Empire of the Sikhs.


‘Empire of the Sikh’s is a full circle journey, bathed in tones of gouache and gold, that opens a window to the past and brings us to the present’.

Short Review.

The Empire of the Sikhs exhibition at the SOAS, a major exhibition presented by the UK Punjab Heritage Association, will close in a few weeks but I highly recommend you visit before it does, it’s free, spectacular and well worth the time. The installation is found in the exhibition rooms of the Brunei Gallery, a straight walk from the gates of the University of London. There is something there for student, art lover, culture junkie and newcomer alike.

I spent just under two hours at the exhibition, at first moving quite slowly, and if you linger as I did at each exhibit, paying close attention and examining them closely, you would probably need three. So if you want to linger at each display, recall there are over 100 artefacts with their descriptions and several large information panels, and the nature of the objects fairly beg you to take your time with them.

The exhibition is expansive in scope but intimate in expanse, I imagine that it could become quite crowded at busy times, should you happen to arrive at such a moment I’d advise being patient. If you can manage it, browse the books, pick a bench outside for a little while, or drop back down Store Street and sit in one of its chic cafes for half an hour.

Instructions are well posted on the door as you come in. If you have a family, don’t worry. People were bringing their children in, and a small play area where the kids can colour-in is situated to the right of the entrance door. Additionally the Brunei Gallery has a small but well stocked bookshop in the building and inside the exhibition there is a wonderful selection of illustrated books, many published by the excellent people at Kashi House, being sold in the exhibition, as well as post cards and prints, all very reasonably priced and of good quality.

The Empire of the Sikhs is undoubtedly one of the brightest lights of London’s summer exhibition season, and not to be missed.

Opening Date: 12 July 2018: Time: 10:30 AM
Finishes: 23 September 2018: Time: 5:00 PM.
(Late Opening on Thursdays. Closed Mondays and Bank Holidays.)
Venue: Brunei Gallery.
Admission: Free.

Full Review.

A Walk to Brunei.

Nothing eventful happened on my walk towards Russell Square. Oxford Street was busy, the streets either side of it less so, every square mile of London is practically its own little bubble with its own pace and speed. Walk in a straight line parallel to the river and you’ll pass through several mini time zones. Today I was happily anticipating passing through them and eventually plunging back into the slower pace of 19th century India.

The pale Art Deco geometry of Senate House, framed in between the School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases on the left, and the green clouds of Malet Street Park and the last buildings of Gower Street on the right, suddenly soared into the blue sky more like a New York Hotel than the administrative centre of the University of London. I entered via the gates, further down Malet Street, just along from Birkbeck College, from where it takes little skill with a map to navigate your way to the Brunei Gallery.

Signs congratulating the class of 2018 were bright in most directions, and indeed even on the pillars of the Gallery and the SOAS building. Down from a banner, high on the building stared the ever confident visage of Sher Singh, the face of the exhibition. I didn’t look at the building with the same ignorance I approached the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum with in 2015. I’ve been interested in the Sikh Wars for many years and I count Amarpal Singh Sidhu, author of two volumes on the Wars, as a good friend, the Sikh Military History Facebook group is a perpetual font of historical and cultural information and my connection with Parmjit Singh at Kashi House has ensured I was not going in unarmed or in particular need of a guide.

The Gun.

The superb artillery piece in the first room. https://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2018/07/17/get-up-close-to-the-sikh-empire-at-this-outstanding-soas-exhibition/

It was a few minutes after 3:16, p.m. Upon walking through the doors of the gallery you are confronted by a screen of latticed wood fashioned in what I understand is Jali style and along with the atmospheric music, very effectively allows you to transition away from London and into the world of old Punjab.

The room is more or less square. On the right is the gift and information area, with the near corner devoted to the diversion of children. On the left a long information panel welcomes you to the exhibition and leads along to the lift doors and the visitor’s book. The left-hand side of the room gives onto the stairs and is open except for a large screen on which has been magnified the stupendous painting of Ranjit Singh and his court. A false wall hides the entrance to the Victorian Encounters exhibit, and pasted onto this wall is the ever satisfied face of Sher Singh. Centre stage is the gun.

I took a turn around the room, reading the panel, and making way for a very well dressed Sikh family who came in behind me. I seemed to be a herald for the final rush of the day for no sooner had I stepped aside and continued to read, then I heard a very loud voice booming somewhere out of sight and the doors opened once more to emit a large tour group. The leader, resplendent in an orange baseball cap and weighed down with files and a bag marched in holding aloft a curled program as a guidon. The group that followed was probably twenty to thirty people strong, and hummed like a beehive. As I read the panel I made a mental note to allow them a good head start. It was lucky for me that the gun was there.

