An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Lot 449
An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Northern India, late 19th Century/early 20th Century
Sold for £110,400 (US$ 178,875) inc. premium

Lot Details
An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Northern India, late 19th Century An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
An impressive marble Bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Northern India, late 19th Century/early 20th Century
in four sections: a three tiered base and the portrait, carved to depict the Maharajah turned to the left, the base with inscription (possibly a later addition) and Sikh symbols
120 cm. high

Footnotes

  • Provenance:
    Acquired by the vendor's grandfather from a Sikh friend of a prominent family in Lahore before Partition.

    Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1780-1839)

    He was called the 'Lion of the Punjab' - one of the most celebrated rulers in the history of India. In the first three decades of the 19th Century, Maharajah Ranjit Singh built an empire, extending from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas, despite starting out as a minor princeling at the age of just twelve. His court in the city of Lahore (now in Pakistan) was a place where the arts and sciences prospered. The Maharajah is remembered especially by the global community of Sikhs, who still revere him as the last effective ruler of an independent homeland of the Punjab in north-west India.

    That a generally flattering likeness (probably executed by an Indian artist trained in the European tradition in the late 19th Century) should be captured in marble several decades after his death is not surprising. What makes this piece so noteworthy are the symbols of power and independence it displays. It was made at a time when Ranjit's memory was still something the rulers of British India wanted to play down. In the Edwardian era, the Raj was at its zenith, but the storm clouds of Indian Nationalism were gathering on the horizon. Ranjit's granddaughters, living in exile in England, were banned from going to India in case their presence in the Punjab might fuel instability. One of them, Princess Sophia, turned to the suffragette movement as an outlet for her militant fervour.

    To understand why Ranjit's legacy was so potent is to recognise the scale of the prize that British India had won. The great kingdom had been formed only after years of unrelenting struggle and ambition begun when the young Ranjit succeeded his father Maha Singh, the chieftain of the Sukerchakia misl,(which roughly translates as 'clan') based in west Punjab. The teenage warrior corralled the warring misls into a single entity. He was proclaimed Maharajah in 1801. The united Sikh army, the Khalsa, proved formidable in battle aided by firearms and artillery, along with officers and advisers from Europe and America. Amritsar was taken, the Afghans were expelled from the Punjab, and the Pashtuns were conquered. By 1825, the Sikh empire stretched in a triangle from the plains of Sind at its apex to the Khyber Pass in the north and the foothills of the Himalayas in the northeast. Its long southern flank on the Sutlej River bordered British India with which, in 1809, Ranjit had signed a treaty of perpetual friendship.

    His kingdom was notably tolerant in its attitude to diverse religions and foreign influence. The appeal of his court was irresistible for European artists. The Russian painter Alexis Soltykoff wrote: 'This morning, the King gave us a state audience. What a sight! I could scarcely believe my eyes. Everything glittered with precious stones and the brightest colours arranged in harmonious combinations.' When he died in 1839, the Maharajah's body was borne through the streets to his funeral pyre in a golden ship, 'with sails of gilt cloth to waft him into paradise' where four of his wives and five of his slave girls elected to burn with him in the act of sati. His most lasting cultural legacy was the enrichment with marble and gold of the Harmandir Sahib at Amritsar, holiest site of the Sikhs, thereafter known as the Golden Temple.

    Within ten years of his death, a mixture of Sikh naivety, intrigue and British ambition led to the Punjab falling under the control of the Honorable East India Company, and its treasures dispersed. The Koh-i-Noor diamond, symbol of sovereignty, greatest jewel of Ranjit's treasure-house, had become the personal property of Queen Victoria. Ranjit's magnificent golden throne was brought to London and today can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

    Since the loyalty of the Sikhs, recently defeated in war, was so strategically important, the British sought to suppress his memory and notions of Sikh nationalism with it. Sikh regiments were incorporated into the (British-officered) Indian army. Ranjit’s last wife (he had forty-four), the Maharani Jindan, was exiled to Kathmandu. His son, the Maharajah Duleep Singh was brought to England, converted to Christianity, and granted a huge estate in Suffolk with the aim that he would settle down as sporting gentleman.

