Rubin Museum of Art Showcases Sikhism, World's Fifth Largest Religion

September 18, 2006

Source: The New York Times

On September 18, 2006 The New York Times reported, "Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest organized religion, has more than 20 million followers. Many thousands live in New York City. We can spot Sikh men on the street by their turbans and upswept whiskers. And many of us will recall that two decades ago Sikhs were at the center of the news when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple at Amritsar, killing hundreds of Sikh separatists, and, soon after, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. 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.... The exhibition, organized by the art historian B. N. Goswamy of Panjab University, and Caron Smith, chief curator of the Rubin Museum, conveys something of the flavor of [Sikhism] through dozens of miniature paintings in Hindu and Mughal court styles illustrating the life of Nanak, or Guru Nanak as he came to be called. In them he emerges as a figure of commonsensical wit, unassuming piety, superhuman power and increasing physical bulk. He’s a trim, soft-faced schoolboy in one 18th-century painting, standing in class and holding out a writing board — it looks like a boxy camera — to a teacher. Already by this time Nanak has been lecturing his parents on the Bhagavad-Gita and writing metaphysical verse. Some of these poems, we are meant to assume, are on the writing board. And we know his confounded teacher will give him an A for Amazing."