Sikh Art – Sacred Aesthetics of the Sikhs by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

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Any momentous undertaking in Sikh life commences with a reading from the Guru Granth. In keeping with the tradition, then, I begin our celebration of the Satinder Kaur Kapany gallery with a scriptural verse:

Granthi _Reading  the Guru Granth sahib - William Simpson - Watercolor 1860

santa ke karaj ap khaloia hari kam karavanu aia ram
dharati suhavi tal suhava vicu amrit jal chaia ram
amrit jalu chaia puran saju karaia sagal manorath pure
jai jai kar bhaia jagu antar lathe sagal visure
puran purakh acut abinase jasu ved purani gaia
…. (GG: 783)



The One stood by the devotees to fulfill their divine task rendered help Beautiful is this spot, beautiful this pool filled with ambrosial waters.
Ambrosial waters flow, the task is accomplished all desires have been fulfilled. Joy pervades the world, all suffering has ended Complete, Pure, Eternal, Exalted in song by the Vedas and Puranas….

In the public memory of the Sikhs, this is their first Vak.1 It was received during the inaugural ceremonies of the Guru Granth in the Harmandar (popularly known as the Golden Temple). The day was August 16, 1604. The place, the newly constructed Harmandar. While Guru Arjan stood in attendance behind, Bhai Buddha reverently held both ends of the sacred volume (which had just been compiled by Guru Arjan); he opened it at random, and fortuitously lighted on this passage. Four centuries later, and in a very different part of the globe, this felicitous Vak carries great resonance for us.

Golden Temple Kapany CollectionGuru Arjan’s installation of the Guru Granth in the Harimandar is certainly a defining point in the crystallization of the Sikh community. The rich spiritual vibrations that the fifth Guru had inherited from his predecessors could now be heard and felt in a particular place. People came together from different regions, and as they together experienced the melodious message of their Gurus, the distinction between the “self” and the “other” blurred, — fostering the spirit of communitas2 The construction of the Harmandar was fundamental to the crystallization of the Sikh religion. With an art gallery in North America opening today, we move into another intensity — towards a deeper communion — involving not only Sikhs, but visitors from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. When each of us is touched by the vibrant designs and colors displayed in the Satinder Kaur Kapany gallery, we connect together at a fundamental level, and join Tolstoy’s universal “community” created through artists and their works.

Satinder Kaur Kapany GalleryThe primal Vak celebrates the Divine as the source of all actions and accomplishments. It expresses a rapturous exaltation, illustrating Rudolf Otto’s famous dictum: mysterium, tremedum, et fascinum.3 Though not deified in the architectural setting, the Divine is felt very closely. Consequently, the land and waters are seen beyond the physiological or neurological perceptions; here the act of seeing is taken over by “visuality,” a reconstructive process charged with symbols, myths, language, values, and a complexity of emotions.4 Through a highly charged experience, wide horizons — both temporal and spatial — open up. The unique Sikh moment creates continuity with the past, for it acknowledges precisely That which has been exalted from time immemorial: “the Vedas and Puranas have sung your glory.” Paradoxically, the joy felt within the precincts of the newly constructed Harmandar extends beyond its walls into the whole world: “jag antar!” Narrow walls of difference, prejudice, and pettiness are shattered, revealing in turn our true humanity. The intersection of the Harmandar and the Granth forges a renewed relationship with people across the ages and across the globe. That effervescence and openness remembered in the historic event four centuries ago in the heartland of the Punjab reverberates this morning over the North American landscape. Today is auspicious as well. For the first time in our human history, Sikh art has found a permanent gallery in the West. We feel elated. We feel grateful. We celebrate a unique moment for pluralism.

