What is bringing the crowds to Virasat-e-Khalsa?

Margot Cohen
Grist Media

The millennium brought a startling challenge for Amardeep Behl, a long-haired, Delhi-bred designer and alumnus of the National Institute of Design. Tapped by the state government of Punjab, Behl encountered three unusual demands.

First, design a museum without a single artifact.

Second, portray Sikh religious leaders without any 3-D gimmicks, like film actors posing as gurus.

Third, craft an experience that would resonate among a wide variety of visitors, from a curious farmer and his children to a polished NRI businessman and his scions. The display should be classy but not elitist.

For those inured to stodgy government commissions, this might appear to be a rather sophisticated brief. Its genesis lies in a quick 1997 trip that Punjab’s chief minister Parkash Singh Badal took, with some of his aides and local businessmen, to Israel.

According to press reports, the group was chiefly interested in knowing more about Israeli cows — supposedly producing more than three times the amount of milk yielded by any variety of Indian cow. The delegation also aimed to tap Israeli expertise in irrigation and get a little advice on how to export kinnows, a citrus fruit chock-a-block with seeds.

Yet a side visit planted a very different seed in the mind of the chief minister. Shaken by the Children’s Holocaust Memorial — and mindful of his own culture’s martyrs — Badal immediately requested a meeting with the museum’s Jewish architect, Moshe Safdie. The globe-trotting Canadian/Israeli star architect, who has won acclaim for such high-profile projects as the National Art Museum of China, the Marine Bay Sands resort in Singapore and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, happened to be in Israel. The two men talked.

As it turned out, Safdie had travelled frequently to India since 1965 and was amenable to a commission. Badal had already been thinking of a grand gesture to mark the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa in 1999. The Safdie encounter only strengthened his resolve.

For Behl, the commission “became a meditative exercise. I had to really dig deep to find solutions.” As director and chief designer of Design Habit, a Delhi-based studio, Behl had already grappled with a range of other heritage projects, including historical signage at Delhi's Red Fort and revitalizing the Harmandir Sahib (more popularly known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar.

This time, it was a long haul. The sensitive content for the new museum was parsed and debated by a panel of scholars. But 13 years after he first got the job, Behl says he is heartened by the 7,000-strong weekend crowds at Punjab’s vast new museum complex, called Virasat-e-Khalsa. He describes it as a showcase for storytelling rather than a conventional museum. “It’s a whole new way of showing culture,” he says.

So far in Phase I, the museum's narrative covers the history and philosophy of Sikhism’s first 10 gurus, prefaced by a colourful overview of Punjabi culture. With audio guides recorded in Punjabi, Hindi and English, the museum also draws on a rich vein of Punjabi music to summon nostalgia. High-tech elements include a dramatic fibre-optic chandelier forming the symbol Ik Onkar, made of 2,450 strands of fibre studded with bohemia crystals.

The booming narrator on the audio guide says, “Sikhism doesn't ask you to follow the path of the ascetic or to renounce the world. It teaches you to live in it, through work, through devotion, through sharing with your fellow beings.” That leads into the tale of the first guru, Nanak Dev, born in 1469, whose verses about compassion attracted a large following with his message. The 10th guru, Gobind Singh, perished at the hands of the Mughals.

Perched near the historic fort and gurdwara at Anandpur Sahib, the museum is drawing a large share of pilgrims (both barefoot and shod) and schoolchildren, along with a sprinkling of overseas VIPs like Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Generous opening hours from 8 am to 8 pm still haven’t eased the congestion.

According to official figures, 34 lakh visitors have turned up at the museum since its initial group of galleries opened to the public 22 months ago. Such numbers would be the envy of more established museums like the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, which attracts just 50,000 visitors annually.

And given its accent on art history, Virasat-e-Khalsa clearly stands apart from swamped sites like Akshardham, the Swaminarayan Hindu shrine and exhibition space in Delhi that was consciously modelled on a Disney theme park.

