Jallianwala Bagh : the history and legacy of the 1919 Baisakhi massacre in 3 artworks

Is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre simply a lesson in school history textbooks? What are the bigger lessons we can learn from it today?

The 3 piece (triptych) mixed media: Jallianwala:Repression and Retribution explores the historical context, aftermath and legacies of the 1919 massacre.

This thought-provoking artwork by The Singh Twins (in their signature style) raises questions about state violence against civilian protests. Take a deeper look !

The upper part of the first panel draws you in almost  immediately to a bedecked, but distressed “Mother India”

She is positioned within a golden frame reminiscent of the Mughal jharokhas

A wealthy India, oppressed and enslaved by British commercial interests holds onto two flags representing the growing sense of Nationalism. While many of you recognize the saffron-white-green flag with a charkha, the other flag belongs to the Ghadar Party :  an organization founded by Indian residents of the United States and Canada in June 1913 with the aim of liberating India from British rule [often dubbed as ‘revolutionaries’]

On her saree, is an extract from a poem honouring the young revolutionary Khudiram Bose .
It alludes to his ‘seditious dhoti’ which was inscribed with a patriotic poem.

 Mother, farewell
 I shall go to the gallows with a smile. 
 The people of India will see this. 
 One bomb can kill a man,
 There are a lakh of bombs in our homes. 
 Mother, what can the English do? 
 If I come back,
 Do not forget, Mother
 Your foolish child Khudiram. 
 See that I get your sacred feet at the end
 When shall I call you again “Mother” with the ease of my mind?
 Mother, do not keep this sinner in another country. 
 It is written that you have 36 crores of sons and daughters. 
 Mother, Khudiram’s name vanishes now. 
 He is now turned to dust. 
 If I have to rise again, 
 See that, Mother, I sit on your lap again. 
 In this kingdom of Bhishma, who else is there like you?
 You are unparalleled, Mother. 
 When shall I depart from this world with a shout of Bande Mataram? 

The Singh Twins draw our attention to other significant incidents
through the use of published periodicals

The Komagata Maru

Exclusion of immigrants based on their citizenship is at the core of this incident. In April 1914, the SS Komagata Maru – a chartered ship  carrying 376 people (mostly Sikh) departed from Hong Kong and made it’s way to the Vancouver harbour (Canada). The passengers were not only not allowed to disembark – but were forced to return to Calcutta. Upon their return, a riot ensued following an arrest attempt. For all its worth as ‘Britain’s most prized colony’ / ‘jewel in the imperial crown’ – India was treated with hypocrisy and Indians, with second class status. The incident turned public opinion against the British, giving a much needed impetus to the freedom movement. 

 This periodical (published by the Church Missionary Society)
featuring the Sikh prince Duleep Singh sheds light on his controversial
conversion to Christianity before he turned 15.

The conversion of the Sikh Prince Duleep Singh

The imperial “superiority” is established in the tone and the act of uprooting Singh from his culture and shaping a new one for him post the annexation of Punjab. 

“The tree is composed of flowers and birds symbolising a British Raj built on greed, trickery and deception, conquest and theft – (namely, Alpine Auricular, Clematis and Thorn Apple and the Dalhousie and Magpie respectively). Interspersed with these are sprigs of flowering Hop which, as a symbol of injustice, represent the plight of India’s people.” explain the artists. 

The artwork draws attention to some of the other causes of Indian discontent with British rule in India, that became a precursor to the Jallianwala massacre.

The expansion of the British Empire in India through annexation and
legislation, known as the “Doctrine of Lapse” was met with resistance.

The widely-told story of the Queen of Jhansi is depicted in this vignette where one can spot the city of Lucknow (Oudh) which came under Company Rule in 1856.

The artists portray Britannia slaying the Bengal Tiger (a reinterpretation of a painting by Edward Armitage)
– the tiger here is a symbol for Punjab and Bengal – the centres of agitation against the British policy of ‘Divide & Rule’.

