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GV: In the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, there is a painting of a Maharaja…
GV: His eyes get me.. they’re sad and kind, like he’s lived through something. He is handsome with a trimmed black beard and mustache.. He’s wearing a silk kurta with a turban dripping with pearls, rubies and emeralds, topped off with a black plume or kalgi. He’s wearing strings and strings of pearls and emeralds, a ruby necklace, a belt of emerald, and on his left arm strapped in a bazuband or amband is the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond.
MRA: The background is vibrant — electric blues, turf greens.. The shapes are ornate, flowers, curlicues.. There’s a busy-ness to it that evokes the feeling of India.. The feeling of going to a loud and colorful Indian vegetable market
GV: The Maharaja is surrounded by symbols.. I see a ship, a river stained with blood, a Golden throne, and a tomb.. clues to his life…what could they mean?
GV: This is Chatroom 16: De-colonizing a Maharajah… on Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan.
MRA: And I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. We have a small request. We’re an independently funded podcast, so if you like our work, please consider donating. Every little bit helps us to continue telling “stories from the margins of history, science and cultures.” You can find details on our website, scrollsandleaves.com/support. And of course, if you have feedback, do let us know! Thank you.
GV: The painting is called the Casualty of War and the artists are Amrit and Rabindra Kaur, who go by the moniker, the Singh Twins. It depicts Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last King of the Sikh Empire in Punjab. He’ll feature in one of our upcoming episodes from Season 1. Stay tuned!
MRA: In this episode, we’ll talk to Friederike Voigt =, the curator of South Asia at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, who’s been on a decade-long quest to investigate and restore the histories to objects in the museum that speak of colonization.
GV: Back in 2008, when Friederike first joined the Museum, she attended an exhibition that featured objects that once belonged to an Indian Maharajah…
Friederike Voigt: there were bracelets made of gold … there was a large, probably rose water bottle, probably a cashmere, chiselled little pen box, and also another box which you might have used for his personal things, it’s not entirely clear. So definitely the pen box for his writing. So there was also a personal aspect related to this object, but also to the bracelets, which you could imagine that he had been wearing.
GV: And the labels on the display cases —
Friederike: presented these objects as a man who lived in Britain, spent a lot of money, had a very aristocratic lifestyle and was known for his splendour.
GV: Friederike felt this didn’t quite mesh with what she’d read about the Maharajah… we’ll tell you his backstory briefly…
MRA: Duleep is 5 years old in 1843 when he becomes Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, which is one of the last Kingdoms standing against the British in India. It is a magnificent monarchy, with a rich treasury.
MRA: When the British see a child on the throne, they seize the day, launch two bloody Anglo-Sikh wars and annex Punjab in 1849. The Maharajah, who’s now a teenager, is exiled to Britain and groomed to be an exotic Indian Maharajah plaything at court. He’s kept on a short leash because they know if anyone can unite the Indians — and especially the fierce Punjabi warriors — against the Brits, it’s Duleep.
MRA: Later in life, Duleep becomes disillusioned — he tries to go back to Punjab to take back the throne, and he’s arrested enroute. He eventually dies alone in a Paris hotel room.
GV: So, a tragic tale… it’s not exactly a life of ostentatious splendour as portrayed in the exhibition is it?
Friederike: this didn’t seem to fit with what I had read about him that he had to leave Punjab that he was basically an exile. So there was a contradiction between these objects, and what I knew about his life. And this is the part of the story I wanted to bring out. And this guided my research, which I then carried out later. So to understand much more how we got these objects in the collections and what they can tell us about Duleep Singh, his life as it was when he was still in India. And when he came to Britain
GV: Friederike wanted to let Duleep’s objects speak — not by penning yet another authoritative article investigating their origins .. but rather by inviting dialogue from voices that would generally not be involved in authoritative historical reconstructions… the voices of the Sikh diaspora to whom this history means a lot…
GV: So in 2009, she invited two emerging British-Sikh artists to reflect on the Maharajah’s objects at the Museum and paint. She hoped the process would…
Friederike: give these objects a new life and bring them from a historical past into the present. And given that we have so many historical objects, if, if they stay in history, some of the potential of what they can tell us, what are they can mean to us, is lost. So it is very important to engage with communities across the places where we live.