Normally I don’t spend fifteen to twenty minutes minutely examining a piece of 19th century artillery, but even if a large tour and the loud voice of its conductor was not to be avoided, I think you’d be hard pressed not to lavish attention on this gilded piece of weaponry.

There can be few howitzers in the world that can be stared at and viewed like a piece of sculpture, but this one can. The only Sikh gun to be held in a private collection stands resplendently in the middle of the room complete with limber and tools, even the yoke that once attached to the harnesses of the horses that pulled it is there. Softly gleaming metal is everywhere, set off by dark polished wood while crisp carvings spread and curve over practically every surface, from the band around the bucket to the spirals that wind around the rammers. Minute etchings cover the barrel, the carriage itself is almost an animated tapestry. Two burnished gunners bearing ramrods and sponges stand almost like signposts for their human counterparts while a peacock rises from one of the panels of the block trail, each hub is capped by an enigmatic brass carving, and at the point where the limber hitches to the trail, a mahout sits astride the neck of his elephant.

It used to be said that ‘An army without elephants is as despicable as a forest without a lion, a kingdom without a king or as valour unaided by weapons’. Artillery had all but removed the war elephant from the Indian battlefield in Mughal times, but here we see a pleasing continuation of the importance of elephants as a battle winner rather than a supporter, incorporated into the machine that had replaced them, yet fittingly pulling it along.

In between the heavy wheels the gunners could sit on two chairs, to my mind indicating this was once used as horse artillery, where the men manning it traditionally sat on the horses and limber box, so as to be able to keep up the cavalry. The dark mouth, slightly green with age and disuse is grooved and worn from firing.

You don’t need to be interested in weapons or warfare to be able to spend time with this object. It is a work of art and craftsmanship as much as a weapon of war, excellently summarising two important facets of this exhibition. Defence played a prominent part of the makeup of the Sikh Raj, and not only was it at the cutting edge of military technology, but also an immensely wealthy and prosperous state that could afford to gild its artillery, (this in particular being a battery specifically attached to the Maharajah) as an outward sign of its power and influence.

The Glory of Lahore.

Empire of the Sikhs-Image 5 (Copyright Toor Collection)
The Court of Ranjit Singh. Copyright: Toor Collection.

Down two flights of stairs, passing two large pictures, there is a stairwell. Here on a table you will find laminated exhibition guides, which due to the somewhat low light and use of white text on grey in the object descriptions may be useful for those visitors with a sight impairment. Also on the table are professionally printed pamphlets, also found on the visitor’s book table. These take you on an informative and educational trail through exhibition’s most notable objects, a simple (though quite challenging) quiz is included, plus discussion points and quotes from the curator. There is an adult and children’s version, and I imagine that groups will find it fun to see who can get the most answers right, IKEA sized pencils are provided.

A Jali decorated wall faces you as you enter the main gallery. The light is subdued and the music no longer plays. Visitors should turn left here and as soon as you do you enter a world filled with objects that place you into the world of the Sikh Empire when it was at its height.

The room itself is slightly larger than the room you just left, with richly coloured walls of blue, gold and red hung with information panels. In navigating it you follow a hairpin path that will lead you back to the door you entered by. It is separated into three. Each section focusing on a specific theme of the Sikh Raj.

Following the left had wall you will find the general narrative, panels detailing the chronology of the empire juxtaposed with the key dates of world history begin the journey, moving quickly onto the rule of Ranjit Singh and glory of Lahore.

Position is power and the Indus Valley was the door to India, and as the exhibition notes, whoever controlled Punjab controlled the guardroom. The exhibition covers the origins of Sikhism, through the ten founding Gurus and several pivotal periods that contributed to the establishment of the empire.

Yet as important as the early period is, the exhibition centres on the life of one man. The leader who united the opposing Sikh factions and lead them to defeat their enemies providing safety and stability required to form the empire. A scarred, one eyed Maharajah named Ranjit Singh. His glittering, gem like eye, long white beard and his thin form are to be seen everywhere, indeed although it is the portly and bejewelled Sher Singh that is the face of the exhibition, it is Ranjit, the Lion of Punjab, that is at the heart of it. So central to the empire was he that it seems as if the Lion’s eye is watching from some unspecified place, observing the curious and the admiring, coming to view the remnants of his legacy.

Most important in this section is the evocation of imperial Lahore as a cosmopolitan melting pot. This is borne out by the sketches of a talented artist, whose wonderful studies of street life are reproduced on a large panel on the wall. In Lahore you could meet Tibetans, Arabs and even the odd Russian Prince taking an elephant ride.

