Shashwati Talukdar

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year and two months

This grant will support filmmaker, Shashwati Talukdar, to make a film and photo- document the murals of the Guru Ram Rai Gurudwara in Dehradun. The film shall examine the relationship between the murals and their diverse viewers—the keepers of the shrine, art historians, restorers, and worshippers—and explore how this rich repository of images reveals a history of power politics, syncretic religious practices of pre-colonial India and disparate painting styles between the seventeenth and nineteenth century. Guru Ram Rai was the oldest son of the seventh Sikh guru, Guru Har Rai. When Aurangzeb became emperor, Ram Rai was sent to the court in Delhi as his father’s representative. He conducted himself with charm and diplomacy in his fourteen years at Aurangzeb’s court. However, it was Ram Rai’s younger brother who succeeded his father. Some believe that he misrepresented Guru Nanak’s writings and performed miracles for Aurangzeb, and was therefore disowned by his father. In another version his rejection was attributed to his lowly birth: he was born to a maid servant. Aurangzeb granted him a large piece of land in the Doon valley, and Ram Rai set up his home there in 1675.

The murals at the Gurudwara are from different phases. Aurangzeb paid for the oldest paintings, and in keeping with his religious practice and personal preferences, these images are devoid of representational figures, unlike other Sikh art from that period. From the early eighteenth century, there are pictures of the Sikh gurus, events from Ram Rai’s life commissioned by his second wife, Mata Punjab Kaur, who popularised this Gurudwara. Figures from Indian epics and Persian legends start to appear during the tenure of the subsequent Mahantas (Sikh priests). These diverse influences are reflected on the walls of the Guru Ram Rai Gurudwara. In one mural, a Persian sphinx stares at the Empress Noor Jehan, dressed as a Garhwali woman, while a British officer stands guard underneath. On another panel, key events from Guru Ram Rai’s life are depicted. These murals were created from the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. The murals represent an assemblage of styles, from Mughal to Kangra to Pahari, and even though these images seem disparate, the varied styles reveal a larger story. This project aims to draw out the threads that make up the narrative of this rich repository of images.

Shashwati will examine not only the aesthetic roots of these images but also their political economy. The questions central to her research will be: (a) How did these images evolve?; (b) What version of history can be read from these images?; (c) How were these images received? The last question shall throw light on the second significant part of Shashwati’s research—the relationship of these images to the various people that have kept them alive: the Mahants of the Gurudwara, the art historians and restorers, and the worshippers who come from around town and surrounding areas. Much to the despair of the restorers, the worshippers treat the murals with scant respect. Shashwati will interview the different stakeholders at the Gurudwara and eventually use this footage as part of her experimental documentary film. She will also photograph the murals, which shall be used as archival evidence and incorporated into the film. In addition, she will write a critical essay that will be published on the Tasveer Ghar website.