It started a day before Baisakhi on 13th April ’19 and was on till 18th, for nearly a week. I was lucky to catch The Hubris Foundation’s tribute to Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism at AIFACS, Delhi, on the last day. Despite the sun at its peak I excitedly trekked across the city to view The Sikh: An Occidental Romance. Worth it, for it was the most comprehensive collection of western Sikh paintings ever assembled. On display were 80 remarkable museum replicas of artworks that included the portrait of battle-hardened Ranjit Singh in reverential tranquility by English novelist and traveller Emily Eden, American artist Edwin Lord Weeks’ iconic painting of the Golden Temple and Austrian painter Rudolf Swoboda‘s portrait of a Sikh commissioned by Queen Victoria. Captured poetically an Akali is shown ensnared by the thugs of central India by August Schoefft (a German painter at Sher Singh’s court) and the Russian prince Alexis Soltykoff ‘s ‘Ladies of Pleasure’ were a rendition of the grandeur of Lahore during the Sikh Empire which portrayed the exotic Indian subcontinent beautifully. In addition, were Charles Harding’s (son of Viscount Harding- the Governor General of India) painting of the infamous Gulab Singh of Kashmir, who accused of betraying the Sikh Empire, a french portrait and animal painter Alfred De Dreux‘s portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh commissioned by an Italian General for the King of France and German painter and lithographer Franz Winter Halter’s portrait of The Charming – Prince Duleep Singh painting commissioned by Queen Victoria. These incredible works of art also covered The Anglo Sikh Wars, Viscount Hardinge, the charming cities of Amritsar and Lahore, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and The Princess Bamba Collection made it very inclusive.
Moved by the Sikh community’s bravado as seen in the glint of their eyes, I asked Gautam Srivastava (the founder of ‘The Hubris Foundation) few relevant questions regarding the exhibition that would evoke curiosity not just amongst the Sikhs, but both art and history buffs alike.
MD: Being the founder of the Hubris Foundation tell us your reasons for collecting these artworks only from Europe and USA? How did your search begin?
GS: We focus on western art on India and most of the western art on the Sikhs is found in Europe and USA. About 5 years ago, while we were researching western art on India, we stumbled upon an abnormality. We noticed that there were an unexpected number of paintings with subjects being Sikhs. We were on to something, so we launched a worldwide search to find all the Sikh related western art that was out there.
MD: Brief us about the exhibition.
GS: The paintings are a “concentrated cluster” of the second part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century. It is rare because it depicts only the Sikh community in all its glory and grandeur by western artists during Colonial India. Though Ranjit Singh popularly known as Sher-e-Punjab, or “Lion of Punjab” was an independent sovereign, not under the jurisdiction of any European colonial power.
MD: These 80 museum archives are replicas of the real paintings. Are they for sale?
GS: The originals are held by various universities, museums, institutions, private collectors etc. We have exhibited their archival replicas which are not for sale.
MD: Has such a comprehensive collection been showcased for the first time? Where and what next with it?
GS: Yes. For now, we intend to take it to other cities, possibly Chandigarh and Amritsar.
The Hubris Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that exhibits Western art free of charge. This show reminded me of Winston Churchill‘s quote on the Sikh contribution during World Wars I & II “British people are highly indebted to Sikhs for a long time. I know that within this century (20th century) we needed their help twice and they did help us very well. As a result of their timely help, we are today able to live with honor, dignity and independence.” It highlights their valor and sincerity.