Painter of people

Though Sobha Singh belonged as much to Himachal Pradesh as to Punjab, the Himachal Government has done little to keep the memory of the renowned painter alive,
Vibhor Mohan

A self-portrait by Sobha Singh
A self-portrait by Sobha Singh

A painting of Bhagat Ravi Das: Sobha Singh’s last complete work
A painting of Bhagat Ravi Das: Sobha Singh’s last complete work

HIS paintings are descriptive—as if he could close his eyes and see every detail, from the faces to the intricacies of the background. Sobha Singh has painted some of the best-known paintings in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.

He has painted about the most popular paintings of the Sikh Gurus, including Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh. He also gave faces to Sohni Mahiwal and Himachali Gaddan.

Over three-dozen such original paintings are displayed at the Sobha Singh Gallery in Andretta, near Palampur. The tourists who pour in from far-off places in Punjab and Himachal also get to see the paintings yet to be reproduced by the Sobha Singh Memorial Art Society.

"Keeping a check on piracy is a major problem," says Hirday Pal Singh, secretary-general of the society.The paintings of the Sikh Gurus, for instance, have been reproduced into hundreds of posters without the permission of the society in Jalandhar and Amritsar.

The gallery is a treat for any art lover. Some incredible large-sized paintings like ‘Goddess of Dawn’, ‘Sohni in heaven’ and ‘Guru Nanak Dev on his way to Mansarovar’ are yet to come out in the form of posters. "Fund crunch is the reason why copies of more than 20 of his paintings have not been made. The ones that are out are very popular," says Hriday Pal Singh.

Replicas of the famous ‘Her grace the gaddan’ can be seen in government offices, hotel rooms and drawing rooms across Himachal Pradesh.

Even though Sobha Singh belonged to Himachal Pradesh as much as Punjab, the Himachal Pradesh Government has done little to keep the memory of the renowned painter alive. Absolutely no attempts are being made to promote tourism vis-`E0-vis the gallery, which with its scenic beauty, could have developed as a popular tourist spot.

The road leading to the gallery, named Sardar Sobha Singh road, offers a pot-holed and bumpy drive to the visitors. There is no facility of public toilets or an eating-place anywhere near the gallery.

As a proof of its apathy, the government has also scrapped the Sardar Sobha Singh Kala Puraskar introduced in 2001 by the BJP government.

The Sobha Singh gallery in Andretta is a treat for art lovers
The Sobha Singh gallery in Andretta is a treat for art lovers. — Photos by the writer

Born on November 29, 1901, at Sri Hargobindpur (Gurdaspur), Sobha Singh learnt painting by self-practice. He joined the British India Army as a draughtsman and was posted at various places in Iraq. He studied European paintings and got inspired by the works of English painters. The painter of the people passed away on August 22, 1986, at Chandigarh, says Hirday Pal Singh.

During his 38-year stay at Andretta, Sobha Singh painted hundreds of paintings but his main focus was Sikh Gurus, their life and work. He used to say, "I have painted the Gurus to inspire people."

Sobha Singh painted Sohni Mahiwal, one of the most popular love legends of Punjab, first time in 1937 and the painting got instant recognition. It was painted for the fifth time in 1979.

He also worked on other love legends of Punjab, including Heer Ranjha, Sassi Pannu, Shirin Farhad and Mirzan Sahiban. One of his most popular paintings is ‘Her grace the gaddan.’

He was honoured with Padma Shri and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting released a documentary film Painter of people based on his life. He was conferred upon the degree of doctor of literature (Honoris Causa) by Punjabi University, Patiala.