Art was obviously flourishing, fuelled by the patronage of wealthy patrons who had been able to amass fortunes and estates, creating a refined and rarefied strata of society that demanded the highest standards of artistic skill.

This becomes instantly apparent when first entering the gallery. Hanging on the wall are two pictures, of the Guru, Gobind Sing, one coloured and one sketched, each identical in subject and execution. There is barely a line that is not exactly in the same place as the finished article, each uncoloured space in the sketch bears a note indicating what colour it should be. Those areas too small to be notated have small portions coloured in the proper hue. Allowing us piercing insight into the process by which many of the artworks on display were created.

As I inspected them, marvelling at the precision and detail, I realised that the picture gleamed as I moved, and I remembered that many artists would embellish their gouache with gold. It was also customary to view said paintings sitting down and in your hand rather than on a wall, under a stronger light the painting would shimmer as you turned it in your hands. And no wonder, the talented artist had ensured that any level of scrutiny would please the owner of the piece, I hope he was paid well. The money itself that would have crossed many an artist’s palm can even be seen displayed in one of the cases around the corner.

In the centre of this section are two large glass cases holding many fascinating objects, while on the false wall, inside them you can see a bronze embellished chainmail coif designed to fit over a turban, a shield that is not only studded with jewels on the front side but embroidered on the inside, with a cushion behind the grip so the wearer did not bruise his knuckles. In the next case there are some excellent firearms, a child’s Talwar and mail shirt but also an amazing bow and quiver of arrows.

I bent down so as to take an especially close look and could tell that in its heyday this object would have been dazzling, as it was, faded by age it takes the breath away. People like Mike Loades would be able to tell you almost exactly what its draw weight is, the thick decorated string lies beside the unstrung bow, which is of the recurve composite type, used across Asia, decorated with minute patterns and designs, the quiver is a masterpiece of embroidery, the details of which are still crisp. Nothing could be too embellished for the owner it seems. Even the arrows are painted in red and green, detailed right down to barbs, which are carved and gilded. The best part was seeing the thumb rings. These sat above the bow but were an integral part of any archer’s kit. In the east it was and indeed is quite usual to draw the bow not by the fingers as you would a longbow, but with the forefinger and thumb. With practice it contributes to a smoother release but unless you have very tough skin even practiced archers need some protection. These examples, different coloured and in what looks like two sizes, are studded with jewels, and show the distinctive shape that protects the thumb pad from the friction of the string as it is released. They are often the most personal part of an archer’s kit and great care was taken to select or craft one to fit the user

As you can tell I got quite carried away with all this and when I looked at my watch I realised I would need to speed up a little. There was lots more to see. If you don’t have two to three hours, definitely follow the exhibition trail pamphlet and then meander, otherwise you should wander through and get an overview of everything and then go back round again and look at the bits you liked the most more carefully. Around me people were slowly making their way around the room, gazing and talking in reverential whispers, few people were in a hurry to leave.

Empire of the Sikhs-Image 8 (Copyright Toor Collection)
General Allard. Copyright Toor Collection.

A great point of this exhibition is the cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse nature of the Sikh Raj. There is no better example of this than the panels and objects collected along the rear wall. This tells the story of the Firangis, foreigners, a group of men, mostly officers, drawn from practically every nation in the West, and various places throughout the east, particulate revealing a diaspora of Napoleonic Wars veterans to India.

Ranjit Singh wanted his army to be able to rival anything in India, and indeed Europe, and the easiest way to do that was to import soldiers to train and command it. Men like Avitabile, Court and Allard who rose to high rank not only in the army but in the court, settling in India, marrying Indian wives and helping the Maharaja establish the dominance of his state. Not to mention the infamous Alexander Gardner . Here we not only see their faces and read their stories but we see how the Sikh army was organised and equipped. It was very enjoyable to see the open journal of a French officer who had drawn a diagram of how to move a regiment of cavalry in line across a bridge, from three possible directions, and form up in line again on the other side. Likewise on the panel my eye was drawn to the images depicting the manual of arms and an infantry battalion in line.

After seeing the panel that depicts the family life of the firangis and the advances of Sikh inventors, writers and scientists, stop. Turn right and go into the red walled section marked in gold as the Durbar. This is a sumptuous and intimate section, filled with the symbols of power and the faces of the maharajahs that followed Ranjit Sing.