Satinder Kaur Kapany GalleryPlaces are vital to the construction of personal and communal identity. The way we orient ourselves to the world, the way we remember our history, the way we transform our social reality, and even the way we imagine and conceive and define our selves — are all contingent on and constructed by our geographical locations. Guru Arjan who built the Harmandar, and in which he placed Guru Granth, must have known that our mental, psychic, and spiritual landscapes are grounded in the places we inhabit. A permanent Sikh gallery on the West Coast leaves a deep imprint on the Sikh psyche. Though Sikhs have been very actively involved in farming, business, medicine, and other professions for decades, people here don’t know about their artistic heritage. But with the inauguration of the Satinder Kaur Kapany gallery, Sikh treasures have been gathered together and effectively displayed by its distinguished curators for us and for future generations. With the inauguration of the Satinder Kapany gallery, Sikh experiences, Sikh memories, and Sikh aspirations — painted, drawn, woven, carved, crafted in a variety of patterns and mediums — can be shared by all of us, Sikh and Christian; Latino, Asian, American, and African. As of today, Sikh heritage has become a part of America’s heritage.

An art gallery is particularly significant in our context because the Sikh religion itself is intrinsically grounded in art and the aesthetic experience. The paradigmatic models of Sikh art are the Guru Granth and the Harmandar, and both of them — through their beautiful aural and visual configurations — try to heighten our senses of and feelings for the transcendent One. The Divine in Sikhism is formless; it cannot be imaged or idolized in any way. But by stimulating a rhythmic development of our sensory and spiritual faculties, the Sikh sacred text and sacred space launch us to experience the Infinite. Between the Granth and the Harmandar exists a symbiotic relationship, and understanding their relationship enables us to participate and enjoy the wide range of our human experience. As a prelude to our visit to the exciting Satinder Kaur Kapany gallery this evening, I want us to reflect on the Sikh “aesthetic” sensation, which I believe is no different from the “religious” experience. The most fitting introduction to the Sikh exhibition would be to read some of the intangible scriptural verses as they concretize into artistic and architectural motifs of the Harmandar — flowing dynamically in marble, gold, water, mirrors, pearls, lapis lazuli…. As we follow their delicate designs we are drawn into the world of the Sikhs, and beyond, — to our essential humanity.

From the inception of Sikhism, aesthetics has been regarded vital to intellectual, moral, and spiritual development. The primal scriptural verse that I read at the outset, relishes the beauty of the world. Opposite of “anaesthetics,” which deaden our senses, Sikh Scripture stimulates the senses and sensibilities. Nanak, the founder Guru, witnessed the violence with which Babur established the powerful Mughal Empire in South Asia. Hindu and Muslim ideologies continued to collide with each other. Against a sundered backdrop, the Sikh Gurus incited their fellow men and women to free themselves from external confinements and lay themselves bare to the touch of the divine One. As I have been writing all along, Sikh religion is founded on the “aestheticontological” experience of Guru Nanak, and his exultation of sensing the singular Divine (Ikk Oan Kar) constitutes the heart of the Sikh faith.v The exclamation we constantly hear in daily Sikh life, Waheguru, surges with a sense of wonder and echoes Guru Nanak’s aesthetic sentiments.

The work of a colorful artist, our world is wonderfully diverse and plural. “Ketia khani ketia bani — how many species! how many languages!" exclaims Guru Nanak (Japji, 35). Casting aside doctrines, rituals, creeds, and categories, the Gurus provide sublime poetry to activate our conscious and unconscious resources so that we rejoice in its diverse beauty. Both of Guru Arjan’s monumental tasks aspired to fulfill Guru Nanak’s aesthetic injunctions. After all, “Only the relisher of fragrance can recognize the flower,” proclaimed Nanak (rasia hovai musk ka tab phul pachanai). The individual has to have refined physical senses to appreciate the marvelous presence of the Metaphysical Reality.