So far, however, Virasat-e-Khalsa, which also stands out for its iconic concave architecture, has generated remarkably little buzz outside Punjab. Even a Sikh travel agent based in Delhi couldn’t describe it. To date, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not found the time to visit. Some observers believe that the museum deserves far more attention – both from the general public and the art world.

“I was extremely impressed by it,” says Kavita Singh, an art historian who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “I think it breaks new ground for Indian museums in the aesthetics of display. So many art-historical references were beautifully gathered and transformed into ambience, animations and murals.”

And the stories, she adds, are not boring. “Content is delivered in a non-didactic way, which is unusual, as most Indian museums tend to ‘talk down’ to visitors. For example, the Indian Museum and the National Museum offer narratives about India's greatness without helping you understand the objects, why they are great, or helping you enjoy them with the display,” Singh observes.

Behl and his team have no time to rest on such laurels. They are now immersed in the museum’s second phase, comprising 17 galleries.

They still have a tremendous amount of ground to cover, stretching from the scriptures known as Guru Granth Sahib (considered the Eternal Guru), through the sweeping reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1848), the Anglo-Sikh wars, the wrenching trauma of the Partition, the healing process within the community, and finally, a stream of “success stories” from the contemporary Sikh diaspora.

These are due for completion by the end of 2014, if state funds don’t run dry up. That’s a big “if,” given the frustrating budget crunches and work suspensions in the past.

The stated price tag on the project is Rs 400 crore, including Rs 100 crore for the exhibition budget and the rest spent on acquiring land and building the complex, according to Karamjeet Singh Sra, CEO of the Anandpur Sahib Foundation, which runs the museum.

Personally, Sra would like to see the museum partly sustain itself through ticket sales, but says he was overruled. Entry is free. “The consensus was, in the Sikh religion, we don’t even charge them for food,” he explains, referring to the impressive communal kitchens run by gurdwaras. “So how can we charge to see an exhibition?”

At the moment, however, the Shiromani Akali Dal party – which rules the state in tandem with the BJP – appears committed to the project, wishing to remind voters that one of its main concerns is Sikh heritage. Badal himself has a penchant for giving foreign dignitaries mini-models of the museum.

One chapter that won’t be covered is the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. “It’s a touchy subject,” says Sra.

That might sound like a bit of an understatement, given the keen desire for justice that won’t fade away. A class action suit filed by two alleged victims of the riots is pending. In early September, a group called 'Sikhs for Justice' attempted to serve a summons on Congress President Sonia Gandhi at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where she had gone to consult her doctors.

In Search of Self

The bedrock question that lies beneath Safdie’s memorable sandstone buildings is one that has been raised worldwide. To what extent can any museum strengthen a sense of identity? Certainly, there is no “art for art’s sake” in Virasat-e-Khalsa.

Figures vary, but it seems there are at least 20 million people today who identify as Sikh. Most of them live in northern India, with substantial overseas communities also settled in Canada, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, East Africa and the United Kingdom.

From the beginning, politicians and scholars in Punjab have aimed to counter the anxiety that young Sikhs are losing a sense of their history and the beauty of their traditions. That feeling is not limited to official circles.

“Those who live in Punjab are taking Sikhism for granted,” mourns Preeti Duggal, the principal of Budha Dal Public School in Zirakpur. “They are cutting their hair, they are not wearing turbans, they are not going to the gurdwara or studying the scriptures. They don’t respect their parents. They are running after money, fame and name.”

Duggal and her parents and siblings from Patiala visited Virasat-e-Khalsa shortly after it opened. She professes mixed feelings about the display, admiring some galleries yet wishing that others contained more detail. At this stage, she says, “it’s good for students, not for very knowledgeable people or grown-ups.” Her final verdict awaits completion of the remaining galleries.

For his part, CEO Sra emphasizes the need to introduce Sikhism to youth without any underlying dread. “All religions give fear first and understanding later,” he argues. “This is a place where you can learn about things, without experiencing any fear.”

“An uninhibited mind grasps more,” he continues. “An inhibited mind gets stuck.”

