But what about Sikhism itself? Few Westerners have even basic information.
How many people are aware that it was conceived as a universalist, open-door religion?
Or that its view of society was radically egalitarian? Or that its holy book, the Adi Granth, far from being a catalog of sectarian dos and don’ts, is a bouquet of poetic songs, blending the fragrances of Hindu ragas, Muslim hymns and Punjabi folk tunes into a music of spiritual astonishment?
This is precisely the information delivered by the small and absolutely beautiful show titled “I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion” at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea. Vivid but concentrated, it presents, mostly through paintings, a culture’s version of its own origins, the image of history shaped far more by hard work, pluralistic politics and mysticism than by militancy.(link)
All very admirable and correct. The only thing I find a little odd is that the review is less an evaluation of the art in the exhibit than it is a summary of the basic points about Sikhism covered. For Cotter, the art is more a vehicle for acquiring knowledge than beautiful in its own right. Not a great tragedy, perhaps; in fact, even this short article is pretty informative. But still, it might have been interesting to hear more about how or whether this art fits into the broader picture of religious art in the Indian subcontinent during this historical period. (Call me an academic, but the question crossed my mind.)
The other slightly odd moment is this:
The painting is paired in the show with the workshop drawing, produced by a master artist, that served as its model. The contrast is striking. In the drawing the prince, far from being restrained, practically levitates from his saddle with ardor and leans toward Nanak as if drawn to a magnet. Mardana plays and sings with fervor of a contemporary bhangra star. It is in the drawing, rather than in the painting, that the Nanak Effect, so evident in poems and songs, comes through. (link)
Bhangra, huh? Not quite, Cotter-saab. Bhangra is secular, festive, and pro-intoxication. Nothing at all to do with Bhai Mardana. Still, this is a forgivable slip; Holland Cotter is a dedicated art critic, and as far as I can tell this is the first time he's ever written on Sikh-related art.
Incidentally, the Rubin Museum is doing an extensive array of programs to coincide with this show, including Sikh-related film screenings (organized through the Spinning Wheel Film Festival folks) as well as lectures.