Art from the Punjab: Eclectic Sikh Collection Surveys 500 Years of Faith

Article excerpt

Joanna Shaw-Eagle is a writer for The Washington Times.

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. 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 eighteenth 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. …