A new artwork commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar, Jallianwala Bagh massacre, provokes questions about the nature of Empire whilst carrying a message for our modern times. It is now on view to the public for the first time at Manchester Museum.
The artwork, titled ‘Jallianwala:Repression and Retribution‘, by contemporary British artists, The Singh Twins, offers a unique creative response to a largely hidden episode of British Rule in India, described by Churchill as “a monstrous event” and “without parallel in the modern history of the British Empire”. Its uniqueness lies in the depth of representation of this important event in British Indian history: one which places it within a wider context of global history, politics and state oppression and reveals its contemporary relevance – including the ongoing controversy surrounding repeated calls both within and outside the UK Government, for a formal apology.
The ‘event’ referred to by Churchill, is depicted as the central focus of the Singh Twin’s artwork – namely, the moment on 13th April, 1919, when a General of the British Raj, Reginald Dyer, 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 in northern India. 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 display of ‘Imperial might’ killed hundreds and injured thousands – amongst them, women and children.
As details around the artwork reveal, whilst Dyer’s actions divided opinion in India and Britain, the massacre and subsequent ‘reign of terror’ through the imposition of martial law in Punjab (also depicted in the artwork) united India’s diverse communities in a new sense of Nationalism and outrage towards the Raj to become a major turning point in India’s Independence movement. The artwork further emphasises how the motives, methods and unremorseful attitude of Dyer (shared by his supporters) towards the massacre of innocent civilians whom he described as ‘mutineers’, 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.
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’ and betrayed the loyalty and sacrifices made by Indians in WWI. Next to these, are depictions of the 1770 Boston Massacre and Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre of 1819 which position Jallianwala as part of an ongoing history of state violence against civilian protests in Britain and its colonies.
Speaking about their artwork and the centenary commemorations of Jallianwala Bagh, the Singh Twins said:
“Knowledge about the Amritsar massacre was suppressed at the time and has remained a largely hidden episode in modern history. We wanted to create an artwork that made the story of Jallianwala Bagh accessible to a wider public – not only because it represents an important aspect of shared history that had lasting impact on Indo-British relations, but because it’s complex narratives provoke questions which are relevant to debates about the nature and legacies of Empire, as well as the politics of division and violence today.”
“In this respect, in addition to acknowledging and paying tribute to the victims of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, our artwork responds to the centenary commemorations as an opportunity to reflect on and re- assert the importance of the right to peaceful protest against situations of state oppression in the world. It also carries a positive message of Hindu-Muslim unity (central to the story of Jallianwala Bagh), which we feel India and Pakistan, as two Nations whose people share the same Punjabi heritage and experience of Imperial oppression, would do well to remember and to build on – against the ongoing political tensions which have existed between them since the Partition in 1947“.
The massacre is framed by an arch composed of decorative architectural features from Amritsar’s historic houses and Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) representing the city’s historical wealth and status as a commercial and spiritual centre. To the right, General Dyer commands his troops, donning a length of saffron cloth and sword of honour inscribed with the words “Saviour of the Punjab”: both referencing 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. To the left, is 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. This imagery represents India’s growing mood of discontent under the British Raj and the awakening of a national consciousness that shaped the political climate of Punjab and the events of April, 1919. 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 distance we see buildings from key locations in Punjab outside Amritsar (namely, Lahore, Kasur and Gujranwala) where civil unrest and protests against the Rowlatt Act and later, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, were violently quashed.
Public unveiling and further Jallianwala artwork:
The Singh Twins’ artwork, ‘Jallianwala:Repression and Retribution‘ is now on show to the public for the first time at Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, as a personal artistic response to the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh and an exhibition hosted by Manchester Museum in collaboration with the Partition Museum, Amritsar, India. The exhibition, was officially opened by The Singh Twins on 11th April.
Designed as a triptych in digital mixed-medium, the central section of the Twins’ artwork will be unveiled on the 11th April. The remaining two sections, will be unveiled at a later stage (date to be announced) enabling visitors to engage with the complex themes explored in the work as they unfold. The key themes outlined above, as well as further narratives explored through the artwork, draw on The Singh Twins’ personal research and response to published academic writings and historical documents.
The Singh Twins are also planning to exhibit the artwork elsewhere throughout the centenary year.