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Sikh News "I See No Stranger:Early Sikh Art And Devotion"

Nov 19, 2004
The New York Times has a great review of the Sikh Exhibition with wonderful
art images.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Inside NYTimes.com

Art Review | 'I See No Stranger'


Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh

A king pays homage to Guru Nanek in an exhibition of early Sikh art at
the Rubin Museum.

The Wonders of Sikh Spirituality


Art & Design <http://www.nytimes.com/pages/arts/design/index.html>

Wonders of Sikh Spirituality Come Alive


Sikhism, the world's fifth-largest organized religion, has more than 20
million followers. Many thousands live in New York City. We can spot
Sikh men on the street by their turbans and upswept whiskers. And many
of us will recall that two decades ago Sikhs were at the center of the
news when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple at Amritsar, killing
hundreds of Sikh separatists, and, soon after, Indira Gandhi was
assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.

But what about Sikhism itself? Few Westerners have even basic

How many people are aware that it was conceived as a universalist,
open-door religion?

Or that its view of society was radically egalitarian? Or that its holy
book, the Adi Granth, far from being a catalog of sectarian dos and
don'ts, is a bouquet of poetic songs, blending the fragrances of Hindu
ragas, Muslim hymns and Punjabi folk tunes into a music of spiritual

This is precisely the information delivered by the small and absolutely
beautiful show titled "I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion"
at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea. Vivid but concentrated, it
presents, mostly through paintings, a culture's version of its own
origins, the image of history shaped far more by hard work, pluralistic
politics and mysticism than by militancy.

Sikhism was founded at the end of the 15th century in northern India,
when a young, high-caste Punjabi Hindu named Na nak had a revelation. It
led him to believe that God was a formless spiritual force shared by all
religions, and that social ranks based on faith, class, caste, gender or
race were illusory. Unity was reality. The Other was just another. "I
see no stranger, I see no enemy, I look upon all with good will," is how
Sikh scripture phrases it.

Eager to share his vision, Nanak took to the road, accompanied by a
Muslim musician named Mardana, who played the stringed instrument called
a rabab. Together they traveled, according to official accounts of
Nanak's life, from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, and west to Baghdad and
Mecca, composing and singing devotional songs as they went.

They lived at a high devotional moment. The mystical brand of Islam
called Sufism was in full flower, as was the corresponding Hindu
movement call Bhakti. Saints of all sorts and sects wandered northern
India, bumping into and bouncing off one another, turning a subco ntinent
into a kind of giant love-in. Orthodox thinking was turned inside out.
Hierarchies were up-ended. Students taught and teachers learned. The
name Sikh - pronounced sick with an enunciated H at the end - comes from
a Sanskrit word for disciple.

The exhibition, organized by the art historian B. N. Goswamy of Panjab
University, and Caron Smith, chief curator of the Rubin Museum, conveys
something of the flavor of all this through dozens of miniature
paintings in Hindu and Mughal court styles illustrating the life of
Nanak, or Guru Nanak as he came to be called. In them he emerges as a
figure of commonsensical wit, unassuming piety, superhuman power and
increasing physical bulk.

He's a trim, soft-faced schoolboy in one 18th-century painting, standing
in class and holding out a writing board - it looks like a boxy camera -
to a teacher. Already by this time Nanak has been lecturing his parents
on the Bhagavad-Gita and writing m etaphysical verse. Some of these
poems, we are meant to assume, are on the writing board. And we know his
confounded teacher will give him an A for Amazing.

Another picture shows the adult Nanak asleep on the floor of a mosque in
Mecca, with his feet pointed, in a scandalous breach of religious
etiquette, toward the Kaaba, God's house, the holy of holies. When an
outraged mullah tries to drag him around into reverse position, the
Kaaba turns too. The lesson: no direction is unhallowed, because God is

In a third painting, Nanak, now in stout middle age and wearing a sort
of zany aviator's cap, sits with his book of hymns under a tree.
Mardana, tuning up nearby, stares blankly off into space. From the left
a princely figure, stiff-backed and poker-faced, approaches on horseback
to pay homage. Clearly the meeting is a significant one, but nobody
seems very into it, or even aware that anyone else is there.

The paintin g is paired in the show with the workshop drawing, produced
by a master artist, that served as its model. The contrast is striking.
In the drawing the prince, far from being restrained, practically
levitates from his saddle with ardor and leans toward Nanak as if drawn
to a magnet. Mardana plays and sings with fervor of a contemporary
bhangra star. It is in the drawing, rather than in the painting, that
the Nanak Effect, so evident in poems and songs, comes through.

Guru Nanak had nine successors, and each built on what he had begun. The
fourth guru, Ram Das, established Amritsar as the pre-eminent Sikh
pilgrimage site. The next, Guru Arjan Dev, completed the Golden Temple
there, built on a platform in the center of an excavated lake. He also
assembled Nanak's poems, along with others by Hindu and Muslim saints,
to create the holy book.

Up to this point, at the very beginning of the 17th century, Sikh
history had been peaceful enoug h despite internal frictions. The site of
Amritsar was a gift outright from the Mughal emperor, Akbar, a spiritual
seeker and social philosopher who ruled much of India and was admiring
of Sikhism's multicultural character. But after Akbar's death, rapport
with the Mughals disintegrated.

In 1606 his son, Jahangir, an observant Muslim, imprisoned and killed
Arjan Dev. When the next guru was also jailed, the Sikhs adopted a
stance of defensive militarism and a new social ideal: the
soldier-saint. The 10th guru, Govind Singh, formalized this collective
identity in 1699 when he established a ritual of Sikh initiation and
codified a set of communal symbols that included, for men, leaving their
hair uncut, wearing a turban and assuming the surname Singh ("lion"),
and for women, using the surname Kaur ("princess") .

Govind Singh also took the crucial step of designating the Adi Granth,
the holy book, as the next, last, and eternal guru , under the honorific
title of Guru Granth Sahib. The book became and remains an object of
incalculable charisma, almost a sentient being, enthroned on cushions,
swathed in rich fabrics, and handled with tender, punctilious deference.
Reciting or singing from it is the defining act of the Sikh worship. So
intense is its sanctity that, while a throne has been prepared for it in
the show, the Guru Granth itself is physically absent.

Absence can of course have a presence of its own, as modern Sikh history
does in this exhibition. An earlier show, "The Arts of the Sikh
Kingdoms," organized in London in 1999, focused on Sikhism from the
British colonial period onward, tracing the entwined political and
religious developments that led to, among other things, the calamities
of 1984 in India.

The Rubin Museum has late material too, including a splendid set of
British-influenced 19th-century drawings of craftsmen at work, and a
series of formal portraits of Sikh warrior-chiefs. Unlike Nanak these
leaders carry weapons rather than hymnals, which points to reconceived
ideals of spiritual and temporal power, though these ideals and how they
came about are only suggested here.

All-apparent, however, are the poetry and music that pervade and
orchestrate the Sikh view of the world. Traditional hymns play softly in
the gallery. A rabab is on display. Certain paintings have the gentle,
doleful lilt of evening ragas; others jump and twitch with a bhangra
beat. And running through everything, like the harmonium's
beginningless-endless voice, are the words of the holy book:

Wonderful is sound
Wonderful is wisdom
Wonderful is life
Wonderful its distinctions
Wonderful is praise
Wonderful is eulogy
Wonderful the Presence
One sees in the present
O wonder-struck am I to see wonder upon wonder.

"I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion" remains at the Rubin
Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, (212) 620-5000, through
Jan. 29.
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