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September 2, 1999


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San Francisco to Host First Exhibition Showcasing Sikh Art

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Thomas Christensen and Kristina Youso in San Francisco

Akali turban of mid-1800's In celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, The Asian Art Museum here will host The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, the first comprehensive international exhibition to present the artistic traditions of the Punjab under Sikh rule.

The exhibition will be on from September 22 to January 9, and is being put up by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It features over 160 rarely seen objects of the highest quality drawn from 19 public and private collections in India, Pakistan, North America and Europe. The Asian Art Museum will serve as the only North American venue for this extraordinary exhibition.

The exhibition employs an array of objects -- paintings, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, books, decorative arts, and photography -- to explore the cultural richness of the great cosmopolitan kingdoms of the Sikhs. Eight thematic sections provide a historical overview, beginning with the origins of the Sikh religion and continuing through the period of British colonial rule. A comprehensive 256-page illustrated book, written by leading experts in Sikh history, accompanies the exhibition.

The exhibition has been organised by the Asian Art Museum in association with the Sikh Foundation, with contributions from Jagdeep and Roshni Singh, Kanwal and Ann Rekhi, and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The idea of an exhibition devoted to Sikh culture was first proposed by Narinder Singh Kapany of the Sikh Foundation in Palo Alto, California.

The exhibition focuses on the reign of Ranjit Singh, the celebrated maharaja of Lahore, who reigned from 1799 to 1839. In secular matters, the Sikh court followed the Mughal pattern, using the Persian language and employing weaponry as a significant element of court costume. A set of intricately decorated tiles dating from the 17th century demonstrates the influence of imperial Mughal design.

Prior to Ranjit Singh's reign, painting in the Punjab was concentrated in the small Hindu principalities in the Pahari [hill] region. Following Ranjit Singh's accession, these courts declined and their painters were gradually attracted towards a new, vibrant source of patronage. Artists from the important painting centres were employed by the maharaja and his circle to produce portraits of leading personalities of the Sikh court, or paintings of the Gurus. They were also employed to decorate the walls of palaces with elaborate designs and vibrant colours.

Though famously modest in personal appearance, Maharaja Ranjit Singh created a court of dazzling brilliance for the benefit of foreign visitors. At the centre of the court was the splendid Golden Throne, which will also be featured in the exhibition. This opulent symbol of power, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, epitomises the eclectic nature of artistic patronage at the Sikh court: the throne, which is covered in pure gold, was made by a Muslim craftsman drawing on Hindu forms.

The woven silks, carpets, and embroidered and printed cottons of the Punjab are extraordinarily diverse in character. They range from the elaborate pictorial embroideries known as Chamba rumals made for the Hindu courts to the highly refined carpets of Lahore and renowned shawls of Kashmir, all of which were used at the Sikh court.

Kashmiri Pashmina (a highly valued type of goat's wool) shawls, several of which are featured in 'The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms', were the most important textile produced in the region in the Sikh period. They were greatly prized both at the court and by those visitors to whom they were presented by the king.

Akali turban of mid-1800's Though Sikhism had always been essentially peaceful and harmonious, early in its history it acquired a militant edge as a reaction to Mughal persecution. Sikh warriors took to the battlefield in brightly coloured robes, wearing richly decorated armour. Their guns, manufactured in accordance with the latest European technology, were inlaid with leaping figures and cast with animal head finials.

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms contains superb examples, including enamelled gold medals set with emeralds and diamonds, a turban helmet, a sword hilt of jade inlaid with precious stones, a full set of armour -- helmet, mail shirt and cuirass -- and intricately decorated pistols and a matchlock musket.

European visitors to Lahore were dazzled by the splendour of the Sikh court. Western visitors recorded their impressions in enthusiastic prose, or in the case of both amateur and professional artists, on paper or canvas. John McCosh, a surgeon in the Bengal army stationed in Lahore in 1849, took the first known photographs of Sikhs.

The first War of Independence in 1857 led to a sudden demand for images of the Empire, and from that moment on, British amateurs, army officers, and professional photographers used the camera to document the people and places of India, including the Punjab.

The European perspective is evident in paintings by George Beechey, William Simpson, and William Carpenter. Mid-century albumen prints by Bourne and Shepherd and Felice Beato document important sites and prominent individuals.

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms is the first exhibition to explore artistic patronage at the later Sikh courts, where architecture and painting flourished, and textiles of high quality continued to be produced. Included in the exhibition are robes richly embroidered with gold thread, intricately designed shawls, and a man's garment made of yellow silk with gold-wrapped thread.

By drawing on collections in North America, Europe and Asia, the Victoria and Albert Museum has assembled a group of objects that provide a comprehensive view of the arts of the Punjab during the Sikh period. The exhibition is particularly significant in that it shows how the artistic traditions of the Punjab under Sikh rule are rooted in the inter-relatedness of Sikh, Hindu, and Islamic traditions.

That loaned works are coming from both India and Pakistan is a particularly important statement about the shared history of this region.

For the San Francisco Bay area, home to a large Indian population -- a significant percentage of it Sikh -- the exhibition is an opportunity to examine the rich artistic heritage of the Punjab. It is also an opportunity to experience the cultural efflorescence of the Sikhs as an integral part of Indian culture.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is one of the largest museums in the Western world devoted exclusively to Asian art. Opened in 1966 as a result of a gift to the City of San Francisco by industrialist and then International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, the Museum's holdings include more than 12,000 art objects representing the countries and cultures throughout Asia. As a result of a bond measure overwhelmingly passed by San Francisco voters in 1994, the museum is scheduled to relocate from its current location in Golden Gate Park to the Old Main Library building at the Civic Center in 2001.

A painting of Maharaja Gulab Singh Venue: Golden Gate Park (entrance from 8th Ave and Kennedy Drive across from the Music Concourse, adjacent to the de Young Museum), San Francisco, CA 94118.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday from 9.30 am to 5 pm, with extended evening hours until 8.45 pm on the first Wednesday of each month.

Regular Admission: $ 7 adults, $ 5 seniors, $ 4 youth aged 12 to 17, and FREE for children under the age of 12 and Asian Art Museum members.

Complimentary guided docent tours are offered at regularly scheduled times throughout the day. Admission is free to all members of the public on the first Wednesday of each month.

The Asian is served by MUNI buses #44 O'Shaughnessy and #71 Haight Noriega and the MUNI line N-Judah. Designated parking is in the lot east of the museum (entrance from Kennedy Drive at 10th Avenue) and at both ends of the Music Concourse.

Please note that on Sundays the J F Kennedy Drive is closed to all traffic. Nearby parking is available on weekends at the University of California, San Francisco, garage at a cost of $ 3 per car.

For more information regarding access, please call (415) 379-8812; TDD: (415) 752-2635. For more information, contact (415) 379-8801.

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