The paintings were superb. Sher Singh stares across at you in all his glory, and a visually spectacular canvass depicting a gang of Thugs about to murder a Nihang/Akali, (a warrior order of the Sikhs that features prominently in the exhibition). Likewise the succession of gouache and gold scenes continued to awe me with their rich textures and detail.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the inlaid turquoise dagger owned by Colonel James Skinner on display, the Colonel also wrote and commissioned the glorious book of nobles. And each Talwar in the collection is spectacular. Once more the great Ranjit Singh sits at the centre of everything, instructive in the sense that he is instantly recognisable, (every Maharaja is depicted differently in order for easy identification) yet there are very few things that can be personally connected to him, one of which is the elegant pistol displayed in a case of other weapons. The Sikh empire depended greatly on its army, and each sword, musket, shield, bow and piece of armour is significant.

The Three Faces of Ranjit Singh.

Empire of the Sikhs-Image 1 (Copyright Toor Collection)
The classic depiction of Ranjit Singh. Copyright: Toor Collection.

If a man rises far enough he adopts multiple faces, but artistic convention demands that an image be adopted to easily identify him. In this exhibition you will see Ranjit Singh, mostly, as an icon, with each painting repeating nearly identically the image of an old man with a long white beard and one eye smaller than the other. For that reason a trio of Ranjit Singh depictions stood out for me.

One, reproduced on the panel in the first section, dates to the end of the second Maratha War. In this he has a rather short, neat, pointed beard. He is richly dressed in red and it is unusual because it strays from the formula generally used to depict him, yet confirming more or less his profile. The painting is significant in another way as well. Sitting on a carpet, a sword resting against his right shoulder with one knee raised discussing a pivotal topic is the similarly cyclopean Maratha Chief, Jaswant Rao Holkar. The Maratha Prince, who is not great friend to the Sikhs, is nevertheless on the run from the British and is asking Ranjit for his aid. Had the Sikh ruler offered his protection to the fugitive warlord, it would have begun the Anglo Sikh Wars much earlier. The fact that he turned Holkar away ensured the survival of the Khalsa Raj as an ally of the British, who needed him to guard the north-western frontier, and a treaty occurred shortly thereafter.

The second is found the last case of the Durbar there is a miniature portrait which unusually shows Ranjit as a young man. Painted sometime between 1810 and 1820, he has dark hair and wears the blue usually associated with the Akali’s. His famous, single eye, usually sleepy or brooding, here has a flash of something carnivorous in it, showing the Lion in his prime.

The third is also in the Durbar area, and was painted by Ms. Emily Eden, who was the sister of the EIC Governor General and she visited the court of Ranjit Singh and wrote a book about her travels. Being a lady of breeding she could sketch as well as write, and one day when the Maharajah was watching a review of cavalry she settled herself in a ‘quiet corner’ and began to paint him.

He sits on a carved, well cushioned chair, in a classic pose, with one knee raised, the foot resting against the opposite thigh, while the other rests on a stool. His hand gestures with knowledgeable authority, for as Colonel Skinner observed he was every inch a field marshal. There is at once a strength and a fragility in the old man, dressed in a green trimmed Kurta with a small red turban. His face is small above his long and distinctive pointed, white, beard. His expression is distant and focused on the troops, which we cannot see. At once the difference between the formal portraits and depictions of him become evident, this is quiet and personal, very understated and the equivalent of a candid photograph. The others show his authority, power and wisdom, often surrounded by attendants and officials. They are self-conscious, but this one shows us the man as many actually saw him, from his blind side.

Full Circle.

The final section is probably both the smallest and the saddest. You exit the Durbar, having had an inkling of what is to come due to the references to the last Maharaja, Duleep Singh and the presence of a receipt for the Koh I Noor. The most impressive item here is the monumental silver candelabra which allegorises the rise and fall of the Sikh Empire. Mirroring the exhibition in that its three sides represent a different part of the story, we find a hill tribesman attacking Ranjit Singh’s bodyguard, then moving around to its right the clash of the Empires and then the final surrender. Yet looking past this stupendous monument to the success of the East India Company in gaining final control of the entire subcontinent, there is more to the story. The final panel is a welcome assurance that the Sikhs did not disappear. From the historical record after the second war.

Indeed as well as acknowledging the greatness and uniqueness of the Khalsa Raj, and the part of Britain in the fall of the last independent Native state in India, it asks us to recognise the part Sikh’s have played in the history of Britain, from their military contribution to defending the empire through to the end of WW1, to their selfless contribution to the freedom of Europe in WW2, to the part that the Sikh community of the United Kingdom plays in an unfolding national story today. ‘Empire of the Sikh’s is a full circle journey, bathed in tones of gouache and gold, that opens a window to the past and brings us to the present’.

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.


Images Reproduced with permission of Empire of the Sikhs Exhibition, London. All images are the property of their respective parties, please ask permission before reusing. 

 With thanks to Harbakhsh Grewal and Parmjit Singh.


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