Between 2008 and 2011, I worked to create a vast permanent mural for the introductory gallery at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Sri Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. The mural in its original location is 20 metres high and stretches panoramically along a 70-metre curved wall. It is designed to be viewed from a bridge-like ramp running down the centre of the 20-metre tall space. As visitors walk along the ramp, they are surrounded almost 360 degrees by the intensely detailed imagery of a vast landscape of Punjab. It was my privilege to work with a team of designers, researchers and artists to create a seamless and deeply researched visual narrative that melds the geography, history, folklore and everyday life of Punjab.
In contrast to wheat fields and Baisakhi harvest festival, another section depicts the process of rice planting.
‘Scenes within scenes’ allow a shift from day to night, from contemporary to historical panoramas.
To achieve the desired effect, my team and I drew upon a number of storytelling devices drawn from Indian miniature painting traditions. For example, there is no horizon line in the landscape, no overall use of perspective to suggest space and depth in a way one would perceive them from a singular point of view. Rather, the different elements of the landscape are laid out in a map-like fashion —arising from, and flowing into, the surrounding images of the larger mosaic. Different scenes project themselves in various directions, allowing for multiple points of view to be integrated into a single, seamlessly connected landscape. We also overturned horizontal-vertical orientations, as miniature artists would often do, to depict certain kinds of spatial relationships. In the miniature tradition, we built ‘scenes within scenes’ by using decorated frames —allowing for a shift from day to night, or from contemporary life to historical scenes.
A Green Revolution crop that was introduced in Punjab. Today, Punjab is one of the largest producers of rice. The Green Revolution led to increased productivity and wealth for some, but has damaged the ecology and social fabric of Punjab, with dependence on machinery, pesticides, hybrid seeds and migrant labour.
On the other hand, we departed from the frontal, eye-level representations and softer coloration typical of most miniature styles to introduce more cinematic and comics art-influenced angles—overhead POVs, strong use of foreshortening, wide-angle views and extreme close-ups. In this way, we refashioned miniature painting conventions for a modern sensibility—blending them with a graphic style with bold outlines, heightened action and intense colouring, with strong tonal and volumetric feels.
The Grand Trunk Road is an ancient trade route. There exists a wealth of extant medieval structures scattered along its route. Many are sarais built by feudal lords to promote trade. They used to serve as night halts for caravans, armies, even entourages of emperors—particularly Jehangir. Sarais were built with secure surrounding walls and gateways, a mosque and wells inside their compounds. They must have witnessed a colourful life, with groups from present-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia using them. We recreate a probable 15th century night-time scene, depicting encampments and people relaxing after a day’s journey—cooking, playing instruments, listening to storytellers etc. There are tethered camels and horses, and patrolling guards. From the outside, the sarai appears as it is today—a crumbling ruin that might attract passing tourists. In one corner, vandalisers are at work, as a youth scratches the name of his lover onto the ancient brick wall.
Miniature painting is recast for modern taste, blending it with a graphic-cinematic style, intense colours, strong tonal feels.
The mural’s layout reflects the physical and perceptual geography of Indian Punjab. Hence, Amritsar is placed at the centre, with the Sri Harmandir Sahib—the Golden Temple—as the foca; point. The highway depicted is the Grand Trunk Road, which passes through Amritsar. Close by is the India-Pakistan Wagah border. The broad river running vertically down the image is the Satluj—an important part of the economy, history and folklore of Punjab. Towards the top left of Amritsar is the other holy city of Sri Anandpur Sahib and the famed Bhakra Nangal dam. Of the dozens of stories interwoven into the landscape, I’d like to present just three exemplars.
(Orijit Sen is a graphic artist and designer)