Kala Vaheguru Di
by Sobha Singh
Navyug Publishers, 2007
A painter whose major works revolved around the Sikh gurus, love legends and landscapes, Sobha Singh (1906-86) is perhaps the best known among modern-day Punjabi artists. Sobha Singh’s work is an integral part of the Punjabi popular sphere with most calendars depicting the Sikh gurus using reprints of his paintings. Kala Vaheguru Di (Art of God), a book compiled from his diaries, opens a veiled window into the personality and philosophy of the artist but the lack of chronological order or logical progression of arguments leads to the presentation of ideas in a scattered and disjointed manner. The initial impression is one of delving into a compilation of quotations. The lack of a structure has not eluded editors, Pritam Singh and Piyara Singh Sehrai who defend the logic behind the layout in the introduction, explaining that the diaries, written over five decades, are themselves wide-ranging, reflective and repetitive. To provide a semblance of order, the editors divided the book into four central parts: Art and Artist, What is Life, My Perspective and Unforgettable Memories. Material falling outside these categories has been included into a fifth section entitled ‘Clouds’, while the last section contains poems written by the artist.
Whatever its errors, the compilation is successful in providing insight into the underlying motivation behind Sobha Singh’s work also touching upon the artistic environment of the time. At the outset, it is important to note that Sobha Singh spent most of his life at the culturally active centres of Punjab such as Lahore, Amritsar, Preetnagar and Andreta, the latter now in Himachal Pradesh. Although he was the contemporary of many well-known artists like Amrita Shergil, B C Sanyal and Krishan Khanna. Lahore became an established centre of art during the first half of the 20th century. British influence on the art scene in Lahore was significant, as one of the biggest cantonments in the Indian subcontinent was located in Lahore. Amrita Shergil, one of the most iconic artists of her time, got her education, training and exposure in Europe before settling in Lahore. She started exploring women in rural landscape of Punjab on her canvas. B C Sanyal got his education in North-east India and settled in Lahore where he started his school of art and made sculptures of eminent political personalities. Likewise, Naura Richards started experimenting with theatre in Lahore, which was a hub for creative and artistic innovations.
None of these artists have been mentioned in Sobha Singh’s diaries except passing references to Naura Richards who happened to be his land lady in Andretta. Focusing on the internal motivations and external influences shaping the artist’s work, Sobha Singh provides interesting insights into himself, the artist. He writes, “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.” He adds, “Fine arts articulate finer human feelings and emotional needs which remain curtailed through social customs.”
For Sobha Singh, art is a medium to strengthen solidarity as “art obviates that we are not suffering under the brutality of the social axe in isolation but everybody is living in similar circumstances. There are people living more painful lives.” He describes how art takes us on journey from ‘selfishness’ to ‘selflessness’, from ‘incompletion’ to ‘completion’. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Sobha Singh did not engage with Western styles of art, adhering to a school which was evolving indigenously. Some of the artists displaced from Kangra got royal patronage in Lahore in the early half of the 19th century. These artists of the Kangra School of art were excellent exponents of miniature paintings. Some of the local artists followed these artists. Sobha Singh writes, “These people [artists of Kangra] were reluctant to share their skill but still some of the local artists became skilled in their company.” Sobha Singh 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. Sobha Singh writes, “… they paint side poses. 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.” (Page 71)
In search of the eternal
It is a fact that the bulk of Sobha Singh’s work focused on the Sikh gurus and the love legends of Punjab. A reader could well ask how this limited area could engage him for a lifetime. The artist answers: “Let me clarify about the purpose of my art so that no confusion remains. 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.” The prevailing atmosphere contributed to fixing his priorities and his was a life-long engagement with this quest. Writing about the artistic inspiration, he adds, “Punjab’s rich heritage invites artists. They have treasury of saints, holy men, warriors, lovers, workers and politico-religious events.” Sobha Singh’s 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.
Sobha Singh has had been criticised for depicting Sikh gurus devoid of their warrior spirit, casting doubt on his knowledge about their contemporary life. Sobha Singh explains the motivation behind his interpretation of the Gurus thus: “I don’t claim that my paintings are physical representation of Gurus. I have tried to manifest their spiritual qualities.” Most painters and Sikh preachers focus of atrocities committed against the Sikh Gurus and their followers. Indeed, bloodshed occupies central space in the museums of Sikh history. It can be argued that the paintings depicting these gory scenes solidify communal divisions and refresh mutual hatred, sidelining the composite culture and shared history of centuries. The importance of Sobha Singh’s depiction of Sikh Gurus and love legends lies in this context.
Sobha Singh’s artistic interventions were significant at a time when selective events of history were being made part of the public narrative to foster communal frenzy as a continuation of the historical animosity. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh fundamentalists actively vitiated the atmosphere to strengthen their claims to create nation states on religious lines. Their efforts resulted in the massacre of more than one million people and the largest transfer of citizenry in human history on religious lines during the Partition of 1947. Fundamentalists of both India and Pakistan still invoke that communal frenzy for political benefits. In such a hostile environment, Sobha Singh outlines the role of the artists thus:
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 being 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 their intentions then why shouldn’t we perform our duties, religiously?
Such reflections on the purpose of art and artists seem to have occupied Sobha Singh and appear repeatedly in the book. In another place, he says: “To solve any question we need to suppose something. 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.”
While discussing the state of art in Punjab, Sobha Singh refers to the well-established traditions of Christianity and Buddhism. He argues that Christian and Buddhist iconography has become standardised over the centuries as generations of artists worked to evolve images of Christ and Buddha. No such tradition exists in Sikhism, a result of consistent turmoil in the region, restrictions imposed by religious bodies and lack of patronage. Sobha Singh appears to be well aware of his contribution and historical role in the art of Punjab. He writes, “Prints of my paintings are available in the market. 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 emerge in Punjab.” A recent feature in Punjabi Tribune, profiling a young painter, Harmesh who has copied paintings of Sobha Singh gives life to Sobha Singh’s conviction.
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