An adorned folio from a 1860 manuscriptIn fact Guru Nanak enunciates aesthetics integral to the development of consciousness. He concludes his Japji by launching readers and reciters into a deeper and deeper passage through the realms of Dharam, Gyan, Saram, Karam and Sach — Duty, Knowledge, Beauty, Action, and With maps and charts drafted totally on the longitudes and latitudes of life on earth (dharat), the Sikh Guru underscores the honing of our aesthetic faculties. The third stage, saram khand, in this five-fold spiritual odyssey, opens with a striking note:

saram khand ki bani rup
tithai gharati garhiai bahutu anup
(Jap: 36)

Form is the language of Saram Khand
Here are created the most beautiful of forms

Sikh theologians have always found it hard to analyze this realm. Some argue that it pertains to the Persian "sharam" or shame, while others trace it to Sanskrit "saram" or effort, and their polemics is effectively discussed by Hew McLeod.7 Nanak’s words simply direct us to the realm of art and beauty: it is the very matter out which shapes and patterns are formed and sustained. The refinement and honing that takes place in saram khand does not lead to the doctrines and formulations; rather as Nanak says, to the mystical and divine experience: "tithai ghariai sura siddha ki suddh — there the consciousness is sharpened to that of the gods and mystics" (Jap: 36). Saram Khand is understood as a dynamic realm in which a lot of activity takes place. Here wisdom (mati) along with consciousness (surati), mind (man), and the power of discrimination (buddhi) is refined. Ghariai, from the infinitive gharana, literally means to sharpen or chisel. In this sphere then any blunt mental, psychological, intellectual, and reasoning faculties are keenly chiseled. The chiseling, refining, and sharpening lead to such wondrous forms that any attempt to portray them would be futile. Physical, mental, and spiritual sensibilities together constitute the person, and together they are developed in this realm of art and beauty. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky states that "art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul—to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle." 8 Refinement and cultivation of the aesthetic faculties open us to the Divine.

The Sikh Gurus did not perceive divisions between religion and aesthetics. Often western thinkers tend to divide philosophy into logic, ethics, and aesthetics, the goals of which are separately the true, the good, and the beautiful. A person’s thinking is then determined by the truth, his or her character and behavior by the good, and his or her feelings by the beautiful. Kierkegaard clearly distinguished the three realms — that of aesthetics, ethics, and religions, with the aesthetic at the bottom wrung. Opposite of anesthetics, aesthetics is clearly the heightening of the senses. In the Sikh tradition, aesthetics and religion merge together in the unitary experience of the sacred. In order to live to our fullest human potential we have to feel. Our ethical behavior and religious worldviews emerge from and return to our primal senses. Our senses serve, to borrow John Dewey’s words, “as sentinels of immediate thought and outposts of action.” 9 Our daily life-experiences emerge from our heightened sensory experiences, and indeed, our attitudes and actions towards our families, friends, community, and the world around, are engendered by what we sense and feel. It is in the realm of beauty that we are morally, intellectually and spiritually refined — “tithai ghariai surati mati mani buddhi” said Guru Nanak. Interestingly, the reflections of John Dewey, the American philosopher, perfectly capture the “heightened vitality” of the Sikh aesthetic experience:

Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, it signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events. Instead of signifying surrender to caprice and disorder, it affords our sole demonstration of a stability that is not stagnation but is rhythmic and developing. Because experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things, it is art in germ. Even in its rudimentary forms, it contains the promise of that delightful perception which is aesthetic experience.10

