It is a potent nexus, even explosive at times, as history tells us. Just think of the riots that occurred all over Europe and in parts of the Muslim world in 2005, triggered by the Danish newspaper editorial that included cartoons of Mohammed. And don’t forget how angry many Christians were in the 1990’s over two artistic creations: a photograph that depicted a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine, and a painting of the Virgin Mary featuring an exposed, three-dimensional breast made of elephant dung. Litigation was mounted against the artists; museums lost their grants, while politicians jumped into the fray with both feet to ride the crest of public outrage.
Then why am I wading into such troubled waters where angels fear to tread?
Just months ago, in September, an exhibit of early Sikh art opened at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Although nearly three million Sikhs now live outside India, from where they originated, and well over a million make their home in North America, where they have been for over a century, it is only the sixth museum-quality art exhibit on Sikhs and Sikhism in the diaspora. I am counting here a collection on Sikh immigrant history at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, and the unexcelled displays of art at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian in the capital city of the United States, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and now at the Rubin in New York.
I recall a meeting where the Rubin Museum’s art experts discussed the images and paintings that might possibly be exhibited. One piece portrayed the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, in the company of the Hindu pantheon, paying obeisance to Vishnu, the Hindu deity. Given the fundamentals of the Sikh faith and Guru Nanak’s own teaching, it is not even remotely possible to visualize such an event actually occurring. Clearly, artistic imagination collided with and overrode faith and history here. To the Sikhs, it seemed that this image cast Sikhism as a mere sect of the very much larger and older Hindu practice. This would deny Sikhism its own identity, something that has been a cornerstone of its belief during its entire existence of over 500 years. The Sikhs at the meeting were the patrons and community leaders who were underwriting the display. And they were visibly upset. Art like this, they insisted, would lead to serious misinterpretation of Sikhism and diminish its place as an independent, modern faith.
The matter resolved itself when that 18th century painting failed to arrive from India but, to my mind, the issue demands a wider discussion. Many of my attitudes to art that I discuss today coalesced during that meeting and subsequent conversations with Dr. Caron Smith of the Rubin Museum. I must add here that Dr. Smith, the co-curator of this exhibit who led the effort to mount it, is a most engaging, generous and articulate scholar, deeply steeped in art – its history and appreciation.
When I look at such paintings of the Gurus and of the Sikh faith from 200 years ago, my first instinct is revulsion. Is this the essence of artistic freedom? How could any artist or any thinking person so distort the Sikh message? But then I wonder!
The Gurus lived when the cultural reality of India was Hindu; the dominant political voices were Muslim. The traditional Hindu medieval style of painting was very much alive, and the highly intricate Mughal style was at its zenith. The Gurus valued art and patronized artists, as is borne out by the complex art and architecture at the Golden Temple, for example. Yet, we know that no Guru ever sat for a portrait or endorsed a representation made by any artist. I have heard that during the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur’s life, one artist painted a portrait of him. If so, it has been lost and is no longer available. The Gurus or their contemporaries make no mention of any representation of the Gurus made during their lifetimes. Why? Perhaps the Gurus were afraid that their iconoclastic message would be diminished and they themselves would instead become the icons of a new faith.
Soon after the Guru period, in the early 17th and 18th centuries, rich patrons and minor satraps of the day, who were attracted by the Sikh message, possibly commissioned the artists who made portraits of the Gurus. So now thousands of such pieces exist. Are they realistic? No more than the millions of “likenesses” of Jesus that show him as a blue-eyed blonde-haired figure. Guru-portraits may represent the skill, style and state of mind of the artist, or they may embody the biases and demands of the art patrons of the day. We may find it tawdry but, even today, we can find plenty of Sikh “calendar” art in the villages of the Punjab where Guru Nanak’s “head and face” sprout from the torso of a cow. Keep in mind that in the mainstream Indian “Hindu” mind the cow is sacred and Guru Nanak is revered. Hew McLeod (1991) published a collection of such “popular” Sikh art. In the urban centers of India, such popular art has now become more palatable, largely through artists like Sobha Singh, and primarily via the efforts of the Punjab & Sind Bank,
Now such art, based on the parables of the lives of the Gurus, adorns most Sikh homes. But does it hew to history? Rarely. Is it true to faith? Hardly. Does it accurately record the physical attributes of the Gurus? Likely not. But these and related issues are not important. What counts is the message that is the Guru, not the flesh that walked the earth.
Then why do early representations of the Gurus and their lives exist? Why do people want them and value them? That brings us to the place of art in life. What is art and what it is not? Art is imagination. It symbolizes the deepest faith, but art is not history, nor is it religion. Art remains an unexcelled window into a culture and people of a certain time – their deepest yearnings and how they reconciled their hearts with the world around them. The symbolism in art can enhance understanding. Often we recreate history from such windows into the human condition. For example, the literary and artistic output on the Holocaust, such as Anne Frank’s account, or the diary of Samuel Pepys on 17th century London, are not necessarily faithful history, but remain unmatched as means to understanding it.
