The story of a Sikh museum
GURDWARA Sis Ganj in old Delhi is one of the holiest Sikh shrines in India. As one walks down the street of Chandni Chowk, the main boulevard in the old city, the Sis Ganj gurdwara is a prominent landmark. The fawwara roundabout on which it is located is always busy with the traffic of devotees, both locals who visit the gurdwara daily and those who have travelled into Delhi as pilgrims. As a resident of Delhi and a historian interested in the city’s past and its heritage dynamics, it is interesting for me to observe the commemorations and celebrations around the gurdwara. The gurpurab celebrations and the accompanying nagar kirtans are a regular feature of the Sis Ganj gurdwara and Chandni Chowk. The fawwara (a blue and white colonial-period fountain in the middle of a roundabout) is now a prominent Sikh shrine. What is not so prominent is the Sikh museum on the same roundabout.
Unless one is very familiar with the area, it is often hard to spot individual buildings in old Delhi; they are hidden behind large hoardings and a mesh of electrical wires, and one is often too preoccupied with negotiating the roads to spare a glance elsewhere. A buff coloured building on the roundabout, across from the Sis Ganj gurdwara, has a charitable dispensary and a rest house for travellers. It also houses the Bhai Mati Das Museum, an ajaibghar, attached to the gurdwara.
One enters the museum with the head covered and without shoes, as one would in the sacred space of a gurdwara. The entrance to the museum on the busy fawwara roundabout does not quite prepare the visitor for the space inside. The museum has large open halls, spread over two storeys.
The display is unusual. In a museum, one typically expects a collection of old, rare objects which have historical value. Here, the display is entirely made up of modern paintings. There are portraits of the Sikh gurus, stories from their life and that of their followers. These ‘history paintings’ narrate the story of the Sikh past. These are oil paintings on canvas made in a western realist style. While the workmanship in some paintings is crude, on the whole it is impressive. Walking through the gallery of paintings, I found myself drawn into the story of the Sikh community.
The paintings with their short descriptions are like a story book unfolding. The most popular stories of the gurus, familiar since our childhood, come alive once again. There is the young Guru Nanak asleep in the sun, being provided shade by a cobra; Guru Nanak and his companion, Bhai Mardana, on their travels; Mata Khivi, famous for her generosity, preparing the langar; Guru Harkishan nursing the sick in Delhi; Guru Gobind Singh accepting baptism from the Panj Piare. The dynamism of the characters is so vividly depicted in the paintings that I could feel both the gentleness of the gurus’ expression and the energy of the Khalsa.
Like many of us, I was already familiar with quite a few of these images: the portraits of the gurus, the warrior Banda Bahadur striking a militant pose, Baba Deep Singh charging into the Harmandir Sahib with a raised sword, the portrait of Maharani Jindan. I have seen these images on wall and pocket calendars, magazines, government advertisements celebrating gurpurabs and death anniversaries of Sikh heroes, and even academic works. Animation films and songs on Sikh history available on the internet make extensive use of these images. I had even used some of these images professionally, when I was part of the design team creating the display for Virasat-e Khalsa, the multimedia museum of Sikh history at Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. These images till now had seemed to me as simply popular bazaar art. I was now encountering them within the portals of a museum. Who made these paintings and why? How did they end up in a museum?
Bhai Mati Das Museum was commissioned by the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) and was opened to public in the year 2001. It was on the initiative of Baba Harbans Singh Kar Sewa Wale, a much respected elderly Sikh who ran the voluntary labour or kar sewa teams, that the building of Majestic cinema hall was purchased by the DSGMC and converted into a museum.
Display at Bhai Mati Das Museum, Chandni Chowk. Courtesy DSGMC.
The museum has a total of 166 oil paintings. Most of these were not created for the Sis Ganj gurdwara museum; they found their way into it as an afterthought. These paintings were commissioned by the Punjab and Sind Bank (PSB) for their annual calendars, over a period of more than three decades. They were subsequently donated by the bank to the DSGMC for display in the museum.
What links this well known public sector bank to Sikh history and Sikh museums? PSB has an interesting history of promotion of Sikh heritage. It was founded as a private bank in the year 1908 by three prominent Sikh reformers: Bhai Vir Singh, Sardar Tarlochan Singh and Sir Sunder Singh Majithia. It was envisaged as a community bank for the Sikhs and had many branches in undivided Punjab. After the Partition in 1947, it was left with only two branches on the Indian side, and it gradually grew from this position. PSB remained a private company till the year 1980, when it was nationalized by the Indian government.
