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Sikhism Woven Masterpieces Of Sikh Heritage By By Frank Ames

Discussion in 'Book Reviews & Editorials' started by Aman Singh, Mar 31, 2010.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage: The Stylistic Development of the Kashmir Shawl 1780-1839 (Hardcover)

    by Frank Ames (Author) Product details

    • Hardcover: 256 pages
    • Publisher: Antique Collectors' Club Ltd (1 April 2010)
    • Language English
    • ISBN-10: 1851495983
    • ISBN-13: 978-1851495986
    Buy from SPN!
    Sikh Philosophy Network Book Store - Woven Masterpieces


    In this new, ground-breaking work, "Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage", Frank Ames' unique passion for the subject reveals the events and ideas that transpired within this Khalsa (Sikh Brotherhood) movement, transforming the Kashmir shawl to one of powerful ethnic proportions. During this era of Punjab's colourful history a variety of complex and enigmatic patterns emerged, some purely geometric, others symbolic, which have long eluded textiles experts. Maharaja Runjit Singh's takeover of Kashmir in 1819 had an extraordinary impact on the fashion of the legendary Kashmir shawl, giving rise to 'a major artistic expression in the subcontinent'. Through the exploration of miniature painting of Northern India and the hill states, Kashmiri manuscripts, the Sikh Holy Scriptures of the Sri Adi Granth and Janam Sakhis, and illustrations of unique shawls from world collections, Ames describes with his usual penchant for exacting detail the nature and source of these enigmatic patterns that define the Sikh period. In addition, textile enthusiasts will discover new material in chapters devoted to the Mughal period, lacquer painting and Indo-Persian shawl influences and trade.

    The Sikh Shawl<small>by FRANK AMES</small>

    <!-- <small>March 31st, 2010</small>-->

    WOVEN MASTERPIECES OF SIKH HERITAGE: The Stylistic Development of The Kashmir Shawl under Maharaja Ranjit Singh 1780 - 1839, by Frank Ames. Antique Collectors' Club, 2010. Hardback, 300 x 237 mm. 256 pages. 978185 1-495986
    This book has been selected as the sikhchic.com Book of the Month for April 2010.

