Founded at the end of the 16th century, Sikhism was born when a young, upper-class Punjabi Hindu by the name of Nanak had a revelation. It made him believe that God was a spiritual entity without any form, a universal being shared by all religions. According to him, social ranks established on the grounds of faith, class, caste, gender or racial descent were illusory in nature, the only thing that was real was unity. Art in Sikhism, particularly paintings, displays this culture’s origins, its history and what it is dictated by, namely diligence and hard work, pluralistic politics and mysticism rather than militancy.
The artists of the Sikhism tradition took inspiration from the existing Mughal and Hindu court styles and created an art form of their own. Usually, these paintings made use of watercolors on paper, with layered scenes and an individualistic perspective. The subject was often depicted in two dimensions and was often shown in action. In earlier times, these paintings were mainly created for the elite communities of the Sikhism tradition. While Sikhs do not consider the pictorial representations of Gurus as a reliable source, paintings still play a vital role in bringing together Sikh communities.
While the popular belief is that Sikh paintings began in the 19th century, there is evidence that suggests otherwise. There are traces of paintings in Punjab that date back to the 16th century when the ‘Suba’ in Lahore was flourishing. During the 19th century, the mighty Maharaja, Ranjit Singh dominated the landscape of art in Sikhism. When Ranjit Singh captured the Punjab hills and overthrew the last ruler of Kangra, there were many Pahari artists who received patronage from him. Furthermore, this legacy spread across other parts of the Punjab plains as well, including Lahore, Amritsar and Patiala.
Following Ranjit Singh’s rule, Patiala became one of Punjab’s biggest centers of patronage. During this time, numerous religious manuscripts were painted, out of which, the most popular piece of art was the Janam-Sakhi. It is a collection of monumental moments of the life of Guru Nanak, which was penned down in simple, comprehensive prose as a response to the popular demand and needs of the general public. Many painters found it an extensive task to visualize a spiritual being such as Guru Nanak. Another inspiration for painters of the Sikh tradition was the life of the other ten Sikh gurus, specifically, the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, who left a lasting impression on the followers of the Sikh faith, because of his courage and unprecedented sacrifices.
Today, the paintings in the tradition of Sikhism, no longer adopt the style that is native to the culture of Sikhism. The structural and technical aspects of Sikh paintings today draw their influence from Western art. These paintings have further influenced the Kundalini artists in the West.
Q1. What is the role of art in Sikhism today?
The purpose of art in the tradition of Sikhism was to serve as a tool to teach people about the culture and beliefs of Sikhism. Today, it is used to educate children about history lessons in local community schools and at gurudwaras.
Q2. What are the primary art forms used in the Sikh tradition?
The main forms of painting that are used in the state of Punjab were murals and frescoes, inspired by art from the West.
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