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Ashoka’s Research Quest | Museums and Heritage Politics: Understanding the Sikh Heritage in Contemporary India

Kanika Singh, Director, Centre for Writing and Communication talks about her work on Sikh museums, and the significance they hold in heritage politics in contemporary India.

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10 June, 2021 | 4m read

Kanika Singh identifies herself as a historian. Her research focuses on museums and heritage in contemporary India, with a particular interest in Sikh museums.  

There are a number of Sikh museums which have come up in independent India. Sikh museums are unusual: their display consists of modern history paintings depicting scenes from the Sikh past rather than historical artefacts. These paintings are ubiquitous in popular visual culture.  

“I examine the process of creation of Sikh museums, the networks of patronage supporting them and the content and circulation of their display. I argue that Sikh museums are a phenomenon particular to independent India and they are rich sites for examining the nature of the museum as an institution and its relevance in the wider landscape of heritage in India,” said Singh.  

The emergence of Sikh museums also coincides with some of the most significant developments of independent India which have shaped the Sikh community’s use of its history and the perception of its own place in the Indian nation. Sikh museums thus provide an important vantage point for examining the heritage politics of contemporary India.   

Her research interest in Sikh museums comes from working for the well-known mega-museum in Punjab, the Virasat-e Khalsa or the Khalsa Heritage in the town of Anandpur Sahib. Singh continued, “In 2008, I was employed as a researcher in the design company which was creating the display for the museum. At the time, my responsibilities were to collect material—visual, audio, textual—which could be used by the designers to create the display. This provided me an opportunity to observe how history is deployed in a popular sphere, outside of a classroom and a strictly academic sphere, and allowed me an insider’s view on how this museum came into being.” 

”There were massive amounts of research material to collect and examine: monuments, paintings, oral traditions, manuscripts, photographs, and not the least, interacting with people who would tell me more about Punjab and the Sikhs. As a student of history, I had read about the politics of representation, and it was fascinating to see the process unfold and also to participate in it. The concerns of the government, those of representatives of religious bodies, notions of academic integrity, the need for attractive and communicative design—all came together in creating the virasat (heritage) of the Khalsa (pure).”  

She looks at how Sikh history, identity and popular visual culture come together in the museum to create an authoritative notion of Sikh heritage.  

“Many firsts for this research began with a gentleman named K. D. Singh. I met him on my first trip to Sis Ganj Gurdwara; we got talking and he became my first source of information on Bhai Mati Das Museum. He got me my first books on the Gurumukhi alphabet and also gave me an impromptu lesson in writing it. We never met again and perhaps will not recognise each other if we do. I think the first words of thanks for this thesis should go to him, who helped an unknown girl who happened to walk in to the Gurdwara.  

“The generosity of the Sikh community – people I interviewed and even those unknown caretakers of the gurdwara, ensured that I was never short of food or lodging and they were always generous with information and keen to talk about their history – contributed to my decision to choose this research theme,” said Singh.  

Apart from this, Singh is also the Founder of Delhi Heritage Walks, a group of historians and researchers who work on different aspects of Delhi’s heritage. Founded in 2009, Singh leads heritage walks, design walking trails, and train professionals on various aspects of Delhi’s monuments and its history. As a historian, she is deeply interested in architecture, and the questions of heritage, and strongly believes that everyone must engage with history – even those who are not professional historians – and know their city.  

Kanika Singh is a historian, and her current work focuses on the representation of heritage in Sikh museums. Her PhD was on representation of heritage in Sikh museums with a case study of the museum at Sisganj Gurdwara in Delhi. Her research interests include heritage politics in contemporary India, Delhi’s history and its medieval monuments, and pedagogy. She has taught at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, Ambedkar University Delhi and Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management, NOIDA. She co-founded the group Delhi Heritage Walks where she is involved in leading heritage walks, designing walking trails, and training volunteers and professionals in the field of cultural heritage.  

Know more about her research here.

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