    Flowers exploding like rockets on the Fourth of July; sharp spears intersecting bizarre fan-like devices; and eight-pointed star-shaped lotuses floating on a churning sea of semi-floral geometric motifs: do fantasies such as these sound like patterns we would normally associate with the Kashmir shawl?
    Maharaja Ranjit Singh's takeover of Kashmir in 1819 represented an important event in the Punjab's history. Few, however, realized, it would have such an extraordinary impact on the legendary kani shawls of the Valley. Intriguing and mysterious, these enigmatic yet dynamic patterns appear to have surprisingly slipped through the cracks of historical examination by textile experts.
    Since John Irwin's ground breaking monograph, ‘Shawls', appeared a half century ago, interest in this subject has spawned the publication of many books. However, none focuses on any one period of Indian history. In my first attempt years ago on the subject, I proposed four major historical periods in which to better examine the shawl's development. The Sikh period (1819-1839) was one of these periods. My conclusions in that chapter are worth citing:
    "The huge size of the sweeping botehs and the multitude of large architectural and curvilinear patterns began quickly to invade the whole surface area of the shawl. Hollow botehs detached themselves from the increasingly dominant ground designs to evaporate through scattered directions across a roaring sea of new images, exotic and enigmatic. The riotous agitation of the boteh's flora swept away practically all botanical reality in its path. It appears that in one fell swoop, the Sikhs obliterated all graphic souvenirs which recalled the hard struggles against their Mughal and Afghan rivals, to vindicate their rights to Northern India. This close look into this boteh microcosm provides a clear distinction of the evolving key elements which eventually emerged, fused and detached anew to form the churning symbolism of the Sikh period."
    Indeed, this ‘churning symbolism' is the subject of investigation in this book, and although it represents only one school of Kashmir design, its dramatic impact illuminates a key style in the decorative arts of a fascinating era in Punjab history. From collections around the world, an attempt is made to present to the public for the first time some of the best examples of shawls from this era.
    Above and beyond the reigns of the Afghans (1753-1819) and Dogras (1846-1877), the Sikh period and the Mughal period are arguably the two most significant artistic periods. To be sure, Dogra rule was not without its exciting aesthetic moments, but by this time, European influence was so enmeshed within the design repertoire that for all intensive purposes, oriental influence had faded dramatically. Certainly, there were exceptions to this rule, as can be seen in a few masterpieces of astonishing creativity.
    On the other hand, the Sikh period represents a truly indigenous and unique art form that appears to have direct roots in the soil of the Lahore-Kashmir-Khalsa link.
    The court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sikh culture of ‘Brotherhood' in which Ranjit Singh ruled and flourished, produced a rare and exciting atmosphere in which shawl artists dramatically transcended the static forms of simple boteh repeats to evolve a unique repertoire of decorative graphic designs. Their exuberance in the playful geometry of arches, circles, and other unusual motifs, combined with the brilliant use of intense color tones, suffuses these shawls with a kinetic energy that cannot help but elicit feelings of mysticism and awe.
    They are a visual record of a culture.
    These artists appeared to be pursuing abstract and innovative strategies, using bizarre assemblages of patterns that responded to and emerged from the colorful frenzied environment that defined the Punjab. This avant-garde movement was not unlike that of the Dada artists, such as Duchamp, Man-Ray, Picabia, etc., a century later, who, in their angst against established artistic norms, became captivated by evolving technologies and their existential side-effects.
    The Sikh artists, like their Dada counterparts, emerged in a period of rapid technological developments, spawned by the Industrial Revolution. The need to expand the artistic surface of the shawl may indeed have been due in a small way to the advent of the major European exhibitions of industrial products then beginning to take place in Paris.
    In this book, the viewer will see many bizarre patterns, patterns that could certainly titillate the Pythagorean senses of the architect, graphic artist, mathematician or engineer. Is there an inner meaning that lies embedded within their volumetric shapes? Are there rhythmical measures which the ancient Greeks called the "Music of the Spheres"? Or, do they articulate movements responding to the musical modes (ragas) found in the Guru Granth?
    Perhaps these are mysteries destined to be forever sealed, only sensed rather than resolved. Speaking about Indian Art, Stella Kramrisch, once stated: "There is something so strong, and at the same time so unique, in any Indian work of art that its ‘Indianness' is felt first of all, and what it is, is seen only on second thought." Whatever is the case, these patterns rendered something truly ethnic in nature, and represent, as suggested by the eminent Indophile, Jean-Marie Lafont, a new "major artistic expression in the subcontinent".
    The shawl is observed as an integral and important part of the world of decorative arts whose often symbolic, even heraldic, patterns reflect the fluctuating social conditions in which the shawl was woven. The intricacies of trade and commerce, the many sightings of the industry by foreign travelers, the conditions of the weavers and wool are really not the subject of this book, except where pertinent to our understanding of the decorative elements. These areas of research continue to be well-covered by scholars in the field and for an overall view of the industry the reader is encouraged to consult the numerous works available. Except for the focus on General Allard and his expatriate cohorts, there is no general treatise on costume for this period.
    What is presented is a sense of how these patterns evolved from the riot of ethnic and socio-political forces that impacted on textiles recorded in the Eurasian theatre of art history. Within this esoteric and multifaceted subject, the artistic influence of France somehow always finds a way to emerge from the depths of historical investigation. Be it from Pierre Vallet, royal gardener and embroiderer to the King of France, or the 16<sup>th</sup> century botanist, Carolus Clusius, whose narcissus flower, published in Antwerp, was copied by Mughal artists; or from the expatriate generals of Napoleon's militia; or from the great artists of the European shawl industry, such as Amédée Couder, Antony Berrus or Frédéric Hérbert, whose popular designs drifted back to Kashmir: all these exotic influences found resonance in the Kashmir shawl.
    A concerted effort is made to contextualize the stylistic development of a broader topographical sense of the artistic environment. On one hand, Indian painting is explored through the eyes of either known or unknown painters, observing artistic sensitivities as expressed through the rendering of their own inimitable rhythms, color palettes, and affinities with costumes and textiles. On the other, it is explored through the complex of unique graphic forms and figures found in the kani weaves and embroideries, themselves.
    While painting workshops existed in the Punjab, Kashmir and the Hill States, save for the obvious influence of the Mughal School, little about them is known; it is the same for the whims and fancies of the patrons. Thus, Imam Bakhsh Lahori, Nainsukh, and even the Hungarian Schoefft, for example, have left a corpus of works, the study of which needs to be balanced against the colorful atmosphere of the historical settings in which they painted. To the extent that the artist enlivened his work with decorative textiles, rugs and dress accessories, or created chromatic moods, depended greatly upon his own unique surroundings.
