Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms (V&A Publications) by Susan Stronge was first produced to accompany an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1999, which marked the 300th anniversary of the formation of the sacred Sikh brotherhood of the Khalsa by examining the remarkable cultural history of the Sikh kingdoms of the Panjab in the 19th century. But if you missed the exhibition, this hefty and lavishly illustrated tome gives a thorough introduction to Sikh history, culture and art. Sikhism is about 500 years old, founded by Guru Nanak after his revelation of the divine as one infinite and singular reality (Ik On Kar - the quintessential form of Sikh metaphysics and ethics) and refined by succeeding gurus. Kindness, social cohesiveness and divine unity - and a shunning of meaningless ritual - define the creed, and there are now about 30 million Sikhs in the world, of whom 20 million live in India and significant numbers in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Susan Stronge has gathered together an impressive array of contributors from museum curators to military historians. Their articles cover the religion itself, and the story of its key religious building, the golden temple at Amritsar. Military history ('when all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword' said Guru Gobind Singh, and for centuries the Sikhs fought hard against Mogul oppression), art and textiles and courtly customs are also examined, as are some key 19th-century figures and, unavoidably, the relationship with Britain and the European perspective on the Panjab. Though many of the artefacts of the 19th century were modelled on traditional styles centuries older, the modern world also intruded on the Panjab, and there is a fascinating chapter of photographs from the Panjab in the 1850s and 1860s. The author Susan Stronge is a curator in the Indian and South-East Asian Department at the V&A museum, and has written prolifically about the jewellery and other decorative arts of northern India from the 16th to the 19th centuries. This book is viewed as the definitive guide to Sikh arts and is highly recommended to those with an interest in Sikh arts.

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