In independent India, PSB is well remembered in the Sikh community for its calendars depicting scenes from Sikh history. The first calendar was issued in 1974 and paintings for calendars continued to be commissioned for printing till the early 2000s. The bank still publishes calendars except that photographs have now replaced paintings. The key people behind PSB’s famous calendars were Inderjit Singh, Makhan Singh and Satbir Singh. Inderjit Singh (1911-1998), a greatly respected member of the Sikh community, was the general manager of PSB from 1960 to 1968 and then its chairman till 1982, when he retired. Inderjit Singh was keen to spread the teachings of Sikhism and promote the gursikh way of life among the Sikhs. Under his chairmanship, PSB started publishing calendars and books on Sikh heritage. Makhan Singh (b. 1936) who retired from PSB as deputy general manager, worked in close association with Inderjit Singh. He was responsible for coordinating among the artists, historians and the bank for publishing the calendars. Principal Satbir Singh (1932-1994) of Khalsa College, Karnal, was a prolific writer of popular books on Sikh history. He was responsible for the historical content of the paintings and the calendars.
Each PSB calendar was based on a single theme from Sikh history. For instance, the calendar for the year 1975 featured women from Sikh history, and included Bebe Nanaki (Guru Nanak’s sister), Mata Khivi (known for her langar) and Mai Bhago (leading the forty muktas into the battlefield in support of Guru Gobind Singh). The PSB calendar for the year 1976 was on kirtaniyas: the musicians and singers who accompanied the gurus. It carried paintings such as that of Bhai Mardana with his rabab, and Bhai Balwand and Bhai Satta. Many of these paintings are now part of the display at Bhai Mati Das Museum.
Mata Khivi preparing langar. Painting in the Bhai Mati Das Museum. Courtesy DSGMC.
The painting of Mata Khivi by the well known artist Devender Singh preparing langar is displayed at the entrance hall of the museum. Other artists whose works are displayed in the museum include Mehar Singh, Bodhraj, Kirpal Singh, Rahi Mohinder Singh, Jarnail Singh and Amolak Singh. When the Bhai Mati Das Museum was established, Amolak Singh was employed by the DSGMC to work at the museum. Some of the paintings on display here were painted by him exclusively for the museum. At PSB, once the theme for the annual calendar was decided, the bank commissioned these artists to illustrate different episodes for the theme.
Even after its nationalization, PSB continued publishing calendars on Sikh heritage. Significantly, the decades of the production of paintings for calendars coincide with some very crucial developments in the Sikh community’s history: the newly reorganized state of Punjab, where the Sikhs became a majority community; the increasing tensions between Delhi and Punjab; the Khalistan movement; Operation Bluestar and the violence against the Sikhs in 1984. Interestingly, none of these events are represented in the paintings. The museum overwhelmingly focuses on the guru period and the Sikhs’ struggles against the Muslims as events worth remembering in the community’s history.
Out of 166 paintings in the museum, 104 depict the life of the ten gurus and their families and followers. The largest number of paintings are those of Guru Gobind, Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind, followed by Guru Teg Bahadur, Guru Nanak and Guru Amar Das. The narrative is personality centric and follows a chronological order: from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, followed by stories of Sikh heroes and military commanders who lived in the 18th century, and subsequently, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule in Punjab.
The museum has very little to tell us about what happens to the Sikhs after Ranjit Singh’s rule. There are a few portraits of the Sikhs involved in the national movement for independence (Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha), and then a couple of canvases on their participation in the army of independent India. It is almost as if Sikh history came to a stop with the end of Ranjit Singh’s rule, or at least the glorious period did. There are a number of paintings which present Sikh struggles again the Muslims – Sikhs are shown sacrificing their life in defence of their faith.
Bhai Mati Das Museum is named after one of the disciples of Guru Teg Bahadur who was killed at Chandni Chowk in 1675. Popular Sikh tradition informs us that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was forcing a group of Kashmiri Pandits to convert to Islam when the latter approached Guru Teg Bahadur for help. The Guru challenged Aurangzeb that if the emperor could convert him, everyone else would convert; else the emperor would have to give up his policy of coercion.
Guru Teg Bahadur along with three of his disciples – Bhai Mati Das, Bhai Sati Das and Bhai Dyala – was captured and imprisoned at the Mughal kotwali in Delhi (the present day langar khana of the Sis Ganj gurdwara). These three Sikhs were tortured in the presence of the guru to scare him into converting to Islam. It is said that Bhai Mati Das was sawn in half, Bhai Sati Das wrapped in cotton and set on fire and Bhai Dyala boiled alive. Even after witnessing the torture and death of his followers, Guru Teg Bahadur refused to convert to Islam. As a result, he was beheaded.
The Sis Ganj gurdwara in Chandni Chowk marks the spot of the guru’s beheading. The fawwara at the roundabout on Chandni Chowk is believed to be the site of martyrdom of the three followers. Recently, a shrine commemorating the three followers of the guru was established at the fawwara, which has been renamed Bhai Mati Das Chowk. Devotees offer prayers and flowers at the shrine. Both the roundabout and the museum have graphic depictions of torture these Sikhs faced.
