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CASUALTY OF WAR: Portrait of Maharajah Duleep Singh

By The Singh Twins



In 1854, Queen Victoria commissioned her court artist, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, to paint a portrait of 15-year-old Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire, who had just been brought to the UK after having been forced to surrender his sovereignty to Britain. Now, 160 years later, the National Museum of Scotland, commissioned the Liverpool based artists The Singh Twins to make another portrait of the Maharaja. The Singh Twins call their art work ‘Casualty of War: A Portrait of Maharaja Duleep Singh.’ They have painted a narrative of the tragic life of the ‘Black Prince of Perthshire’ – as the Maharaja came to be known.

“We’ve been making work about Duleep Singh since the 90s,” the Singh Twins say. “His story is so tragic. He has become a figurehead for Sikhs, a poignant symbol of what we once had and lost.”

The Singh Twins share the extraordinary story of the making of the painting with SALT.

 Inspiration behind the portrait of Maharaja Duleep Singh

This painting was inspired by a group of artefacts (mostly jewellery) in the National Museum of Scotland collections that are associated with Maharaja Duleep Singh. Essentially, it depicts the man behind these artefacts. But rather than being a straightforward portrait, it paints a narrative of his life, times and legacy to provide a context for exploring what these artefacts represent from different perspectives. That is, not just as the once personal property of a Sikh Maharaja now in public British possession, but as material objects belonging to a specific culture and time – namely, that of pre-Partition India, Colonialism and the Sikh Empire. Interwoven into this visual history is Duleep Singh’s special connection with Sir John Login, an individual who, possibly more than any other, influenced Duleep Singh’s early upbringing. And whose involvement with the Maharaja, both as his guardian and as a key player in British interests in India, reflected the ambiguous nature of Duleep Singh’s relationship with the British establishment. On the one hand, it shows Duleep Singh’s importance as an historical figure of tremendous significance and global relevance whose life story is inextricably tied to and helped shaped British-Indian, Punjabi, Anglo-Sikh history, politics and culture, past and present. On the other hand, it depicts Duleep Singh as a tragic, human figure. An innocent individual and victim of circumstance who became a casualty of war, caught up in the power games and politics of the British Empire. Overall, it is a tribute to the Maharaja who became Britain’s first resident Sikh. Appropriately, this landmark event in Britain’s history celebrated its 160th anniversary in November 2014, the same year the painting was officially unveiled by the National Museum of Scotland.



Read the entire article in the print edition of The South Asian Life & Times



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