Posted by: Singh Is King | Saturday, August 18, 2007

Empire Faith and Kinship 4 : Sikh Woman before her marriage

The fourth of the serialisation of “Empire, Faith and Kinship” is this stunning photograph of a nineteenth century Sikh woman before her marriage.

Photography arrived in India in the 1840s at a time when the British were turning their attention towards the changing political situation in the Punjab.  However, it was not until after the Punjab was taken over by them in 1849 that photographic interest in the peoples and places of the region began to grow.

One initiative was aimed at photographing the tribes, races and castes of India. In a series of directives issued to local governments in 1861, under the heading of “The Punjab – Sikhs”, photographs were requested of “Sikhs in ordinary costume. Under this head should be given specimens of the priestly sects of Bedee (descendants of Gooroo Nanuk), and Sodhee (descendants of Guru Govind), also of Ukalees, and one or two of the Grunthees at Umritsar, also Muzbee Sikhs.” The result was the eight-volume set called The People of India (1868-75), one of the most ambitious anthropological projects ever conceived. The rationale for the project has been viewed both as an inevitable consequence of the expansion of an imperial power in India and a desire to prove scientifically the superiority of the European races.

Regardless, the final work did not include any images of Sikh women. Fortunately, other photographers provide some examples from the last decade of the nineteenth century. This lady is wearing a typical Punjabi dress consisting of a ‘chuni’ headscarf, ‘kurta’ shirt, and a pair of ‘chooridar’ pyjama trousers. Ornaments and jewellery were commonly worn and here we see ‘baley’ earrings, a ‘mala’ necklace, and the lower arms covered in ‘choora’ bangles. There exist other contemporary images that show Sikh women in the village working their spinning wheels to produce cotton thread. Little, however, is known about any of them; their names, where they lived, their daily routine, their hopes, their aspirations. This reflects the patriarchal attitudes of both the British photographers and anthropologists and Sikhs themselves in the nineteenth century.


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