Upper Dome of Shri Harmandir SahibGuru Arjan put the Guru Granth in musical measures precisely because he wanted to amplify its sensory effect. The spiritual exaltations of his predecessors were harmonized with the ancient Indian musical system of ragas (which means both "color" and "musical mode" in Sanskrit). This was Guru Arjan’s way of linking the language of the body and senses and emotions and imagination with the cosmos at large. Each raga has a season prescribed for its singing, it has a prescribed time of the day, an emotional mood, and a particular cultural climate as each measure evolved in a specific region. These 31 ragas do not impose classifications or divisions; to the contrary, Guru Arjan utilized them as patterns, which harmonize the verses with the natural rhythm of the day, season, region, and emotions. Connecting humans with space and time, they bring out the intrinsic force of the verses. He did not confine them to the classical raga system either. Folk musical patterns with elemental beats, as well as various other musical styles extending all the way from Afghanistan to the South of the Indian peninsula, circulate in Granth. We recognize the meaning of raga in the brilliant blush (rang) of emotions produced by their symphony. In both the Guru Granth and the Harmandar, colorful and vibrant textures of our humanity are designed in new and enduring ways. The Guru Granth contains the poetic verses of the Sikh Gurus, Hindu bhaktas, and Muslim saints; it expresses divine passion in a plurality of languages coming from the Arabic, Sanskrit, and Persian. We hear the Formless One addressed as Ram and Khuda…

Just as the sacred text transcends all either or distinctions, so does the Harmandar. The art of the Harmandar utilizes Hindu and Islamic forms. We find the Hindu kalsas just as we find the Islamic domes. We see the Hindu square pillars supporting the roofs just as we see the Muslim arches.11 We recognize the beautiful geometric patterns that decorate the Jama Masjid, just we recognize the blooming lotuses afloat in the Bhagavad Gita. Central features of Islamic architecture (domes and minarets) and art (calligraphy, complex geometric designs, denaturalization, arabesques, mirror-work…) pervade the Golden Temple complex. Kanwarjit Kang observes how its main dome “is adumbrated like the double ceiling of the Islamic maqbara.”12 Hindu designs and motifs are prevalent as well. Puranic recollections can be seen in the fish, crocodiles, lions, elephants, and deer that vigorously decorate the walls of the Harmandar. In her comprehensive work, The Golden Temple: Past and Present, Madanjit Kaur draws our attention to figures such as a yogi in padma asan or a child coiled by a serpent. Her thesis: “Most of the fresco-paintings of the Golden Temple are representations of Hindu mythological themes. They reflect the original spirit of the Vaishnava cult, but the technique has suitably been modified to suit the needs of the Sikh art. It is to be noted here that tolerance of the Sikhs towards other religions motivated the Sikh artists to borrow extensively from the Hindu and Muslim traditions.”13 Personally for me, the communal memory of Guru Arjan inviting Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, to lay the foundation for the Harmandar is most significant. This memory of the Sikhs is a powerful psychological acknowledgement of their Guru’s real and enduring relationship with Islam. In our religiously torn society we need to remind ourselves that Sikh sacred art and architecture is grounded in kinship with people of “other” faiths.

Golden Temple marble pattern under the Guru Granth sahibYet neither Hindu nor Islamic characteristics are consciously added together to produce syncretic models — be it the Guru Granth or the Harmandar. Till very recently books on world religions targeted Sikhism as a prime example of “syncretism.”14 Such presumptions miss out on the revelation, uniqueness, and originality of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Arjan did not try to add two disparate traditions to reproduce a hybrid Sikh text or space. Whatever was in harmony with Guru Nanak’s revelatory experience of Oneness, Guru Arjan included — be it Hindu or Muslim. The Sikh Gurus were not insular or exclusive in their approach to the transcendent One. Therefore the Guru Granth is fully respectful of the Quran, the Vedas, the Puranas; it fully encompasses the verses of the Bhaktas and Sufis. But it is not modeled on either Muslim or Hindu scriptures. Nowhere does it include passages from either of their revered scriptures. It does not piece together their philosophical ideals. It is an entirely different literary narrative with its own set of values. It does not even utilize their language. It is however remarkable that in a religiously torn society, Guru Arjan included the voices of Hindu Namdev and Muslim Farid into his own revered Sikh text. Through his profoundly personal sensibility, he heard their human longing for the Divine — he did not get stuck on external differences in accents, intonations, grammar, or vocabulary. And he did not merely assemble their passages and market it as a new product.

