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Maharajah's earliest known portrait published for first timeDate: Monday, 06 April, 2009

A rare painting of one of the most important figures in Anglo-Sikh history has been identified in the collections of one of London’s premiere museums.

The rare work of art, which dates from c. 1805, shows Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the diminutive but powerful Sikh king, in conference with a Maratha chief, Holkar Rao.

Defeated by the British at Delhi in 1804, Rao fled north to Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, to raise support for his fight against British expansion in India. Ranjit Singh refused to join him, and instead signed a treaty of “perpetual friendship” with the Honourable East India Company, the first of its kind between two of the most ambitious empires in the subcontinent at the turn of the 19th century.

Rise of the one-eyed king of Lahore

A military genius who had lost the use of his left eye after contracting small-pox as a child, Ranjit Singh rose from obscurity to carve out a kingdom covering much of modern-day Pakistan and northern India. His Punjab State served as a vitally important buffer between the fractious Afghan tribes in the north-west and the expansionist British to the south.

Napoleon’s victories in Europe gave rise to fears of a French invasion of India through Afghanistan, persuading the British pushed for a more substantial alliance with the Sikh king. Maharaja Ranjit Singh ratified the Treaty of Amritsar on 25 April 1809, exactly two hundred years ago to the month. Having secured his southern frontier, he pursued his conquests to the north-west unhampered.

Like Alexander the Great before him, Ranjit Singh had an insatiable appetite for conquest. Combining the sheer force of brute power and a deeply intuitive political acumen, he remains one of the few people in the world to have successfully quelled the Afghans and seized their prize assets and territories; these included the famed Koh-i-noor diamond and the rich state of Peshawar. Following his death in 1839, the kingdom he had painstakingly built collapsed as subsequent heirs were assassinated in a brutal civil war. Instability and political intrigue in the region ensued, leading to two wars between the Sikhs and the British for control of Punjab. Two narrow victories fell to the British, giving them the mandate in 1849 to annex Punjab to their Indian territories. Five years later, Ranjit Singh’s sole-surviving son, Duleep Singh, was exiled from his homeland and sent to the United Kingdom to live out the remainder of his life as a country squire. Besides becoming an instant favourite with Queen Victoria, he was also the first person of Sikh origin to settle in this country.

A rare find

The painting was re-discovered in the collections of the British Museum during the research for a new book on early Sikh tradition titled In the Master’s Presence: The Sikhs of Hazoor Sahib (Kashi House, 2009). It shows a seated Ranjit Singh armed with sword and shield in side profile, with his blind eye hidden away from view. The discovery was made by Paramdip Khera, Research Assistant in the department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum: ‘The British Museum is very proud to be the guardian of such an important painting. Though our collection of Sikh material is small it is wonderful to have such significant objects which reflect Sikh culture as part of this world collection.’

Despite the presence of Persian inscriptions, the identification of the figures has only recently received proper scrutiny. It has long been assumed that the central figure, who is clearly one-eyed and attended to by a courtier, was the great Ranjit Singh. However, a careful reading of the inscriptions revealed that the main character was actually the Maratha chief, Holkar Rao, who was also, remarkably, blind in one eye. Ranjit Singh was correctly identified as the smaller figure to the left dressed entirely in red. Co-author of In the Master’s Presence, Parmjit Singh, who was responsible for identifying the sitters in the painting, was quick to realise its significance: ‘This painting, long misidentified, is the most important find of its kind. It is the earliest portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh known to exist anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the event captured by the artist represents the very origins of the Anglo-Sikh relationship that lives on today in Britain’s 350,000 strong Sikh community.’ The painting can be viewed online through the British Museum’s Collections Online database - www.britishmuseum/research.aspx.

On the basis of the discovery, the British Museum will lend the painting to the V&A for their forthcoming exhibition Maharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts, which opens in October 2009. Another painting which will also be on display shows the Sikh king holding court. It was recently sold by Christie’s in London to a private collector for £137,000.

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