Art transcends borders and artists belong to the world

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A visit to the Lahore Museum was on the program of our delegation. I couldn’t wait to see it because I had heard about it since my childhood from my father and my uncles, who emigrated to India after the partition. The museum is housed in an imposing building opposite the Anarkali Bazaar.

The imposing structure is extraordinarily tall and has departments relating to different periods in the history of Punjab from ancient times. There are paintings and books related to the Mahabharata and Ramayana in addition to the Buddhist era, the period of Hindu rulers and the Mughal period. I expected the section describing Sikh history to be comparatively smaller as Maharaja Ranjit Singh had only ruled for 40 years, but contrary to my expectations, the Sikh history department was among the largest . Apart from Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there was a lot of material related to the reign of Maharaja Kharak Singh, Maharani Chand Kaur, Maharaja Sher Singh and Maharaja Dalip Singh.

The British era and Pakistan after 1947 have also been portrayed through pictures, paintings and other material. The factor common to all historical material was the reality of life that rule is short-lived, and life is perishable. It keeps changing, one after the other.

On leaving the museum after spending more than two hours, we saw a number of shops selling souvenirs, but I was more drawn to a bookstore. I noticed that some of the books were written by famous authors, such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, in addition to Pakistani writers, including Tehmina Durani, who advocates for the rights of women and children.

Browsing through different titles, I asked the young seller if any books by an Indian author were bestsellers in Pakistan. He gave two names: Khushwant Singh and Rajinder Singh Bedi.

But looking around I discovered that there were a large number of books on artist Amrita Sher-Gil and that the museum also exhibited her paintings. I noticed that some of the books on her had been published by European publishers. The books had been displayed prominently, so I could not hold back my investigation and reminded the bookseller that he had only mentioned two names of best-selling authors in India when books on the artist were requested.

He replied that Amrita Sher-Gil was not Indian and insisted that she was Pakistani because she lived and died in Lahore. What could she call herself Indian? I tried to correct it by saying that she was the daughter of Sardar Umrao Singh, a Sikh Jat from Amritsar, who married a Hungarian. Another person overhearing our conversation interrupted us and added that Sher-Gil was also Hungarian.

It was then that an old gentleman, the bookseller’s father, stepped in and wisely declared that Amrita Sher-Gil was a citizen of the world. Art and literature transcend borders, so artists and authors cannot be confined to borders. He concluded that Sher-Gil belonged to every nation. Why Sher-Gil alone, artists like her belong to all nations and are citizens of the world. [email protected]

The writer is a senior fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi


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