Equestrian portrait of Maharaja Sher Singh
Origin: Punjab Hills/Northern India (Sikh School)
Date: Late 19th century (possibly c1880-1890)
Length: 33.5cm x 24cm without frame / 38cm x 48cm in frame
Materials: Gouache and gold on paper
A fine equestrian portrait of Maharaja Sher Singh.
The tradition of Indian miniature painting can be traced from the 9th-10th century in the Buddhist Pala period palm leaf manuscript of eastern India and in the western India in the Jaina palm leaf manuscript. With the introduction of paper in 12th century in India, illustrations on paper manuscript of larger format than the narrow palm leaf, began to come into vogue (see Delhi Academy of Fine Arts and Literature).
Sikh Art really saw progression during the end of the 18th century and found substance during the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The court of the Maharaja was diverse. This rich diversity meant an unusual approach had to be taken in presenting the wide range of material. It is almost impossible to define an exclusively 'Sikh' art - the maharaja's famous golden throne, for example, was made by a Muslim, and even paintings of Sikh subjects could be the work of Hindu, Muslim or Sikh artists (see V&A). As the Sikh Kingdom was vast, many styles of painting found ground. Nobles and Kings were painted and patronage was given to artist to produce such art. Most paintings from the state can be categorised as Pahari, Rajasthani, Mughal or Kashmiri as the style of painting held its roots in much earlier traditions. Quite a number of Pahari artists accepted the patronage of the Sikh master. In the plains of Punjab in Lahore, Patiala and Amritsar several sets of paintings were produced which obviously had the signs of continuation of Pahari paintings.
Opaque pigments heightened with gold on paper. The vertical composition depicts Maharaja Sher Singh in fine and elaborate clothing. Maharaja Sher Singh was a figure of high status and this is expressed through the bright and heightened halo in gold. Maharaja Sher Singh is wearing the traditional Khalsa-style turban, a style which became prominent during the end of the Misl period and into the reign of. Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This style of turban was also common amongst the Hindu Pahari Rajputs, from whom the Sikhs took design and style from since the Rajputs were Royals. The Turban is of a light blue, with a gold boarder. Underneath the blue turban is an orange cloth, maybe stating that the general is wearing a two-tone turban. This was in fact common in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore (see The Court of Ranjit Singh by Bishan Singh c1864 from the Toor Collection). At the centre of the turban is an emerald-encrusted sarpech (or Kalgi - Royal Plume). Sarpech, also known as aigrette, is a turban ornament that was worn by significant Muslim, Rajput and Sikh princes and generals. The Sarpech is traditionally worn on the front of the turban, just as it is in this equestrian portrait. The sarpech carries a lot of symbolism, namely those related with power, royalty and conquest, hence why it was popularised during the Mughal courts in India. As the Sikhs came into power during the late 1700s-early 1800s, they also adopted the Sarpech as a symbol of their new found power, royal nature and conquest success. The Maharaja in the equestrian portrait features a very regal looking sarpech as it visibly contains jewels, emeralds and rubies of a high nature (Sikhs were known for acquiring expensive swords and jewellery). On the back of the Maharaja is a Dhal (shield), which were mostly made of hide. Around his shoulder is a sash which would hold his sword, and in his neck is fine jewellery On the waist the Sikh Maharaja can be seen wearing a green ruby and gold encrusted waistband. The Royal Collection Trust (RCIN 11291) features the ‘Emerald girdle of Maharaja Sher Singh’, matches the jewellery style in this painting. All the minute details point to this being a Sikh of high status.
The Maharaja is riding a black horse with his right hand on the reigns and left on the horse’s neck. The horse is very dear to the Sikhs as seen in the Akaali Nihang sect. The horse is seen as the Jaan Bhai (life brother) and the Sikhs are seen taking constant care of them as way of learning humility. The horse’s harness bejewelled, as is his head, where at the centre lies a royal Kalgi with black feathers.
The equestrian portrait is framed within bright yellow, red and grey borders, which provide a great contrast to the blue sky and green landscape fields.
Traditionally, these types of portraits were portable and carried around India, with the aim of showing them to small groups. These groups would view the painting under a candle light, which would really bring out the gold on paper. This painting is no exception. The gold is very vibrant under light and brings the image to life.
There are few examples within private collections and museum that resemble this painting. This assists with decoding which Sikh Maharaja this may be along with dating the art.
The Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi (India) presented a similar painting and stated it was an ‘Equestrian portrait of Maharaja Sher Singh’. Maharaja Sher Singh (born 4th December 1807 - 15th September 1843) was the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and became Maharaja of Punjab in 1841. ‘In 1829, Maharaja Ranjit Singh conferred upon him civil and military honours and the privilege of being seated on a chair in his Darbar. Sher Singh took part in many of the campaigns undertaken by the Maharaja for the expansion of his kingdom. In May 1831 he defeated, at Balakot in Hazara district, the turbulent Sayyid Ahmad Barelavi who had started a jihad against Sikh rule. From 1831 to 1834 he acted as governor of the province of Kashmir. In 1834 he was one of the army commanders who led forces in Peshawar and who finally seized the city from the Afghans’ (see SikhiWiki).
The famous Toor Collection features An Equestrian Portrait of Maharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala, Patiala (school), c1850. There are many similar features of our example and the one of the Toor Collection. The pose, decoration of the horse and style of clothing is noticeably alike.
Overall, a very fine and rare painting of Maharaja Sher Singh. In good condition, framed in a elaborate museum quality gold frame.