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Tracking Sikh Art

Kavita Singh

By B.N. Goswamy and Caron Smith
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2006, pp. 214, price not stated.


The enigmatic title of this book is taken from a beautiful verse that best reflects the spiritual and humanist vision of the Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs. Na ko bairi nahi bigana, sagal sangh ham ko ban ayee. I see no stranger nor enemy: all I see are You, and You are Mine. In Sikh legend, these words were uttered by a bhisti or water carrier who was reprimanded for giving water to the woun-ded soldiers of both armies on the battlefield.   The Sikh gurus, who lived through the transition from establishment and disintegration of Mughal rule, witnessed terrible violence—imposed by rulers on their people; by upper castes upon lower castes; by men upon women; and between Muslims and Hindus. Their gentle wisdom continues to inspire many today, but is all the more remarkable for being a product of those times.   The congregation that Guru Nanak founded, and that grew and was consolidated into a separate sect by the nine gurus who succeeded him, has now crystallized into the Sikh religion. While some date the founding of Sikhism to Nanak’s own time, and others to the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh’s creation of the Khalsa1 in 1699, other historians date Sikhism’s distinct identity-formation to the late-19th or early 20th century as an outcome of the Singh Sabha movement that sought to ‘purify’ and essentialize a sect and turn it into a religion. Harjot Oberoi’s The Construction of Religious Boundaries2 offers a brilliant account of the process by which Sikhism turned from a sect into a religion. Predictably, his book has been controversial, and has offended many who need to believe their religion is 300, and not 100, years old.   We may even see the demand for a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, and the terrorism and the tumult of the 1980s and 90s, as an extreme effect of this century-old search for a distinct and pure Sikh religious community. In the last decade or so, after the Khalistan movement has subsided, many prominent Sikhs seem to be in search of community consolidation by other means, so that Sikhs can retain a sense of distinctness, without becoming divisive; can adhere to their religion, without becoming fundamentalist. This need to nurture roots without producing shooters is particularly keenly felt by the large and worldwide Sikh diaspora. Inevitably, some community leaders have turned their focus towards culture as this ...

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