Saturday, November 24, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Sobha Singh --- A brush with divinity


was still a student, I think, working beaver-like on my doctoral dissertation, when I first met Sardar Sobha Singh. The need to do fieldwork was to take me to the verdant valley of Kangra and the neighbouring hills, and when I mentioned this fact to Professor Jaidayal, who was then a grey eminence among the superannuated faculty of the college where I was, he wanted to make sure that I included Andretta in my plans. This was the little village, not far from Palampur – which was one of my stops in any case – where Sobha Singh was settled and active, he told me. I had heard of the painter of course – his was quite a name by then – but not of the village, I must confess. When Professor Jaidayal mentioned that the little village was also home to Norah Richards, the doyenne of Punjabi theatre then, and occasional home to Prithviraj Kapoor, the great actor, I was easily persuaded. The place was not going to be of direct interest to my research in the painting of the region, but, curiously drawn to the idea, I made the trek on foot to the village from the picturesque little railway station of Panchrukhi one day.

Guru Nanak Dev

Guru Gobind Singh

Divine portrayals: Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh. 

The whole area is singularly beautiful: lush green fields, gentle undulations in the land spreading out like endless ripples, low hills standing snugly close by, the looming presence of the snow-clad Dhauladhars in the background. But this piece, I remind myself, is not about landscape, or about the other people there: it is about Sobha Singh whom I met that day, and about the landscape of his mind, if one so likes. I had arrived unannounced, but the painter was patient and gracious, and I spent some time with him in his neat little Pahari home, taking in his work. I do not quite remember what we talked about – it was certainly not about Pahari painting with which he had only a passing acquaintance – but I do remember, vividly, the impression he made: a lithe, athletic man with penetrating eyes, dressed in pristine white, with silky long hair and a flowing beard to match. He walked with some difficulty, I noticed, but his speech was gentle and smooth, showing no trace of physical discomfort. He looked, even to my young eyes, to be a man at peace with himself, and his surroundings. Little did I know at that time how much effort it had taken him, how much struggle, to reach that plateau of quietude. A casual visitor, like me, would have thought it came to him naturally: so well did his serenity sit on him.

I was to read about his life later, but the more I did about the course of his life, especially his early years, it appeared as if they were a long patchwork of pain. A daunting, stern father; a consumptive mother whom he lost when he was barely four years old; years of near want. There is a deeply moving episode in which we hear of young Sobha Singh’s mother – always kept away from him for fear of infecting him – being brought back to the village virtually on her death-bed; and as she lay there, her only son stood at a slight distance, nervous and confused. She lifted her arms towards him, wanting to hold him in one last embrace. Her face was covered with a thin veil, for fear, once again, that closeness to her might be lethal for the boy. But, shakily, he took a step forward; before he could reach her, however, her arms fell lifeless by her side. The boy was quickly removed from the scene.

There was occasional kindness that the growing boy received after this, but life seemed to be bleak and merciless in general. It is not possible to follow all this up in detail, but one knows that there was a zigzag path that lay ahead: very limited schooling, recruitment in the army as a draughtsman; a longish stint in Basra; contact with some European officers from whom the young draughtsman picked up the essentials of painting in oils; return to India and leaving the army; settling down in Amritsar, and then movement from there to Lahore to Delhi, and eventually to Andretta; initial studio practice involving the painting of posters and signboards and occasional portraits. Woven into all this were marriage; a personal accident; family troubles, including a suicide attempt by his wife; generally severely limited means; but also occasional appreciation for his work.

Mumtaz Mahal’s Last Wish
Mumtaz Mahal’s Last Wish

The Foundation Stone
The Foundation Stone

Into Sobha Singh’s life, after he had fully committed himself to art, and emerged as a painter with an identity of his own, keep flitting names that one knows from other fields, celebrated names: Nanak Singh, the novelist; Gurbax Singh of Preetlari fame; Karam Singh Grewal, the distinguished orthopaedist; Giani Kartar Singh Hitkari, father of Amrita Pritam; Rajinder Singh Bedi, writer and film-maker; Karan Singh, Sadr-i-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir; later, M.S. Randhawa, Surjit Singh Barnala. All through this period, Sobha Singh was growing, maturing, turning inwards: both as a man and as a painter. And by the time he was 50, he was beginning to emerge as something of a celebrity, with a devoted following. Commissions started pouring in; exhibitions of his work were held at several places; he travelled abroad and was feted there by local communities. He had, in some ways, become a cult figure.