Similarly, while sharing many features with mosques and temples, the Harmandar is an entirely different space. The utter feeling of submission to an omnipotent creator felt in the mosque is taken over by the feeling of elation in the gurdwara. Fundamental aspects of mosques such as the mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit), and the tombs of saints (especially popular in Sufi sacred spaces), have no place in Sikhism. Nor is there anything particularly potent about the topology of the Harmandar in the traditional Indian sense. Unlike Hindu temples, which are built at very specific places — “where the gods are seen at play” — the site for the Harmandar was not chosen for any specific reason. The idea for the pool within which Guru Arjan built the shrine goes back to the time of the third Guru Amar Das when Goindval was the Sikh centre.

The Gurdwara is not constructed on any traditional diagramatic plans either. Guru Arjan did not avail himself of the highly elaborate Hindu science of architecture with its technical blueprints that secure a deity into a site. As the renowned art historian Stella Kramrich observes, “Wherever a Hindu temple stands, whatever age witnessed its growth, and to whatever size, as house, body and substance for God (the Essence) to dwell in, it is built in principle on the same plan, the Vastupurushamandala.15 Since the Mandala is the ritual, diagrammatic form of the universal essence (purusha) which carries its bodily existence (vastu), each temple building becomes the substantial form of God. Quite the contrary, the Sikh shrine does not attempt to install the Divine into its structure. Its landscape is not deified in any sense. The Gurdwara is simply a door (dwara) towards enlightenment (guru). Having completed and lined the pool begun by his father, Guru Arjan wanted to set a building within it. He may have imagined the construct as a “lotus” sitting serenely on the waters or even as a “ship” sailing across the ocean as Michael Ondaatje describes the Harmandar in his contemporary novel, The English Patient:
Singing is at the centre of worship. You hear the song, you smell the fruit from the temple gardens—pomegranates, oranges. The temple is a haven in the flux of life, accessible to all. It is the ship that crossed the ocean of ignorance.16

Guru Arjan’s pluralist model rises about provincialism and narrowness into a vaster and profounder perspective. It is not “syncretic” by any means.

Golden temple bas reliefThe Guru-architect’s structural plans and the designs for the Harmandar merge with the philosophical message and the literary patterns of the text he so meticulously compiled. Later patrons, including Maharaja Ranjit Singh, employed Muslim, Hindu and Sikh craftsmen to build upon and embellish the unique Sikh ideals cherished by Guru Arjan. With his pluralistic vision, the Maharaja built gurdwaras, mosques, and mandirs for his people. He is remembered for contributing the expensive silver doors at the Temple of goddess Kali, and for paying an inordinately high price for a manuscript copy of the holy Quran.17 His staunch faith in Sikhism did not deter him from promoting the religious sentiments of all his subjects. The themes and styles in painting and architecture from his era disclose a rich religious diversity. During his prosperous reign, there was the construction magnificent forts, palaces, gurdwaras, mosques, and temples; an enormous production of gold and silver objects; designing of precious jewelry; crafting of exquisite arms; creation of luxurious tents, canopies, caparisons and large woolen shawls which could slip through a tiny ring! The refurbishing of the Harmandir of course was his major accomplishment. He made a huge monetary grant towards it, and invited skilled Muslim architects, masons, wood carvers and other craftsmen to Amritsar. In the vicinity of the Harmandar, a residence for the artists was built, and so was a mosque. Yar Mohommad Khan Mistri was the technical expert for the gold plating.

