A maharaja only in name, who lived away from his kingdom, mother, country, faith, and culture since the age of 10 and died a pauper after a failed marriage, Duleep Singh, last of the Sikh rulers, has been the muse of many artists and historians.
But a piece of art now on display at National Museum in Scotland will tell the world this story from a different perspective, by portraying Duleep Singh as what could never be—a celebrated king bedecked in all the finery of the Lahore court.
“Casualty of War: A Portrait of Maharaja Duleep Singh”, work of contemporary British artists Amrit Kaur Singh and Rabindra Kaur Singh, who go by the name of The Singh Twins, is commissioned to go with the museum’s collection of items (jewellery, a pen case, and a perfume bottle) that once belonged to the man. “We chose to profile the man behind the objects, to give the collector a context for understanding the historical importance and current-day relevance of these items,” said Amrit Kaur.
The London-born sisters have made the portrait in their signature, eclectic, contemporary, Indian miniature style. Rather than being a physical likeness of the maharaja, it uses imagery to sketch his character, life, times and legacy. “At the centre of the work is the maharaja as we imagine he would have been—turbaned, wearing the imperial plume of kingship and the crown jewels of the Sikh kingdom, Koh-i-noor diamond and Timur ruby—had the British not deposed and exiled him,” said Rabindra Kaur.
“He is framed by an archway of architectural details from Buckingham Palace and his UK residence, Elveden Hall, which he decorated partly in the royal Indian style. This Anglo-Indian structure symbolises the dual cultural aspects of his identity and upbringing,” she added. “Inside the archway are buildings and other details related to his life in India, including a blood-stained Sutlej river (symbolising the Anglo-Sikh wars that marked the beginning of the end of the Sikh empire of Punjab). Outside the archway is an English landscape, featuring monuments, buildings and objects relating to the life Duleep Singh would come to lead as a young boy exiled from his kingdom and living under the influence of the British establishment,” explains Amrit Kaur.
The painting the twins say has many more levels of interpretation. One is about how colonialism and empire-building have impacted multicultural Britain. Apart from his cultural and spiritual reality, the artists have tried to highlight his shackles; Brighton’s Chattri memorial to the fallen Indian soldiers of World War-1; three dates (of British annexation of Punjab, Partition, and Operation Bluestar) on the ship banner; and various quotes from history.