As Sikhs began appearing on the battlefields, hospitals, towns and farms of Europe during World War One, for many it marked the first time that they had ever seen a Sikh in real life. The appearance of the Sikhs generated a level of curiosity among Europeans about these exotic looking turbaned warriors from the Far East now in their midst to defend them. Paintings and drawings of Sikhs by artists including portraits, scenes of camp life and frontline action helped to satisfy the general public’s curiosity and the hunger for more information about them.This exhibit features a unique collection of paintings and drawings of Sikh soldiers from the First World War.

War and art may seem to be worlds apart, yet from time to time these two worlds converge. Art expresses the nuances of life and appeals to the higher abstract ideals of the intellect, while war focuses on the destruction of life and appeals to a darker and more primal part of the mind. On the battlefields of Europe during the First World War these two antithetical worlds of the soldier and the artist intersected as artists faithfully recorded the participants in a new kind of war that the world had never before seen. The First World War was the first mechanized war of the 20th century where scientific advances in mass killing superseded now outdated older notions of chivalry in warfare. It also marked an end of an earlier era of epic and romantic artistic portrayals of war.

Propaganda now began to play a greater role in war art with the growing advances in communication. Known contemporaneously as the ‘Great War', it was presented in the context of not being just a regional conflict between countries but a larger battle between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Here you had a war in which races of people like the Sikhs from far away countries not under attack volunteered to fight alongside their European allies. Patriotic images of Sikh soldiers in magazines, newspapers and postcards were circulated as part of a larger strategy of reinforcing the idea of the war as being a ‘righteous and just’ cause that all good people could unite behind.

German paintings of Sikhs being killed on the battlefield also served as an effective propaganda tool. From their perspective these images may have been used to present a counter argument to the German people that the British and their allies were so desperate and weak that they could not even fight their own battles and now had to import the ‘savage races’ from their colonies as soldiers at the front.

Striking portraits of Sikh prisoners of war painted by German artists reveal a fascination with ethnic studies as each soldier is meticulously recorded in lifelike detail, including how they tie their hair under their turbans. The time of these paintings marked the formative years of German ethnic studies that would later culminate in the Nazi ideas of race and racial superiority in the following decades. Looking at these lifelike paintings of Sikh prisoner’s one can see in their faces a quiet dignity; their spirit had not been broken in captivity by their German captors.

Fascinating sketches of Sikhs in northern France from the portfolio of artist Paul Sarrut reveal another dimension of the culture and humanity of the Sikhs beyond the stereotypical image of the Sikh as a fierce warrior. Sarrut effectively captured not only personalities with striking portraits but also provides an intimate glimpse into the world of a Sikh soldiers existence between the realms of peace and rest at camp and the brutal violence and intensity of battle at the front. Looking into the eyes of two soldiers of the 15th Sikhs resting against a wall at Allouagne one can feel their sheer sense of exhaustion.

Almost a century after they were first painted and drawn these images continue to be relevant not only for their artistic merit but also as a time-capsule providing the viewer with an intimate glimpse into the life and experiences of Sikh soldiers in a world at war.