Ranjit SIngh listening to the Granth Sahib being read at Amritsar(Schoefft, Vienna ca.1851)The Maharaja’s service is commemorated in an inscription in Gurmukhi over the entrance of the Harmandar: “The Great Guru in his wisdom looked upon Maharaja Ranjit Singh as the chief servitor and Sikh, and in his benevolence, bestowed on him the privilege of serving the Temple.” 18 The Hungarian August Schoefft (1809-1888) who won great acclaim for The Court of Lahore (at the Vienna exhibition in 1855) painted the Maharaja in the presence of the Guru Granth at the Golden Temple. With the houses and minarets of the city of Amritsar in the background, the Golden Temple rises from the shimmering waters, and in the foreground of the painting, we see the Maharaja listening respectfully to the scripture in the open-air. Shoefft’s oil painting proves the literary testimony of an English visitor that “the Granth was constantly read to him.”19

The Golden Temple of today rises from the centre of the sacred pool, — approached by a causeway bordered with marble balustrades. Its exterior marble walls on the lower side are embellished in lapis lazuli, onyx, and other semi-precious stones in the pietre dure technique. Its upper parts are covered with plates of gilded copper that shimmer diaphanously in the surrounding waters. The interior of its second storey, with walls and ceiling sparkling with mirrors and colored glass in kaleidoscopic motifs, opens up in the centre to reveal the Guru Ganth enshrined on the ground floor. Energetic designs flow vibrantly on the walls of the Harmandar, creating rich borders for deer, lions, cobras, and elephants as they join together to hold flower vases, fruits, and fairies.

In this scenario the sacred volume reverberates with the basic metaphysical principle of the Sikh faith: Ikk Oan Kar. The infinite One recorded at the opening of the Granth and reiterated throughout its 1430 portfolio pages is architecturally represented in the layout of the entire complex of the Harmandar, in its central shrine, and in the details of its decorative patterns. The vibrant presence of the innumerable abstract patterns removes rigidity and concreteness: the building stands without any solid borders or boundaries! Emerging from the shimmering waters, the golden structure with its unending designs diaphanously merges with sunlight. We suddenly come upon this expansive panoramic view after walking through narrow and busy streets of Amritsar city — and the limitless brilliance sonorously playing with the transparent light and transparent waters sweeps us into a sensory swirl. Here infinity is visually encountered.

We then go down a few steps. Unlike other monuments where we go upwards, the entry into the Harmandar motions our bodies to go downwards. The physical descent was Guru Arjan’s architectural device to ensure we enter the precincts with a sense of humility. Guru Nanak had said, “haumai marai gur sabad pae — getting rid of ego, we receive the word (GG, p. 228) In order to absorb the Divine, we have to empty ourselves of the selfish, egotistical “I.” The Fifth Guru reiterated the pathogenic effects of egocentricity. In his own words recorded in the Guru Granth: “taj abhiman bhai nirvair — by getting rid of arrogance we become devoid of hatred” (GG: 183). Again he says, “taj haumai gur gian bhajo — get rid of ego, contemplate divine knowledge”(GG: 241). Arrogance and egocentricity confine and constrict us. They are the poison which fills our arteries with hostility towards our human family, and our minds with inertia and ignorance. The physical movement of going down the steps of the Harmandar was Guru Arjan’s psychological and mental preparation for receiving the Transcendent into our being. The architectural symbol also reveals his nondualistic perspective: our bodies are no different from our minds; indeed, our inner and outer selves are harmoniously united. With our bodies and our minds we step down to greet the infinite One.

As we walk down the steps, we get to see the entire complex. There are four gates to the outer walls and four doors opening into the Harmandar. The four doors architecturally translate his ethical injunction enshrined in the Guru Granth: “khatri brahmin sud vais updesu cahu varna kau sajha — Kashatriya, Brahmins, Sudras and Vaishyas, all four castes have the same mandate”(GG: 747). His word for caste is literally varna meaning complexion. The four doors in his sacred structure welcome people from different castes and complexions. They shatter the age-old oppressive social and racial hegemonies. Walking through the doors we can see and feel what Guru Nanak meant in his Japji: ai panthi sagal jamati — accept all humans as your equals, and let them be your only sect" (Japji 28).

As we start walking on the marble floors of the walkway, our eyes behold the sanctuary gently rising from the waters, and our ears ring with the Granthian verse —
kaul tun hain kavia tun hain ape vekhi vigasu (GG: 23)

You are the lotus, your are the water-lily, you yourself watch and rejoice!