Bhai Mati Das Museum is part of the larger sacred landscape of the Sis Ganj gurdwara, which now includes the kotwali and the fawwara as Sikh shrines. The information plaque at the entrance to the museum underlines the significance of this landscape. It tells us that ‘museum (ajaibghar) is a place where the Sikh community’s glorious historical treasures are housed.’ It goes on to tell us a story:1
A Pathan was once seen holding a paintbrush in his hand. Someone remarked that the feeble paintbrush did not suit him and he should hold a sword instead. The Pathan replied that with this paintbrush he will make such paintings that those who see and experience them will be inspired to take up the sword. This is the hope that motivated the establishment of the museum… Chandni Chowk was witness to the sacrifice of Guru Teg Bahadur and his three followers… Banda Bahadur’s companions were killed here in batches of 100. The museum has been raised to preserve the memory of this sacrifice forever in history. The building stands on a site which is enriched with the blood of martyrs (shaheedon ke khoon se rangi dharti). The paintings have been displayed so that people in India and abroad learn about the glorious historical legacy, sacrifices and achievements (of the Sikhs). We are confident that this museum dedicated to martyrs will inspire the young generation to become Sikhs, Singhs and Khalsa, true to the faith.
The inspiration and purpose of the museum is clear from the above text.2 The site of the museum is significant as this is the very place where Sikhs were martyred, their blood enriching the land. The museum is in memory of those very sacrifices. And the paintings displayed in the museum help people learn of this history, the achievements of the Sikhs. The purpose is to inspire young Sikhs to follow the path of their ancestors, be true to their faith, uphold its traditions and be prepared to defend the faith for which so many sacrifices were made.
However, there is little in the museum which informs a viewer of the context and the times in which the Sikhs lived. As a result, all actions of individuals depicted in the museum are inspired by and in the service of faith alone. Moreover, all members of the Sikh community are depicted in the Khalsa ideal (full beard and turban), even when the events date back to much before the Khalsa was established by the last guru in the 17th century.
The story of the Sikh community in the Sis Ganj museum also has some glaring omissions: the Partition, Operation Bluestar and the subsequent violence against the Sikhs in 1984. These were extremely significant events both for the Indian nation and the Sikh community and, therefore, conspicuous by their absence in the museum. Interestingly, the trauma of 1984 (military action at the holiest shrine of Sikhism and the loss of lives in the Golden Temple complex, in June 1984) is commemorated every year as the ghallughara diwas (holocaust day) by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.3 None of the Delhi gurdwaras (until recently) have had a comparable commemoration (either to remember June 1984 or the targeted killings of the Sikhs in Delhi in November 1984, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination). A memorial for the victims of November 1984 was, however, announced in 2013 by DSGMC, and inaugurated in 2017 at the Rakab Ganj gurdwara in New Delhi. This mobilization for the 1984 memorial in Delhi coincides with the Akali Dal (Badal) gaining control of the DSGMC, which for long had been under Congress control. While these political interests may explain the selective commemorations of 1984, the blanking out of any reference to the Partition is intriguing.
The plaque at the Sis Ganj museum entrance states that the museum is built on land enriched by the blood of martyrs. However, it is the heroes of the medieval times whose sacrifice is overwhelmingly invoked. Besides the Partition and 1984, both of which are significant to the history of the Sikhs in Delhi, another episode which is forgotten is the police firing in the year 1930 at this very site. Delhi had seen several protests in the backdrop of the Civil Disobedience Movement. One such protest near the Sis Ganj gurdwara and the kotwali next to it led to police firing at the protesting crowd, killing and injuring people, and desecrating the gurdwara. This incident had been strongly condemned by the Sikh community then and was a major cause of unrest among Sikh soldiers in the army of British India. This significant event in the history of Sis Ganj, however, finds no place in the commemorations at the gurdwara or the history in the museum.
The story of Bhai Mati Das Museum is an interesting entry point into understanding the phenomenon of Sikh museums. It reveals connections between individuals and institutions, all of whom are united in their idea of Sikh heritage and their efforts to promote it. A number of Sikh museums have been established in India since independence, built by both gurdwara management committees and the government. The history paintings are part of practically every Sikh museum, irrespective of who built them. Small neighbourhood gurdwaras may only have a couple of paintings or their prints displayed along a wall. Large gurdwaras and government projects will often have a dedicated museum building containing dozens of paintings.
The journey into a Sikh museum is not only an exercise in seeking knowledge, but also an affirmation of one’s faith. Here, the authority of the museum combines with the power of faith to create an authoritative version of Sikh heritage. And, what gets presented as heritage, is best understood in light of the politics that produces it. Sikh museums reveal a fascinating intersection of Sikh popular art with history, faith, identity and politics, making them the key to understanding how the Sikh community looks at its past.
1. Translation from Gurmukhi is mine.
2. Although I find it curious that a Pathan (i.e. a Muslim, the traditional enemies of Sikhs) is used as an example.
3. See Radhika Chopra (2010): Commemorating Hurt: Memorializing Operation Bluestar, Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory, DOI: 10.1080/17448727.2010.530509; Radhika Chopra (2013): A Museum, A Memorial, And A Martyr, Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory, DOI: 10.1080/17448727.2013.822142