    For decades after Ranjit Singh's death, artists and craftsmen, both Indian and European, strove to recreate the lost splendours of his fabled court in Lahore . The Hungarian painter, August Theodore Schoefft, for example, arrived in Lahore in 1841 to fill sketchpads and notebooks and painted a series of huge oils on his return to Europe. His masterpiece, the enormous Sikh Durbar at Lahore at one time hung on the great staircase at Elveden Hall in Suffolk, English home of Maharajah Duleep Singh. Today it is in the Princess Bamba Collection, Lahore Fort, Pakistan. It showed Ranjit with his sons and grandsons and his ministers and generals gathered for the festival of Dusherra in the marble baradari, the audience pavilion at Lahore. When first unveiled it was the sensation of the Vienna salon of 1855. Schoefft made another posthumous painting showing Ranjit Singh having the holy Granth read to him at Amritsar. Spectacular in its depiction of the temples and places reflected in the great reservoir, it is filled with hidden meaning as dynastic rivals jostle for favour. A group of Akalis, guardians of the temple, look on suspiciously. A boy-child plays with a hawk in the foreground.

    This imposing marble bust of the Maharajah is also full of hidden metaphors. The subject regally looks slightly to one side, the sculptor skillfully deflecting the viewer's gaze away from his blind left eye, which was caused by smallpox in childhood. The top tier of the pedestal is engraved in miniature with the symbols used in the battle standards of Ranjit's army, the khalsa. They are from the top down the double-edged sword or khanda, the circular ring or chakkar, and a curved sword or kirpan - half hidden by a medallion suspended from a festoon of pearls. The middle tier bears an inscription of the Maharajah's name in Gurmukhi (which means the from 'the mouth of the gurus'), the script in which the holy Granth Sahib is written. The lions flanking either side of the base signify the power and majesty of the subject.

    The execution of the design on the tunic, perhaps not as fine as the facial features, can be explained by the fact that these incised outlines were once probably inlaid with some form of coloured pigment or gilt, removed by a combination of many years of cleaning and a humid climate. It is also possible that some form of pigment would have been applied to the face as seen on European busts of the 19th Century, emulating the classical Greek tradition. From a perspective point of view, based on scale and the general carving, it is likely that the piece was designed to be set at height and to be seen only from the front or side, perhaps in a niche or rounded location - for private veneration rather than public display.

    The bust is unsigned and cannot be attributed to a known European or foreign sculptor, of which there were many working in the princely states. The marble is Indian in origin, and the historicising style, which was not seen in European sculpture until around 1870, would point to a date later than that. It is most probable that it was made for a wealthy or aristocratic Sikh patron by an Indian sculptor trained in the European tradition. It may even originate from the territory controlled by Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (1892-1936), whose flamboyance was the catalyst for all sorts of cultural endeavour.

    Such a fusion could be seen in Indian art from the beginning of the 19th century, right through to the end of British rule. A number of art schools were opened by the British, one of the first being the Sir J. J. School of Art in 1857 in Bombay. It could also be seen in work made in Ranjit's time. The wealth and tolerance of the Punjab encouraged Indian and European artists to work there in abundance. Along with Sikh traditional and religious themes, Lahore artists and miniaturists depicted political and military leaders and especially Ranjit and his sons. W.G. Archer in his 1966 book Paintings of the Sikhs explains why: "The Sikhs had no traditional mythology or imagery and they also had no feudal system. Their history is, in essence, a struggle for two kinds of freedom - spiritual and political. The first was achieved through the teaching of their ten leaders or Gurus; and the second was won by Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Sikh portraiture developed from this struggle and it is only by realizing the roles which certain individuals played that we can understand their place in painting".

    It is conceivable that the bust originates from further north, where there were Sikh territories right through the Punjab into Lahore and Peshawar, where influential aristocratic Sikh families still resided, clandestinely yearning for freedom from British rule and a resurrection of the bloodline of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

    Although dating from after Ranjit's golden reign, this remarkable sculpture is full of symbols of power and majesty, which its creator and his patron might have dreamt would yet come again.

    We would like to thank Christy Campbell for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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