We begin to gather the Ultimate Reality in a plurality of ways. Our imagination receives it as a lotus in bloom, even as a beautiful and fragrant water-lily. This verse from Guru Nanak’s Sri Rag rejoices in the joy of the omnipresent Transcendent. The entire passage exquisite in its imagery is taut with energy. In its continuous unfolding of contrasting images and in its rhythmic repetitions, ”there it is a fish, there it is a net; there it is the pond and there it is the swan…,“ we have a precious literary arabesque. The sounds and the silences of Guru Nanak’s passage resound with his opening claim that the Divine is the primal cause and ultimate end of aesthetic joy: “ape rasia apu rasu ape ravanhar — It itself is the relisher of rasa, it itself is the essence, it itself is the bestower.” As we behold the myriad delicate petals of the lotus so intricately integrated, we too make the causal connection between the vivid images we see and the sensuous fragrance we smell, and That One who watches and rejoices! The interplay between our immediate sensory experience and the transcendent reality is ever so alive. The psychologist Rudolph Arnheim was quite right in equating seeing with touching:

Looking at an object we reach out for it. With an invisible finger we move through the space around us, go out to the distant places where things are found, touch them, catch them, scan their surfaces, trace their borders, explore their texture. It is an eminently active occupation.20

The sight of the Harmandar becomes a self-forming and self-fulfilling experience. We feel such intense delight that we start “scanning” and “touching” and “catching” our formless and infinite Savorer and Bestower of aesthetic joy.
Without succumbing to any linguistic, grammatical, or rational laws, the sublime utterances in the Guru Granth come with a gusty speed and take on the most beautiful artistic designs. In a natural momentum, they flow out in lovely alliteration and rhyme, in lyrical assonance and consonance. My initial wonder at the geometric patterns, verbal arabesques, and dynamic somersaults that I discovered in my study of the Guru Granth as an undergraduate at Wellesley College still abides with me.21 Just as the Gurus lived and breathed in this world, so does their verse. The verses of the Gurus came from the Infinite through their deepest selves unbroken by walls of Hindu or Muslim, male or female constructions, and they were gathered into Guru Granth so that they could be reexperienced to the fullest by everyone.

Guru Arjan’s Harmandar is but a visual and tactile reminder of that access to the infinite matrix. Our blurred vision, muffled hearing, and numbed senses can be recharged; we can free ourselves from fears and phobias of the OTHER, and recognize the Infinite One. The weaving, circulating, and colorful texture of the granth is visible on the floors and walls and ceilings. The black and white marble slabs upon which one walks are repeated rhythmically. So are the stylized flowers and birds and vines and fruits and arabesques and lattice-work on the walls and sides. The structure itself repeats its arches and domes and pillars and kiosks and windows and storeys. Amongst the unending repetitions that one walks upon, touches on the sides, sees on the building, the melodious words are heard. The rhythmic repetitions create a dynamic movement for the senses and imagination. Together they are impelled onwards. Any feeling of uneasiness gives way to harmony; doubts and dualities begin to dissolve; the ignorant psyche is inspired to discover its essential spark. Through its finite structures the Harmandar creates an energetic movement towards the Infinite Transcendent. And that is the function and role of Sikh art.

Sikh art, ultimately, is not representation. It is revelation. In this revelatory process, constricting barriers are broken down, and we our ushered into our innermost recesses. The interlacing arabesques we hear and sing, merge with those we see, establishing in turn mental and spiritual arabesques amongst us — Sikhs, Christians and Jews; Brown, Black, Yellow, and White. For the Sikhs their artistic inheritance finding a permanent home on the American soil affirms their identity: they belong here. Memories have a future, and the memories of their past located in a museum in California helps Sikhs build an authentic future. For non-Sikhs each article displayed in the gallery opens up the history, politics, art, and religion of the 23 million Sikhs across the globe: it contributes to transcultural understanding in an essential way. That Sikh art has been added to the colorful patterns of plurality on the American landscape is a brilliant landmark in our human history. I thank Uncle Kapany for his vision, commitment, and boundless energy in accomplishing this enormous task.

puran saju karaia sagal manorath pure
the task is accomplished
all desires have been fulfilled.

