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Heritage Celebrating A Punjabi Artist Through His Letters (Sobha Singh)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
By Daljit Ami

Celebrating a Punjabi artist through his letters.

One of the criticisms levelled against the artist Sobha Singh, who was born in Gurdaspur district of undivided Punjab in 1901 and died in 1986, was that he depicted the Sikh gurus devoid of their warrior spirit. To the naysayers, this casted doubt on his knowledge about the gurus’ lives. But the artist explained that his paintings were not necessarily physical representations of the gurus; rather, he had tried to capture their spiritual qualities. This approach was deliberate, for during the period leading up to and after the Partition, most painters and Sikh preachers were focusing on atrocities committed against the Sikh gurus and, by extension, their followers. Sobha Singh’s artistic interventions thus became significant, taking on new meaning in a context in which selective historical events were being made part of the public narrative to fuel communal frenzy.

Singh wrote (in Punjabi) about the role of an artist living in such an environment of hostility:

Art: Sobha Singh The responsibility of the artist is to keep the hopes of humanity alive by depicting people who lived or live for greater cause and higher values. One can depict that human beings should be like this; it has happened in the past and is still possible. Don’t paint the canvases with bloodbath. It is true that repression is an established evil since long. Why should its memory be kept alive? It will tease the oppressor again. It will provoke the oppressed. It will lead to hatred and violence. Let us make something which could help increase happiness, keep the hope alive, mutual love and respect. Divisive forces exercise their influence in wider circles and now they are really very strong. When they don’t budge from their intentions, then why shouldn’t we perform our duties, religiously?

This excerpt is from the artist’s diaries, which were compiled and published in 2007 as Kala Waheguru Di (Art of God). They allow the reader a keen insight into Sobha Singh’s personality and his unique philosophy on art. The book is not organised chronologically, though this was done on purpose. The editors, Pritam Singh and Piyara Singh Sehrai, explain in an introduction that Singh’s diaries, written over five decades, were wide-ranging and reflective, and they wanted to retain this flavour.

For Sobha Singh, art obviated differences between people. He writes that it makes people realise that they ‘are not suffering under the brutality of the social axe in isolation but everybody is living in similar circumstances.’ He continues:

Individuals remain restless as their knowledge of present is incomplete. What constitutes an individual and what is one capable of? Understanding these aspects and putting them into creative expression relieves one from restlessness. Meditation, chanting, drugs, picnics, love, friends, money, subject, entertainment, degrees, diplomas and designations are no remedy of restlessness.

Eternal motion of life

Singh spent most of his life in the culturally active centres of Punjab such as Lahore, Amritsar, Preetnagar and Andreta, the latter now in Himachal Pradesh. Lahore became an established centre of the arts during the first half of the 20th century, at a time when British influence on the local art scene was significant – indeed, one of the biggest cantonments in the Subcontinent was located in Lahore. Amrita Shergill, Singh’s contemporary and one of the most iconic artists of her time, received her education, training and exposure in Europe before settling in Lahore; thereafter, she began to explore themes of women in the rural Punjabi landscape on her canvases. Another contemporary, B C Sanyal, received his education in Northeast India and likewise settled in Lahore, where he started a school of art while making sculptures of eminent political personalities. In addition, Nora Richards began during this time to experiment with theatre in Lahore.

None of these artists have been mentioned in Sobha Singh’s diaries, save for passing references to Richards, who happened to be his landlady in Andreta. Unlike them, Singh did not engage with Western styles of art, adhering to and supporting a school of art known as Kangra, which developed in early-19th-century Lahore. These artists, who had migrated from Kangra, in present-day Himachal, after receiving royal patronage in Lahore, were widely lauded exponents of miniature paintings, and some of the local artists began to learn from them. Sobha Singh writes that the artists of Kangra "were reluctant to share their skill but still some of the local artists became skilled in their company.’

The artist engaged with this school and worked to fine-tune their depiction of Sikhs as he thought that artists from Kangra could not comprehend the anatomy and facial expressions of Sikhs. ‘They paint side poses,’ he writes. ‘Most of the faces look similar. Close attention reveals that faces of women, boys and grown-up males look similar but their attire made them look different.’ Singh felt it was important to develop iconography in Sikhism, just as it had developed in Christianity and Buddhism – traditions that, he pointed out, had allowed generations of artists to work to evolve images of Christ and Buddha.

Over time, Singh’s art has become an integral part of the Punjabi popular sphere, with a majority of calendars depicting the Sikh gurus using reprints of his paintings. ‘Prints of my paintings are available in the market,’ he writes. ‘Children satisfy their creative urge by copying these paintings. Now I have made two profiles (side poses) which children can copy easily. It may facilitate a new lot of artists emerging in Punjab.’ Singh’s major works revolved around Sikh gurus, love legends and landscapes. A reader could well ask how this limited area could engage him for a lifetime, to which the artist answers: ‘I have not painted Sohni-Mahiwal. I have not painted Sikh Gurus. I have not painted Sikh history. I have painted the eternal motion of life.’ His inspiration was Punjab’s ‘treasury of saints, holy men, warriors, lovers, workers and politico-religious events’, and his placement of love legends and politico-religious events as the continuity of life highlights the importance of love legends in the history and culture of Punjab.

During the course of his career, he painted many versions of Sohni-Mahiwal, the traditional tragic love story. The first one was in 1937 in Sekhupura, now in Pakistan, and presented to a friend. He painted the lovers again in 1948 in Andreta, a hill station in Kangra. A visiting ambassador from the USSR purchased that painting, perhaps due to a feeling of proximity to Mahiwal, who is said to have hailed from Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Both of these paintings are now untraceable, but others have been reprinted so many times that they have become embedded in Punjabi popular culture.

Like Sohni-Mahiwal, he has painted many versions of Guru Nanak. One was commissioned by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and is on display in the Central Sikh Museum, in Amritsar. The SGPC had it printed and circulated on a massive scale, making it the most popular image of Guru Nanak. He painted Heer-Ranjha, another tragic couple, in 1970 and retained the original, which is now in the possession of the Sobha Singh Art Gallery in Andreta. It too has been massively re-printed, and is readily available in Punjabi markets.

Although his output was prolific, Sobha Singh’s reflections on the purpose of art and artists also seem to have occupied much of his time. ‘To solve any question we need to suppose something,’ he writes. ‘Suppose art is for life and if it is not then it should be. As science is for life; knowledge is for life; education is for life; religion is for life so art must be for life only. If we agree that art is for life then let’s analyse what purpose it will serve.’

Daljit Ami is an assistant editor with the Punjabi Tribune in Chandigarh.



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Mai Harinder Kaur

Oct 5, 2006
British Columbia, Canada
I can see that he really did use his own face for the model of Guru Nanak ji. I think he'd not like people praying to those pictures.

Also, I wish they'd have used a picture of him turbaned. I know this one is very famous, but still, this is so much better.


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Oct 11, 2006
The greatest disservice Sobha Singh did was he removed the pictures of Bala and Mardana from the portraits of Guru Nanak Dev ji.
Did he believe that the earlier artists were stupid or ignorant, who always portrait the Guru with both his disciples sitting on either side of him?
I think no portrait can do full justice to Guru Nanak Dev ji and his philosophy, without painting Bala and Mardana along side him.

Just as an aside,the neck of Heer, in Sobha Singh"s painting of Heer-Ranjha looks like that of a wrestler.