French scholar Anne-Colombe Launois forecasts a large role for the museum. The complex “can be a powerful instrument for this community to open a new dialogue, to mobilize its vital strengths, to discover and redefine its cultural identity, to be aware of its 'un-official history', and tell its members its stories,” writes Launois in an essay in the book New Insights Into Sikh Art, published by the Mumbai-based art and culture non-profit, the Marg Foundation.

Virasat-e-Khalsa is hardly the first museum that aims to strengthen a sense of identity. One good example might be the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which tells the story of 160 years of Chinese American history through an array of exhibits, including clothing and textiles, photos and recorded oral history. The varied stories of surviving hardship contribute to an overall sense of resilience, much as the new Sikh museum aims to do.

Yet MOCA also draws on a collection of precious artefacts. Such traces were not available to Behl and the other makers of the first phase of Virasat-e-Khalsa. Weapons, furniture and other physical objects rested in the hands of private collectors, gurdwaras or foreign institutions like the Lahore Museum.

Beginnings & Challenges

There were other challenges as well. Critics questioned Badal’s controversial choice of architect. What would an outsider know about Sikhism? Why was there no tender or competition for this plum job? Moreover, how would Punjab and its politicians find the money to pay such a famous architect, let alone fund the entire project?

One man who came to the rescue was Didar Singh Bains, a millionaire California peach farmer and prominent NRI Sikh who reportedly forked over US $157,000 to add some momentum to the project. The government also appealed to other NRIs for support, in addition to digging deep into its own coffers.

It remains unclear how much Safdie was compensated for Virasat-e-Khalsa (his Boston office declined comment for this story.) But given that his involvement stretched over 13 years, Safdie’s New Delhi-based associate architect, Ashok Dhawan, maintains that the architect’s fee was “miniscule” and dismisses criticism of the unilateral choice.

“Was the Taj Mahal built with a tender? It makes absolutely zero sense,” responds Dhawan.

Safdie’s first master stroke was to reject the government’s original site. It was too far away from the fort and the gurdwara in Anandpur Sahib, posing the risk that the museum would become a neglected hulk. Instead, the architect zeroed in on a 65-acre site close by that also offered natural drama, stretching across two hilltops and a valley. It was also an easy day trip from Chandigarh.

For those who appreciate a modern aesthetic, it came as a relief that the structure did not simply mimic a gurdwara. Instead, Safdie and his associates took pains to situate the complex in its natural and spiritual environment. Concave roofs were “clad with dulled stainless steel, silvery in colour to reflect the southern light toward the gurdwara and fort,” according to Safdie’s concept note for the project.

But Safdie’s structures posed their own set of challenges. It proved necessary to “bring intimacy into huge spaces,” recalls Kelvin Ashby-King, a Bangalore-based consultant who worked on the first phase of the museum.

Intimacy was achieved through collaboration. Elaborate fabric panels, animation, murals, film clips, lighting and audio required a small army of artisans, painters, technicians, musicians and scholars to get it right.

The opening gallery is arguably the cosiest. Here, visitors walk up a series of ramps past intricate scenes, in different media, of everyday Punjab, which go back and forth in time.

The images include children flying kites, men playing cards, a woman doctor pressing a stethoscope to a patient’s belly, riders on a Ferris wheel, wrestlers practicing their moves, green parrots fluttering on a roof, and even an amusing hoarding for 'Cozy' innerwear.

The soundscape was put together by composer and filmmaker Bobby Bedi, who relied on folk songs, Sufi music, and bhangra to warm up the ramps. Bedi, who calls himself a “direct descendant of Guru Nanak,” also relied on Hindu temple bells, Muslim calls to prayer and chants from the gurdwara in a creative and tolerant mix.

The biggest problem is that the pressing crowds don’t really allow the discerning visitor to pause for long. Many images deserve to be savoured, thanks to a dedicated team of five painters led by Delhi-based artist Orijit Sen.

Sen is known chiefly for his ingenious graphic novels that explore the Narmada Dam controversy and the work of the poet Kabir. Roaming through the Punjabi countryside, the team took plenty of photographs over a two-year period, producing digital images and converting them into paintings. “I took the structural language and devices of miniature paintings and brought these into a contemporary context,” Sen explains.

