
Another remarkable Guru Nanak image is the early 20th-century painting, "Guru Nanak With Mardana and Bhai Bala." Painted by an anonymous artist who almost smothered the work with gold paint, glass beads, mirror, gesso and gouache, this work shows the guru with his two companions, Mardana and Bhai Bala, placed under a ceremonial canopy.
A good way to leave the exhibition is with a painting of Sikh marriage preparations by the Kaur Singh twins. Accompanied by attractive, informative photographs, the work is a delightful combination of flat, outlined and patterned figures dressed in traditional Sikh dress with Western elements such as Superman toys, a boombox and a Barbie doll. One of the twins' practices is to put themselves in their paintings and interact with their subjects, here the sumptuously dressed bride.
Mr. Taylor says the Sikhs feel they can help facilitate peace between India and Pakistan, as the Sikh religion draws from both Hinduism and Islam, and its homeland, the Punjab, straddles the countries' border. If this educational and handsome show can advance this mission, it's well worth the expertise and effort put into it.
WHAT: "Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab"
WHERE: National Museum of Natural History, Constitution Avenue at 10th Street Northwest
WHEN: On view indefinitely. Extended summer hours of 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily through Labor Day, with the exception of Aug. 28 and Sept. 1, when the museum will close at 5:30 p.m.