One associates with Sobha Singh’s early work, a range of subjects: portraits, some taken from life, others from photographs; romantic themes, drawn from folk legends, writings of Omar Khayyam; moments frozen in time, like Shahjahan holding the dying Mumtaz Mahal in a gentle embrace, or Bhagat Singh reading from a book in a prison cell. There were works that brought him widespread fame, like the delicately painted Sohni-Mahiwal, one version of which is in Dr Karan Singh’s collection. But essentially it was his paintings of the great Sikh Gurus, which propelled Sobha Singh, suddenly and finally, on to the centre of the stage in Punjab. Clearly, something had been brewing inside the painter for long years. He was a devout man; Sikh history interested him no end; and he witnessed acts of great personal courage in the Guru ka Bagh Morcha, with waves of Sikhs willing to sacrifice themselves, staking all that they had, for a cause. And it all started coming out in his renderings – visualisations might be a better term – of the Gurus. For in them was embodied all that was pure and noble. He painted them again and again, ‘meditating upon them’, as he used to say, exploring insistently ways of catching their true spirit: the serenity and the gentleness of Guru Nanak, for instance; Guru Hargobind’s solemn dignity; Guru Tegh Bahadur’s pious resolve; the élan and the majesty of Guru Gobind Singh. While painting these, there were no authentic or contemporary portraits of the Gurus that he could have drawn upon: whatever ‘likenesses’ of them existed, whether in the Pahari or the Punjab plains traditions, were all visualisations. With perfect logic, therefore, Sobha Singh stated, referring to his own paintings, that this was how he saw them, and this was how he wanted to help others see them. As far as Sikh themes were concerned, he could have turned, like some others of his time did, towards ‘recording’ all the sacrifices, and all those violent buffetings, that so much of early Sikh history is made of. But, consciously, and with a clear intent, Sobha Singh stayed away from those subjects, preferring to evoke, and invoke, the essence of the great Gurus, and their blessed presence.

Somewhere, these works touched a deep chord within Sikh minds, and Sobha Singh’s portraits of the great Gurus were suddenly everywhere; in the form of reproductions, calendars, portfolio pictures. It is as if everyone had been waiting for these works to appear. The moment seemed to be just right; and, personally, for Sobha Singh, too, everything started coming together. At a popular level, the Punjab appeared to have been looking for a painter that it could call its own, someone who could give it a series of images that dipped into its past and were affecting, moving in some manner, at the same time. And it found that man in Sobha Singh. What is of interest is the fact that in painting these images, Sobha Singh was not deviating in any significant manner from the style that he had been working in for a long time: there is the same fluent line; the same somewhat academic approach; the same reliance on sentiment; the same play with powdery colours and occasional theatrical effect. The effete elegance of art nouveau stands somewhere in the background of this work, and there is that fond emphasis on stylisation that marks so much of the work of the Bengal School of Art. But, while painting the portraits of the Gurus, Sobha Singh was working with a new sense of conviction, and of dedication, and it shone through in his work.

Most of his paintings done in this period are easy for anyone to access – this, in fact, was one of the great appeals of his work – but, occasionally, he would throw a challenge to the viewer, asking him or her to interpret a work. Consider, for example, his painting of Guru Nanak standing, serene and majestic, in the midst of a large expanse of water, right hand raised in a gesture that is in part benediction, in part pointing to The One that we need to meditate upon. In the waters, there is some suggestion of an early episode in the life of the great Guru when he is said to have emerged after days from the current of a stream, having recognised The Truth, and pronouncing it. But that episode relates, as said before, to a considerably earlier period in the life of Guru Nanak, when he was much younger than he appears here. What other suggestions are there in the waters here, then, with waves leaping up as if to touch the hem of his glory? A suggestion of him as an Elemental Being? Or of eternity and endless space that are a part of him? No answers are given: simply an idea is floated and placed within the viewer’s reach.

Sobha Singh had no interest in the movements that were then current in contemporary art in the world outside; nor did he make many statements about the human condition, a direction he might well have taken, judging from an early work like "The Foundation Stone of Society" showing a ragged labourer stoically carrying a heavy, dressed stone on his head. He was content with what he was doing: asking his viewers to think and, when possible, to turn inwards. This is what he was doing himself, evolving while cultivating the persona of a withdrawn, saintly figure, living in a remote village in communion with nature.