On Britannia’s gown, are extracts from a letter written by
Charles Dickens to Emile de la Rue on 23 October 1857
(about the Indian Mutiny of 1857)

 I wish I were Commander in Chief over there [ India ]! I would address that Oriental character which must be powerfully spoken to, in something like the following placard, which should be vigorously translated into all native dialects, :“I, The Inimitable, holding this office of mine, and firmly believing that I hold it by the permission of Heaven and not by the appointment of Satan, have the honor to inform you Hindoo gentry that it is my intention, with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities”…  

On the other side, you see a wounded soldier who would’ve fought the First World War on behalf of the British. 

60 % of the British Indian army (around 1.5 million men) hailed from Punjab. These warriors from Punjab had been lured with financial and land incentives. 

The incidents in the first panel simply underline Britain’s failure to treat Indians equally as subjects the Empire in India and abroad & reward the loyalty and sacrifices of Indians during WWI. 

Panel 2: The Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh

Framing the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh within arches that are reminiscent of the Harmandar Sahib (Golden Temple) – the Singh Twins make a statement about history and memory; never forgetting the history of state violence against civilian protests; or the lessons from history. It’s perhaps also the best way to show how the bloody incident will forever remain entrenched within the city of Amritsar synonymous with commercial wealth and piety. 

In the distance you can see buildings from Gujranwala (Khalsa High School for example),
Lahore, Kasur…where civil unrest and protests against the Rowlatt Act had been quashed.

The panel recalls the moment on 13th April, 1919, when Reginald Dyer (a General of the British Raj) ordered his troops to open fire, without warning or provocation, on a peaceful demonstration of un-armed Indian civilians in the city of Amritsar, Punjab. The crowd had gathered on the occasion of a major festival (Vaisakhi) in an enclosed public space known as Jallianwala Bagh, to protest the recent passing of laws restricting Indian rights (known as the Rowlatt Acts) and the arrest of anti-Rowlatt Act Indian leaders.

Dyer’s actions divided opinion in India and Britain

The motives, methods and unremorseful attitude of Dyer (shared by his supporters) reflected an established mindset of Imperial superiority, duty and righteousness which harked back to the Indian rebellion of 1857 and the style of excessive, exemplary punishment meted out in retribution against Sepoys and civilians alike.

The General is seen donning a length of saffron cloth and sword of honour
inscribed with the words “Saviour of the Punjab“: : both refer to accounts of
the tokens of appreciation he is said to have received from the then,
British appointed head of Harmandir Sahib and the House of Lords respectively

The House of Commons during a debate on Dyer’s future on July 8th, 1920, read out several letters from Anglo-Indian women, including one from Miss Marcella Sherwood (a Christian Missionary who had lived in Amritsar for 15 years), in which she declared herself ‘convinced that there was a real rebellion in the Punjab, and that General Dyer saved India and us from a repetition of the miseries and cruelties of 1857’.

Opposite Dyer, stands Annie Besant – the London born social reformer and political activist who co-founded the India Home Rule League in 1916 with Indian nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak (portrayed on her placard) and became the first female President of the Indian National Congress in 1917. 

The Indian paisley and Irish shamrock motifs on Besant’s dress
denote her work in championing the cause of both Indian and Irish self-government,
as well as the affiliation between the plight of Indians and the Irish
– as two peoples suffering under and struggling for freedom from repressive British rule.

In the bottom register of the artwork, newspaper articles inspired by historical reports of the time, suggest how repressive measures in India and particular Punjab, served British aims to maintain control of India as the ‘jewel in the crown’ .

Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal are spotted against the word ‘Satyagraha’. Household names in Amritsar (and symbolic of the prevailing Hindu-Muslim unity), it is their unlawful arrest that prompted the peaceful protest on 13th April, 1919. In the aftermath of the massacre, public floggings of school students further added to the indignity faced by Indians at the time.

Depictions of the 1770 Boston Massacre and Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre of 1819 position the Jallianwala massacre as part of an ongoing history of state violence against civilian protests in Britain and its colonies. 