So when you see Guru Nanak portrayed as donning a Sufi cap or in the company of Vishnu, Durga or any of the others in the Hindu pantheon, resist the tempting call to take up arms. Be not angry. Could it be that the artist (or the patron who commissioned the work) admired Nanak so that he placed the Guru in the company of the gods that he himself loved and revered? Remember also the principle of artistic freedom.
Sikh tradition tells us that at Guru Nanak’s death, his Hindu and Muslim followers quarreled. Each side wanted to follow the rites of its own religion; Muslims wanted to bury him, Hindus wanted to cremate him. History is silent on which side prevailed, but at Kartarpur, where Nanak breathed his last, two memorials stand, one erected by the Hindus, the other by the Muslims. In a similar vein, existing artistic renderings show Guru Nanak wearing a robe inscribed with Koranic verses in Arabic on one half and Hindu shlokas in Sanskrit on the other. Neither detracts from Nanak’s message. In fact, in the presence of both, side-by-side, one can see the centrality and triumph of his teachings. It is like the fresco of God’s hand emerging from the heavens on the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, or the portraits of God, with Jesus sitting at his right hand. Much of the art that represents the variety in faiths of mankind, including Sikh art, takes
its life from accounts that are hagiographic at best. Even art that seems to distort history or misinterpret the message of the subject can acquire meaning and significance if we look at such artistic depictions not as history or religion, but as supreme compliments to these men of God.
Who knows, some day, an artist may create an imaginatively ecumenical canvas showing God at his table surrounded by Vishnu, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Moses, and Nanak. Surely, Ram, Krishna, Durga, Joseph Smith and Baha Ullah, among others, would also find a place. I suppose the seating arrangement would reflect the artist’s personal bias or that of his patron; in today’s complex world, it would surely spark some lively argument and disagreement.
Such art would certainly not be history. Would the art be good enough to deserve space in a museum? Well! We’ll see. Years ago, when I was a young student new to this country and Sikhs were few and far between, I was invited by an art schoolteacher to pose for a drawing class. I did and often felt awkward listening to the teacher and her students dissecting my posture or anatomy. Some students gave me broader shoulders than I have; others were unable to make the beard look as if the hair were emerging out of the skin. My main concerns were more prosaic: I wanted to remain clothed and, as a struggling student, wanted to get paid.
Clearly, Muslims view with absolute abhorrence any images of Mohammed or of God. Their art consists largely of geometric designs; they would not ever allow any human to portray Mohammed on the stage or screen. The Jews create no likeness of God, in fact orthodox Jews do not even fully spell out the word “God,” but an image of Moses is not shocking to them. I suppose Christians have no such compunctions, though they realize that images of God are artistic renditions and not realistic. Hindus appear to have no limitations on artistic depictions of any of their large pantheon on stage, screen, and paper or in stone. Sikhs reject any iconic representations of God and all illustrations of any Guru as well, yet artists’ conceptions of Gurus are commonplace. There is even one within the Golden Temple.
I look at the early art on Sikhs and Sikhism as representative of its time and culture. A lot of it has the flowing lines and the subtle, muted hues of the Pahari and Kangra styles of Northern India. In these, the Gurus are often depicted as high-caste Hindus. Some art shows the intricate patterns and technical complexity that are the hallmarks of Mughal miniatures. But in such Mughal art, I see that the facial features and turbans of the Gurus are virtually indistinguishable from those of Mughal noblemen. In the more recent Sikh art of the 20th century, one can also see Western influence in technique, style, form and themes. Punjabi folk art, of course, always has and continues to catch the eye for its vibrant earth colors. It would be good to remember that the first dedicated collector of Sikh art may have been Lockland Kipling, the father of Rudyard, as opposed to earlier figures who pirated the riches of Punjab, a la Lord Dalhousie.
The Gurus lived in colorful times and throughout memory, the history of Punjab has been eventful. The collectors, patrons and creators of early Sikh art were almost certainly unschooled in Sikh history and religion. Perhaps they were not much better than most of us who belong to the “I know what I like” school of art.
Art may not always be true to faith or capture what T. S. Eliot termed “the contrived corridors and cunning passages of history,” but it continues to give expression to a people and to the passion in their lives.
Note: The author, Inder Jit Singh, is Professor of Anatomy at New York University. He is on the editorial advisory board of the periodical 'The Sikh Review,' Calcutta. I.J. Singh is also the author of four books: 'Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias,' 'The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress,' 'Being and Becoming a Sikh,' and the newly-released 'The World According to Sikhi.'