The Power of Spectacle
The Sikh courts of nineteenth-century Punjab left visitors enthralled with their display of pomp and pageantry. Maharajas and courtiers wore magnificent clothes and bedecked themselves and their horses with spectacular jewelry.
One notable exception was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the largest and most powerful of the Sikh kingdoms. While he favored simple clothes of fine cotton for himself, he well understood the power of a display of wealth and insisted that his courtiers, army, and even their mounts be dressed in lavish silks and jewels, especially when receiving foreign dignitaries at court.
Other Sikh kingdoms such as Patiala and Nabha signed treaties with the British, primarily to counter the growing power of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This arrangement enabled them to keep their courts and armies. The maharajas of these kingdoms, with their ample resources and time, patronized artists and artisans who created opulent ornaments for them and recorded their glorious appearance in portraits.
An important record of the impressions left on visitors to the Sikh kingdoms is found in the writings and drawings of Europeans such as Emily Eden and W. G. Osborne. Some of their works can be seen here.
— Text by Sonia Dhami, former intern specializing in Sikh art, Many portraits of the maharajas, like this one, project personal wealth and magnificent jewels as symbols of social prestige. Some rulers posed for these portraits proudly wearing cloaks embroidered with the “Star of India,” an honor bestowed by the British sovereign, to reinforce their standing as favored British subjects
This painted portrait is based on a photograph by Bourne and Shepherd, a prestigious British-run photo studio in India.