The third panel explores the aftermath and legacies of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre

It features key figures from the freedom-movement : Udham Singh and Mahatma Gandhi; Nehru, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and Bhagat Singh.

Udham Singh is remembered as the man who avenged the massacre.

As a tribute, he is enthroned and haloed in this artwork
– just as the men of honour in Mughal paintings

Ironically, you also spot the noose hanging behind him – an
evocation of his historic trial and sentencing.

In the 1920’s Udham Singh travelled to the US & worked at the Ford Motor Company as a toolmaker (notice the tools in his pocket!). It is here that he came in touch with the Ghadar Party.

He holds onto a passport – Udham Singh assumed many identities as he planned his revenge.
In one hand he holds a revolver, & in his other hand he holds a clump of earth soaked with the blood of his countrymen

On 13 March 1940, Singh shot O’Dwyer – the incident was widely
reported in the press. He was arrested as Ram Mahommed Singh Azad – an assumed identity that confused the British .

The name ‘Mohammed Singh Azad‘ adopted by Udham Singh, represented a unity of Indian faiths and was an anti-colonial statement (in response to the policy of divide-and-rule).

Udham Singh’s retribution met with mixed responses. Condemned in pre-Independent India by members of the Indian National Congress – Gandhi and Nehru as an ‘act of insanity’; hailed in WWII Germany and post Independent India as the legitimate act of a freedom fighter and Shaheed (martyr).

Meanwhile, the Irish born, British Journalist, Benjamin Horniman who,
as Editor of the Bombay Chronicle, broke the story of the massacre to the world despite a press ban.
He was later exiled from India and his reporter was imprisoned.

The Singh Twins include two vignettes representing Udham Singh’s influences : fellow revolutionary
Bhagat Singh (and members of the Ghadar Party) & the last ruler of Punjab, Maharaja Duleep Singh.

Behind Bhagat Singh, are members representing the Gadar Movement, the SGPC and Akali (Sikh anti-British Raj agitation movements) and the Khilafat (Indian Muslim movement).

Maharaja Duleep Singh was separated from his mother as a child, and brought up as an English gentleman after his kingdom was annexed by the East India Company in 1849. Britain’s treatment of the Indian royal reduced Udham Singh to tears, firing up an already strong anti-British sentiment.

A tree in the second half of the artwork represents the unity of India’s three main religious communities through its flowers (Lotus for Hindus, Marigolds for Sikhs and Roses for Muslims).

A peacock (the National bird of India) stands proudly on one branch, while a butterfly adorned with the colours of Independent India’s flag, signifies the country’s re-birth as a free nation in 1947.

The events of Punjab 1919 contributed to the rise in anti British feeling, resentment and distrust – leading to an increase in revolutionary activity and a growing sense of Indian Nationalism that culminated in a campaign of mass civil disobedience forcing Britain to reconsider the political future of India.

Gandhi, an icon of India’s freedom struggle is seen holding on to a spinning wheel
– symbolising a return to cottage industries, whilst burning textile and other boycotted
British consumer product labels on a bonfire of imported Lancashire cotton goods

He also holds posters that pay tribute to Neta Ji, leader of the Indian National Army;
the Quit India Movement and the program of civilian strikes and British Indian Navy
mutinies that posed a threat to the stability of the Raj during WWII

Opposite Gandhi is a reinterpretation of Britannia revealing the ‘true face’ of Empire and the ‘evils’ of a British colonialism founded on the exploitation and oppression of India as well as other colonised peoples. Her traditional mount (the lion) is replaced with a crocodile representing the ‘beast of colonialism’: a symbolic convention borrowed from India’s early 20th century, patriotic poster art.

At the bottom of the tree, is a reflection on how we remember the Jalliawala Bagh massacre today : in art, film, music, academia, books, poetry, etc. The Singh Twins drew on many of these as part of their research.

A small silver urn, bearing the ashes of Udham Singh is placed near the depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial.

pictures & description courtesy : The Singh Twins

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