Pieces of Punjab also travelled to Bangalore last year, when some of the scenes incorporated into murals were exhibited at a group show held at GallerySKE, a privately run art gallery.

The work did not proceed entirely without censorship. For example, Sen recalls one painting of a white ambassador car zooming by a polluted pond. The original image had a red light, marking it as a politician’s vehicle. In the final version, the light was removed.

The Power of Suggestion

The assembled panel of scholars wielded most clout when it came to depictions of the gurus.

“In Sikh thought, there is an objection to enacting divinities. A certain dignity, or sanctity, is attributed to their personalities,” explains historian JS Grewal, who has been involved in the museum project from the start.

In the galleries explaining the legacy of the first five gurus, this wasn’t much of a problem. For peace-loving poets and prophets espousing the virtues of equality, relatively tame two-dimensional portraits would do. But what techniques could be used to drive home the agony and ecstasy of the later gurus? “The first half [of the museum] is gentle. In the second half, once you hit the terrace, you’re in a warrior state,” notes Bedi.

Behl and his team figured out how to maximize the power of suggestion. In a film recreation, visitors see the fearsome sword that cuts off the head of Guru Tegh Bahadur – but not the head itself. Likewise, in the pivotal Panj Pyare gallery, the drama springs from silhouettes and a rousing script. This is where Guru Gobind Singh reveals the Five K's that continue to mark Sikhism for millions of followers.

As the narration explains, “The Kesh was the unshorn hair to represent the saintly disposition of this army. The Kangha, a comb, would keep this hair clean and tidy and be a symbol of the cleansing of creation." Then come the Kirpan (dagger), the Kara (bracelet) and the Kaccha – an undergarment "symbolic of integrity and restraint."

No such spiritual prohibitions shadow the portrayal of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, for example, coming up in Phase II. Behl says he has plunged into designing movie-like sets with embedded film clips and realistic mannequins. He also promises that the later galleries will provide more scope to highlight the role of women in the spiritual and cultural life of the Sikhs.

The galleries focused on the Partition will probably evoke the most powerful emotions. Behl’s team plans to use actual footage and recorded testimony. Bringing visitors back to an upbeat mood of diaspora success could be a struggle.

After all the gore of the wars, the persecution and the displacement, Behl and his team have deliberately chosen to end on a cooler, more universal note. In the final Chardi Kala gallery, viewers shall be reminded that “the core teachings of Sikhism and the prayer are meant for the benefit and well-being of all humanity. The visitor then leaves the museum with a sense of pride and optimism,” says the concept note.

After all, Sikh museums are not just for Sikhs, just as Holocaust museums are not aimed only at Jews. While it has been tricky to telescope cultural Punjab into a spiritual lens, the makers of Virasat-e-Khalsa wish to avoid the trap of exclusivity.

And to some extent, they may have succeeded.

“I strongly believe that it’s going to be a great attraction of Punjab. It is something that belongs to everyone, not just Sikhs,” says Umesh Kapur, director of Grand Travel Planners, which has offices in Chandigarh and Toronto. For example, Kapur says that he has received good feedback on the museum from Singaporeans and Australians of different religious persuasions.

The English-language audio narration also indicates that this is not a pure propaganda exercise. On the one hand, it is “respectful towards the orthodox or mainstream accounts of the history of Sikhism,” as art historian Kavita Singh points out. Yet outsiders will be struck by unvarnished explanations that certain gurus did not trust their own children to succeed them, and also fought against corruption within their own community.

During the last US presidential campaign, some Sikhs grew furious after late-night TV host Jay Leno made a joke about candidate Mitt Romney’s lavish summer home and flashed a photo of the Golden Temple. Leno got a tongue-lashing for his alleged disrespect.

Next year, provided Virasat-e-Khalsa opens its Phase II on schedule, the Sikh community might consider inviting Leno to visit Anandpur Sahib. A little exposure never hurt anyone.

Margot Cohen is a writer from New York. Her interest in India follows previous reporting stints in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.