MRA: Back then, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur — who paint together as the Singh Twins — were still emerging artists. This commission boosted their career. They’re pretty big now, they’ve exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, among other places. And they favour the style of Mughal miniatures, informed by their heritage, though their art is sharply political and contemporary.
Friederike: I had met the Singh twins before. The idea was born that we were to commission the Singh twins with a painting re-interpreting the jewellery. So, reinterpreting just means that we were interested, we wanted to see what their thoughts were on the jewelry, on their own history, because being Sikh but born in Britain, gave them a particular perspective on the jewelry. So I met with them and we discussed it, they saw the jewellery and then they created this fascinating painting, Casualty of War. So the portrait of Dilip Singh showing him against a backdrop of many different elements. So if you know the style of the Singh twins to understand, you know, they work with all these intricate details that you can look at their paintings again and again and you will discover something. So the complexity of Duleep Singh’s stories is very much captured in their portrait.
GV: I can see in the painting… the Lahore Fort, where Duleep ruled out of.. The capital of the Sikh Empire; the Sutlej River, the border of the Empire, stained with the blood of Sikh warriors; a setting Sun; Duleep’s throne, which is now displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; the pen case that Friederike mentioned earlier, and the rosewater bottle..The Kalgi atop the Maharaja’s turban — that belonged to Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh spiritual leader.. Which has since vanished…it’s meant to indicate cultural appropriation. A bible to show Duleep’s conversion to Christianity — he eventually re-converted to Sikhism … The tomb where he’s buried in Suffolk
Friederike: And the portrait includes the jewellery, but it shows it in this kind of, and there’s tension between somebody who was born in India was sent into exile, he converted to Christianity and then embraced Sikhism again. So what.. it’s very much about how you feel as an individual, what is your identity, and how important is identity to you, in this context, they embedded our objects. And identity is a question that is important to all of us, it doesn’t matter how old we are, and where we live.
MRA: In 2014 – 2015, the Museum held an exhibition of the painting and his other objects…
Friederike: So when we had the exhibition, Indian Encounters, I wanted to use this in order to, to engage with the Sikh in Scotland. And there’s a very active gurudwara in in Glasgow, but we also have Sikhs in Edinburgh, of course.
MRA: They also invited young Sikhs in Edinburgh to explore their own history…
Friederike: And the young Sikhs, they were just brilliant- the way how they engaged with the history through these objects, but also through the places they went to to the castle where Duleep Singh lived in Scotland, they came to us to see the painting and jewelry, and also went to London to see the Golden Throne, which had been removed as part of the Treaty of Lahore
at the same time, they wanted to develop their skills and came up with several projects. And part of this was creating their own jewelry pieces. So what they did with their own project, just with the fact that they wanted to learn about his history about finding out about Duleep Singh as one of their ancestors was to give these objects a new life and bring them from a historical past into the present.
What we do at the museum is to engage with communities. And I would consider this as one of the projects which I really liked and which did what I would envisage for other parts of the collection I’m responsible for.
we do have the jewellery out and it is displayed next to the Singh Twins painting, Casualty of War, which means history and the present are combined and that’s there for people to see not only for the Sikh but also for everybody who hopefully can come back to our museums in in the future.
MRA: Finally, to give you a sense of why the perspective, the gaze, matters…we’d like to tell you about another painting, also of Maharaja Duleep Singh.. This one hangs in Buckingham Palace… it was painted in 1854 for Queen Victoria by the famed court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter…
GV: Duleep Singh is a handsome teenager here. His stance is regal,carefree. His beard and mustache are just coming in…He’s still in silk kurta-pyjama, but it’s minimally embellished. He holds a jewelled sword, his turban has a few ornaments though not nearly as much as in the Singh Twins painting. And at his throat is a pendant of Queen Victoria.
GV: The style is pared-back — with just the right amount of Indian to mark him exotic but still acceptable to Western tastes. Everything is harmonious, the colours, the subject. The Maharajah seems sure about who he is… that’s a reflection of either what the artist saw, or wanted us to see…
GV: The Singh Twins painting certainly muddies this easy narrative, doesn’t it?
MRA: You were listening to Frederike Voigt on Chatroom 16 – Decolonizing a Maharajah on Scrolls & Leaves. For more information and other episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com, or follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another chatroom. See you then!