    The most important of the known published works in this field affording a glimpse into this exotic world of painting have been consulted. In no way do these constitute a definitive examination of such a vast area in which much bound and private art material is still at large, often stored away in institutions around the world with little accessibility. Besides an attempt to contextualize Sikh designs, the overall intention is to explore and reveal areas of research which hitherto have gone unexplored.
    In the case of Pahari and Punjabi painting, new information on the artists and patrons in the last few decades has only recently come to light, and certainly more will become known over the years to come. Towards the end of the 18<sup>th</sup> century, due to a rapidly changing map of Northern India, artists began to migrate more and more. Outlying princely kingdoms scattered across India retained local artists, who seemingly may not have been connected with the region of Kashmir, except through the shawl patterns they personally created. Kotah is a case in point.
    New information, as well, is becoming available, albeit slowly, on Persian painting. The recent spate of previously unknown 18<sup>th</sup> century Iranian paintings coming on the auction block, dated and signed, is beginning to add important knowledge to the field. As a result, the curvilinear boteh can now be dated to almost a half century earlier than anybody would have previously guessed. To this end, Shiraz's role, under the rule of Karim Khan Zand, is discussed through trade, costume and the painters, especially Muhammad Sadiq, one of Persia's pre-eminent artists of the 18<sup>th</sup> century. The unfortunate lacuna of any serious Perso-Kashmiri trade records prior to Moorcroft's visit to Kashmir in 1822, admittedly, presents serious challenges to the textile historian, and exposes frustrating complexities whose narrative seems to follow no particular straight path. The ebb and flow of market forces, consumer demand and political vicissitudes are such that the shawl's artistic development along with its inimitable patterns - especially as a reflection of shawls depicted in paintings - render the subject difficult to pen with precision.
    In a subject where the wool had taken on almost mythic proportions, where the pattern had become virtually a symbol of national identity, and where the shawl itself a cause célèbre between nations fighting over tariffs, trade barriers, exhibiting national pride, jealousy and greed, we arrive at a subject whose material is as mercurial as its ability to quickly slip through a ‘Manucci' thumb-ring. This is perhaps one of the main reasons for the focus of this book: we have the unique opportunity to fall back on the extant shawls themselves.
    Critical research in this field often depends on the ties between patrons and artists, in which evidence is sometimes found through manuscripts.
    To this end, the Janam Sakhis of the Sikh period are discussed, as well as other religious and secular manuscripts. Here again, many Sikh manuscripts remain elusive, tucked away in private collections, yet perhaps represent a critical future source of investigation. Highlighting a few of the known patrons and artist families active at the time of Sikh ascendancy not only sheds light on the creative environment of the region, but attempts a rapprochement between artists of all craft and artistic mediums. The painterly quality of some of the more elaborately embroidered, pictorial rumals, is weighed against the prolific backdrop of Imam Bakhsh's brilliant world. Such assessments bring our awareness closer to the real life characters that brought so much woven beauty into the world.
    With so many endlessly changing shawl patterns, one should always pose the question - bearing in mind the weaver's input of choice of colors, stitches, and pattern nuancing - "what was the artist thinking, feeling, experiencing; what were the compelling forces that surrounded him; to whom was he reaching out?" At times patterns can be dense and filled in with so many tiny colorful flowers that the possibility of an artistic statement being obscured becomes real. Like Indian miniature paintings which captivate us again and again, because of subtleties we may fail to see at first glance, kani weaves equally necessitate a study which can oftentimes develop into an illuminating experience.
    That textile scholars have paid little attention to Sikh period shawls is unfortunate, since many great pieces with often unbelievably rich, symbolist patterns have come and gone on the market, only to be swallowed up silently by anonymous private collectors. Important museums of the world, which usually rely on gifts and donations, rarely have made a sincere effort to build a comprehensive shawl collection. Thus, it is perfectly normal at this time to see large institutional collections without a single Mughal or high Sikh period shawl. Because there are no known collections per se of this genre, the greatest effort here has been to source these pieces from museum and private collections.
    While other schools of shawl art are also important, a complete study of the inventory of the symbolism, designs, and patterns of all the known Sikh period shawls in world collections is a project that needs to be addressed. The investigation should be done, if only for the simple reason that no other uniquely Indian period possesses as much literature and documentation. Time will show that these neglected weavings, which have yet to be fully discovered and appreciated, represent one of the most exciting Indian art forms, and furthermore, their dynamic design elements eventually dovetail with decorative European art.
    Much of what has been set forth here represents the experiential views of the author, reflecting his personal observations, speculations, ideas, and musings through intimate contact with the subject over the past thirty years. While there are many good publications in this field which discuss basic concepts of the techniques of shawl weaving or the infrastructure of the industry itself, in this work the focus remains on the shawl's decorative elements. Nevertheless, if to any degree, the public's imagination is stirred, the afficionado's interest is inspired or the art historian's critical eye is more widely opened, then my goal will have been accomplished.
    It is also hoped that the information presented here will raise awareness of the value of this remarkable Sikh legacy, which forms an integral part of the cultural patrimony of Kashmir, as well as of the Punjab.

    [Frank Ames is an antique dealer with 30 years experience specializing in rare textiles and Oriental rugs, in Paris and New York. He has written extensively on the subject of the Kashmir shawl; his publications include The Kashmir Shawl and Its Indo-French Influence for the Antique Collectors' Club.]

    About the Author

    The above article serves as the "Introduction" in Frank Ames' new coffee-table book, "Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage", which is scheduled to be released on April 19, 2010 in London, England. Frank Ames is an antiques dealer with 30 years experience specialising in rare textiles and Oriental rugs, in Paris and New York. He has written extensively on the subject of the Kashmir shawl; his publications include The Kashmir Shawl and its Indo-French Influence for the Antique Collectors' Club.

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  2. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    I used to have the full version of the picture on my computer and used it as a screen saver. It is very calming.
  3. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    Jul 4, 2004
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    this is one book worth buying..
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