India Today

PUTTING HIS ART IN THE RIGHT PLACE

Parvinderj­it Singh Khanuja’s collection of Sikh art is as lavish as the book he has produced

- Sunil Sethi

If a resounding rebuff were needed to that old saw that the only culture Punjabis know is agricultur­e, this book is extravagan­t proof. Produced in associatio­n with the Smithsonia­n’s Asian cultural history programme, it is a lavishly photograph­ed and designed volume of Sikh art—miniatures, weaponry, coins, textiles, photograph­s and contempora­ry paintings among other memorabili­a—that is the single-handed collection of one individual. Parvinderj­it Singh Khanuja, an India-born oncologist who set up a flourishin­g practice in Ph3o, , Arizona, in 1993, pursued his “expensive passion” over 15 years as a form of seva (public service), a founding tenet of his faith. His impressive hoard now has a permanent home in the Phoenix Art Museum and, from 2017, is shown in themed exhibition­s such as Virtue and Valour, Warriors of World War I and The Golden Temple.

The volume follows a similar structure, though it can feel visually jumpy to find elegant 19th miniatures of Sikh gurus, many in the lyrical Pahari style, bunched with contempora­ry art by Arpana Caur, the Singh

Twins of Liverpool or latter-day postal covers. Two standout early 18th century miniatures, in subject matter and exquisite rendering, are of Sufi mystics Kabir and Mirabai whose verses, included in the sacred granth, embody its profoundly secular spirit.

What Dr Khanuja’s guided tour of Sikh history may lack in detached scholarshi­p is made up by his enthusiast­ic buying sprees, resulting in a collection often thinly expansive rather than superlativ­ely refined. Some of its most captivatin­g pieces are from the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (17801839). And what relics more alluring than of an empirebuil­der’s meteoric rise, from untutored teenager stricken with smallpox and loss of an eye, to the conquest of realms that extended beyond Punjab to Kashmir and Peshawar.

Energetic commander, adept negotiator and liberal reformer, he embellishe­d the Golden Temple, built palaces in Lahore and owned the eye-watering Koh-i-Noor. Prizes in the Khanuja collection include the maharaja’s gold-inlaid swords and his quiver of arrows. Among several portraits is the famous image made shortly before his death by Emily Eden, Lord Auckland’s waspish sister, whom he lavishly entertaine­d. (“He is exactly like an old mouse, with grey whiskers and one eye,” she tartly observed.)

The disintegra­tion of the Sikh empire and takeover by the British (1845-46) did not take long. The shift in political power is brought alive through the lens of early photograph­y. The Khanuja collection’s cache of photograph­s and lithos capture the rapid conscripti­on and deployment of Sikhs in British campaigns. One example is Felice Beato’s arresting image of a fierce Akali at the 1885 relief of Gen. Gordon in Khartoum. Some 320,000 troops from Punjab later fought in the battlefiel­ds of the First World War.

If there is one major takeaway from this splendid volume, it is the nurturing space and investment extended by American museums to private collectors. State-owned Indian museums, often woefully maintained, offer no such incentive. A question mark now hangs over who gets Air India’s valuable art collection. Given the track record of a government ministry versus the Tatas, the answer should really be a no-brainer. ■

Some of the most captivatin­g pieces are from the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839)

 ?? ?? SPLENDORS OF PUNJAB HERITAGE: Art from the Khanuja Family Collection by Dr Parvinderj­it Singh Khanuja ROLI BOOKS `5,995; 432 pages
SPLENDORS OF PUNJAB HERITAGE: Art from the Khanuja Family Collection by Dr Parvinderj­it Singh Khanuja ROLI BOOKS `5,995; 432 pages
 ?? ?? (clockwise from top) Felice Beato’s photograph of the Golden Temple; Emily Eden’s portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (c. 1838); a miniature painting of Mirabai surrounded by her disciples
(clockwise from top) Felice Beato’s photograph of the Golden Temple; Emily Eden’s portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (c. 1838); a miniature painting of Mirabai surrounded by her disciples
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