Like monochromatic mehndi, the Maharani Jind Kaur and Duleep Singh sprawl across the front cover of Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire. The final leaders of a fifty-year dynasty, their rendering reflects territories stretching from northwestern India, into Afghanistan and Tibet in the eighteenth century. Not judging this book by its cover would be missing the point entirely.
Drawing from court paintings and artefacts, Oxford University’s Dr. Priya Atwal’s latest release charts the transition of the Sikh leadership from nomadic newcomers to ‘refined’ ruling class. Glinted depictions of the Guru Nanak are amongst those published for the first time. Currently home to many of these objects, the Victoria and Albert Museum recently hosted the author in an online discussion. Shattering the stereotype of the ‘crude’ warrior, Dr. Atwal exposes how culture was central to the Sikh imperial project. She also implicitly challenges our traditional, monolithic concept of Empire itself. The Sikh Empire (1799-1849) rather comprised numerous Indian kingdoms. Traditional histories of this complex political geography tend to conflate both ‘Empire’ and ‘Kingdom’. But Dr. Atwal opts for ‘dynastic colonialism’, a term borrowed from Dutch imperial scholarship, to describe this carefully-negotiated network of shrewd marriages and co-opted local authorities.
The academic speak stops there. ‘Their Facebook relationship status would say “It’s Complicated”’, Dr. Atwal remarks of the interplay between the Sikh Maharaja and British East India Company. Accessibility is implicit in her approach to history. Absent from British and Indian curriculums, she first encountered the Sikh Empire at her first year of university – and only then through the Sikh Society. The capture of Lahore in 1799 would earn the first Maharaja, Ranjit Singh, the title ‘Lion of the Punjab’. But representations of this founding father depict a leader balanced in power and humility, often engaged in civilised diplomacy.
Contrast this with the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627), particularly despised for ordering the brutal execution of the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev. Sikh artists would later appropriate Mughal terms for their own means, depicting these self-described ‘lords of the universe’ in all their immodesty, nevertheless Maharaja Ranjit Singh acknowledged the power of culture. From the Mughals, Persian became the language of court, and Ranjit Singh himself was most often painted in the image of his forbears. Fusing Sikh, Mughal, and European lexicons of leadership, his depictions were employed to celebrate – and consolidate – the Maharaja’s position as their rightful successor.
Sikh soldiers wear Western uniforms, perhaps a subtle nod to the militancy of European imperialism. But their weapons remain covered, a reservation and modesty associated with the Sikh Gurus. Allusions to the Persian epic Shahnameh (977-1010) reflect the region’s multicultural Mughal heritage. Dr. Atwal even picks out Caribbean influences in their facial expressions and ornaments, hinting at international networks beyond the continent.
These artworks equally challenge the individualistic, ‘great man’ narrative of Empire. Beyond the Punjabi prince, wives and children were crucial in gathering land, troops, and future leaders for the dynastic project. The observation of purdah, or separation from men and strangers, meant that women were particularly excluded from traditional historical accounts. But shrouding of women in mystery unintentionally produced a number of artistic interpretations, none more infamous than the Maharani Nakain (1782-1838). The second of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 31 wives – Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh – her image reflects the multicultural cooperation that maintained the dynasty.
Sixty minutes disappears, a miniature window into fifty years of history. Dr. Atwal embraces the time constraints, and predominantly focuses on paintings. More questionably, there’s little discussion as to how the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired these and other objects in the first place – topics touched upon in the text.
But this is a history still being written. Little is known of the provenance of Maharani Nakain’s depiction. Having found it on the internet, Dr. Atwal, half-jokingly, asks the audience for tip-offs. By depicting themselves as successors to the Mughals, traditional British accounts have practically written the Sikh Empire out of history. But beyond an oversimplified and overlooked afterthought, Royals and Rebels vividly paints this diverse dynasty back into the frameworks of Empire.
Online Talk: Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire with Dr. Priya Atwal was held by the V&A South Kensington on 29 March 2021. Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire is published by Hurst.