January 31st, 2012 | Published in Sikh Arts & Heritage
Sikhs: A Legacy of Punjab
By Donald Munro
Walk into the new exhibition “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab” at the Fresno Art Museum and you will find, in a shiny display case direct from the Smithsonian Institution, a reproduction of an important work titled “The Ten Gurus and Guru Gobind Singh’s Four Sons.”
The image is a montage of the revered founders of the Sikh religion, starting with Guru Nanak, born in 1469. Look closely and you can see the gurus, considered spiritual teachers or masters, in moments of everyday life, including the tending of their beloved hunting hawks. These men were instrumental in forming the tenets of a religion that counts tens of millions of followers worldwide, including a substantial number in California’s Central Valley.
But don’t dwell on the reproduction too long. Instead, walk a few feet into an adjacent gallery and see the real thing: a delicate gouache, or painting, on paper from the early 19th century.
The presence of two versions of “The Ten Gurus” is just one of the remarkable aspects of the new exhibition, an arts-and-culture experience that includes puhlkari textiles, weapons, miniature paintings, music, historical notes and a replica of the famed Sikh Golden Temple. (It continues along with four other new winter exhibitions through April 30.) Among the superlatives:
– It’s the first time a Smithsonian exhibition has traveled to the Fresno Art Museum.
– The exhibition adds works that weren’t included in the original Smithsonian show, which opened at the Natural History Museum in Washington in 2004. Linda Cano, director of the Fresno Art Museum, wanted to beef up the number of artworks used in the show. She and her staff arranged to borrow these additional works from members of the Sikh community, many of them from California.
– It’s the first time an exhibition at the museum has been fully funded by members of the community. Between $60,000 and $70,000 was raised by a group of local Sikh donors to mount the show, says Dr. Ajit Singh of Fresno, who helped spearhead the effort.
The result is an exhibition that offers a peek into the art and traditions of a culture that has been firmly enmeshed in the Valley’s daily life since the 1920s, but that many people don’t know much about.
“We want the community to come out and see where we came from, our customs, how we practice our religion, and to show off that we are in all walks of life,” Singh says. “We are farmers, doctors, truckers, lawyers. We want to show off to the Central Valley that we are part of you.”
In the years following 9/11, members of the Sikh community have experienced discrimination, which added to the need for public awareness, Singh says.
The exhibition has been two years in the making, Cano says, and was suggested by Sikh community members who were impressed by the exhibition when it ran in Washington.
This is the third venue for the show after Washington and Santa Barbara, says Paul Michael Taylor, director of the Asian Cultural History Program at the Smithsonian and curator of the show.
Unlike most traveling Smithsonian shows, which aren’t changed except occasionally to remove some objects for space limitations, the “Sikhs” exhibition was given an opportunity to grow.
“You who see this show in Fresno are probably going to see the best incarnation of this exhibition so far,” Taylor says. “The Fresno Art Museum has given it more space, and a few of the same donors to the original exhibition have acquired things that weren’t available when we opened our show in 2004. I would have begged to have some of these items in our original exhibition.”
Among those items: a number of paintings with Sikh themes, both 19th century and contemporary works; several gorgeous puhlkari textiles; a coin and a gold pendant; and an impressive seated sculpture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh made in 1900 of white marble.
Then there’s “The 10 Gurus” painting, which was loaned by the Kapany Collection of Sikh Art, one of the main benefactors of the exhibition. One of the most striking images is of Guru Gobind Singh, whose years of leadership were 1675-1708. (We use his image, a detail from “The 10 Gurus,” as the cover image of today’s 7 section.) He’s seated on a plush red cushion, his green garment a striking contrast, with a bejeweled turban and handsome sheathed sword at his side, as he strokes his hunting hawk.
Named a guru at age nine, he is remembered for strengthening the Sikh community, according to museum text. To unite Sikhs and emphasize their equality, he gave all Sikh men the surname Singh, which means “lion,” and all Sikh women the surname Kaur, meaning “princess.” Sikhs still use these names today, often along with other surnames.
If you’d attended the original “Sikhs” exhibition at the Smithsonian within a few months of its opening, you would have been able to see the original of “The 10 Gurus.” But the work is so delicate in terms of sensitivity to light that it can’t be displayed for more than a few months at a time, so it had to be removed from public view.
It’s such an important work in terms of Sikh history that Taylor, the Smithsonian curator, used the reproduction in the explanatory case about the Sikh gurus so that visitors who missed the opening months of the exhibition could see it.
It isn’t until now that the original has rejoined the show.
“Fresno is extraordinarily lucky to have this piece,” Taylor says.
He feels the same way about the show itself.
“Fresno is a significant center for Sikhs,” he says, “and this exhibition is definitely a significant event for Fresno.”