Dr. Nadhra Shahbaz Naeem Khan is an Associate Professor of History at MGSHSS. She specializes in Mughal and Sikh Art and Architecture in the Punjab. Her book, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi in Lahore: A Summation of Sikh Architectural and Decorative Practices, has just been published as part of the University of Bonn’s SAAC series (Studies in Asian Art and Culture).
You joined LUMS in 2009. What did you do before then?
I studied and specialized in advertising during my undergraduate and Master’s programs and later taught this at different institutions in Lahore. These included the Department of Fines Arts (PU), Lahore College for Women University, and the National College of Business Administration and Economics (NCBAE). In between my teaching career, I also worked as a Senior Creative Manager in an advertising agency for almost two years. Art History came to me much later in life. It was in 2002 when the Department of Fine Arts (PU) announced its PhD program in art history. My initial plan was to work on a topic that covered both art history and advertising but finding no possibility of such an option, I switched full time to the formal study of the history of South Asian art and architecture in 2003.
Why and when did you decide to focus on the history of Sikh art and architecture as your field of specialty?
As part of the doctoral studies coursework, we were asked to write a research paper on any topic related to South Asian art and/or architecture. One of my professors asked me to visit the Lahore Fort and look for something that fascinated me. While walking in the fort, I noticed a structure—an L-shaped covered platform with five openings on one side and three on the other adjacent to the Musamman Burj. I jumped onto it fascinated by the beautifully carved marble arches and pillars and started taking pictures without any knowledge of its history or significance. One of the Lahore Fort guides (whom I can never thank enough for doing so) informed me that it was the Ath-dara and was built by the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh to hold his court or kachehri.
Up till that point, I knew only what I had read in different books about Sikh rulers and the now-debunked narrative that their architecture was only a cut-and-paste of pillaged Mughal material without any artistic merit of its own. Another important part of this rhetoric Mughal monuments for its sake and to resurrect them by studying different parts of the Sikh period monument. With my untrained eyes, I did not for a moment think of studying the important commemorative structure for its own style or merit—a realization that set in only after I started getting acquainted to it and developed a familiarity with the nineteenth century assigned to the Mughals and the latter to the Sikhs. One of the main actors propagating this (mis)understanding and playing an extremely important role in shaping people’s opinions, was Thomas Henry Thornton, a British civil servant in pre-Partition India.
Thornton wrote a small guidebook on Lahore’s architecture, first published in 1860. I remembered at that time that most of the pillaged white marble and red sandstone veneers of Mughal monuments were taken to Amritsar for the Golden Temple while some were used for their own residences, etc. The guide then told me that the Maharaja’s funerary monument (samadhi) was right across the fort on the other side of the street. A visit to the samadhi in the next twenty minutes gave me clear directions for my doctoral thesis—even though I was a year and a half away from that stage in my program. My intentions of taking up the samadhi as my research topic were to investigate the extent of damage caused to patrons and craftsmen and their art and architecture in the Punjab.
That leads me into my next question. Do you think that your work on Sikh art and architecture in the Punjab, as a historian, has an activist element as well, especially when it comes to the historical narratives that feed into religious exclusion and hatred?
Absolutely. The narrative created in the colonial period concerning Indian art and architecture was formulated around the ‘Hellenic–Barbaric’ binaries. In the Punjab, the first of course was Montgomery, who was the Lieutenant-General of Punjab at the time (serving in this position from 1859 to 1865). It was republished in 1862 and remained in print afterward as well. In 1875, John Lockwood Kipling moved to Lahore after his appointment as the first Principal of the Mayo School of Arts (now the National College of Arts, or the NCA) and was asked by Thornton to collaborate in expanding the scope of his guidebook. Divided into two parts, ‘Lahore As It Is’ (in 1875) was done by Kipling; ‘Lahore As It Was’, was essentially a reproduction of Thornton’s earlier work with some additions. The book, in its various forms and multiple editions and reprints became a standard reference for those interested in the art and architecture of Lahore and surprisingly, is still in circulation as part of the NCA’s historical reprint series—misinforming untrained minds and spreading biases.
This bibliographical background is important because it attests to the impact that Thornton’s ideas have had on the narrative of Sikh rulers and their contributions to art and architecture in the Punjab.
And what does Thornton say in his book?
To summarize his comments, he completely dismisses the originality of Sikh art and architecture claiming that the Sikhs were looters; that Ranjit Singh did not have any aesthetics as he was illiterate and ‘of martial habits’; that all he did during his rule of forty years was to disfigure Mughal monuments and rob them of their marble and red sandstone to embellish the Golden Temple.
This misguided narrative of Thornton has seeped into popular imagination and has rendered the entire history of Sikh contributions to South Asian art and architecture moot. My passion project is to investigate these contributions and set the record straight. I am sure my findings will inevitably help save some extremely important monuments and other artefacts in the Punjab and elsewhere that have been suffering from neglect and disregard ever since the British occupation of this land in 1849.
On a more direct note, I have noticed that whenever we study Hindu deities or Sikh wall paintings in the art of the Punjab—we have some in the Fort, in the Sheesh Mahal, in the Ath-dara, and at the samadhi—some students have difficulties in ‘handling’ such iconography, presumably because of their educational and socio-religious backgrounds.
I always bring up this issue with them and like talking to them about how these are religions observed by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, especially in South Asia, in our neighborhood. I try to highlight the importance of respecting all traditions and religions associated with them, especially if we want our own sacred entities and texts to be respected by others. These moments in the class turn out to be telling, impactful, and pedagogically gratifying.
What are some of the courses you have taught at LUMS? And what is the latest course that you have designed for your students?
I have taught 9 or 10 courses, including: Mughal Art and Architecture; Art of the Ancient Cultures; French Art; Geometrical Patterns in Islamic Art; Buddhist Art and Architecture; Nineteenth Century Sikh Wall Paintings; Architectural Heritage of Lahore: Mughal, Sikh and Raj; and others.
The latest course I have designed is the History of Miniature Painting (in South Asia). We start with Jain and Buddhist Palm Leaf manuscripts and come down to modern miniature paintings. We trace their development, their concepts, and the religious, social, and political sentiments they carried and communicated in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. We also study their dismissal by the British and their replacement with Company Paintings. Finally, we come down to their post-Partition revival in mainstream art practices with a focus on the processes and people who brought this ancient indigenous art form back into circulation.
I learn through my teaching. Therefore, most of my courses are directly aligned to my research areas. Every new field I explore and each folder I make in my computer to stack new research material for a forthcoming publication gradually gets turned into a new course. A couple of these folders are ready to be sculpted into a course so I will hopefully shape it by next spring.
This article was first published in the MGSHSS newsletter, 'Guftugu'.