Whole-heartedly we celebrate the opening of the Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Art in San Francisco, California.


  1. Sikhs open their sacred scripture at random, and read the first verse on the top left side. This verse is called the Vak.
  2. One of the fundamental properties of communitas is the blurring of distinction between self and other…” says Roy A. Rappaport in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 380.
  3. Rudoph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Galaxy, 1958)
  4. For a distinction between vision and visuality, see Georgia Frank, The Memory of the Eyes (Berkeley, 2000), p. 103.
  5. In The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Chapter 1.
  6. I have discussed these five stages in depth in my chapter on "The Spiritual Experience in Sikhism" in K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika Mukerji (eds.), Hindu Spirituality: Postclassical and Modern World Spirituality (New York: Crossroad Publications 1997), pp. 530-561
  7. W. H. McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), p. 222-3.
  8. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1977), p. 54.
  9. John Dewey, “Art as Experience” in Philosophies of Art & Beauty. Edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns ( University of Chicago, 1964), p. 592.
  10. John Dewey in Philosophies of Art & Beauty, p. 592.
  11. For visual diagrams of the two, see T.G.P. Spear, Delhi: Its Monuments and History (Delhi: Oxford, 1994), p. 49.
  12. in Marg, Volume XXX, no, 3, June 1977, p. 33
  13. Madanjit Kaur, The Golden Temple: Past and Present, p. 147
  14. Even in an edition of A History of the World’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1990), J.B. Noss entitles his chapter on Sikhism: A study in Syncretism (pp. 234-245).
  15. Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, volume. 1 (Motilal Banarsidass, 1976), p.6.
  16. Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Vintage International, 1992), p. 271.
  17. F. S. Aijazuddin, Sikh Portraits by European Artists (London, NY: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1979), p. 30.
  18. Kanwarjit Kang, “Art and Architecture of the Golden Temple” in Marg, Volume XXX, number 3, June 1977, p. 24
  19. Aijazuddin, Sikh Portraits by European Artists, p. 30
  20. Rudolph Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969), p. 19.
  21. My honor's thesis, Physics and Metaphysics of the Guru Granth was published by Sterling in Delhi in 1981 and was republished in 1995 (New Delhi: Manohar Publications).



We start the series with this joyous article by Prof. Nikky G. Kaur Singh. This paper was presented at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, celebrating the opening of the Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Sikh Arts. Prof. Nikky G. Kaur Singh

Nikky Singh is the Crawford Family Professor of Religious Studies at Colby College, and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Her interests focus on poetics and feminist issues. Nikky Singh has published extensively in the field of Sikhism, including The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus (HarperCollins and Penguin), Metaphysics and Physics of the Guru Granth Sahib (Sterling). She has published over 45 Journal Articles and Chapters in books, and has given over hundred lectures in North America, England, France, India, and Singapore. Her views have also been aired on television and radio in America, Canada, and India. Over the years her scholarship has been recognized with numerous awards and honors.


* Read the Authors Bio & Introduction to the series here
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1 Response

  1. Harbans Lal says:

    Nikky always writes well and that is reflected in this article too. What is new here is that she emphasizes spiritual bases of the Sikh art. This is the area we often neglect. In Sikhism spirit is never separated from the material; it is very vividly intertwined. We never lose sight of the divine presence in each splendor. Ik Onkaar, the commencing symbol in the Guru Granth, may actually be translated as “One Spirit One World.” One should admire this effort of the Sikh Foundation to highlight the art aspect of the universal Sikh culture and its inauguration done by an excellent composition from Sikh scholar Nikky-Gurinder Kaur Singh.