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Guru Har Rai


A Talk on Sikh Art




"The meaning of things lies not in themselves but in our attitude towards them." Carl Jung 


Paintings of the Sikhs, by the Sikhs or for the Sikhs has a special vocabulary of artistic expression. Sikh Art is neither sacred nor iconic but, to some extent, symbolic. It is not worshiped or revered - but occupies a unique place for it connects us to our cultural history.

Its identifiably and uniquely distinct form, color and potent symbolism were the theme of the talk, ‘Sikh Art Through The Eyes of A Believerby Sikh-American Inni Kaur at The Attic, New Delhi, India, during her recent visit to India.

Starting from the early Sikh paintings done in Pahari and Mughal styles, the talk covered present-day art done by the Sikhs from around the world. Most of these art pieces have become part of collections within the galleries and museums throughout the world like in Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; The Samrai Collection, London; The National Museum, New Delhi; The Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, Punjab, etc.

Art during the early period of the Sikh faith was mostly done by the Pahari artists (late fifteenth to early eighteenth century) in the form of painted narratives, portraits and textual illuminations.

These paintings and drawings depicted important episodes from the body of  literature known as janamaskhis, literally meaning "life stories". While the historical accuracy of these accounts is debated, their power in the popular imagination is enormous.

A painting dating to the 19th century shows the popular episode of Guru Nanak’s visit to Mecca, where he goes to sleep with his feet facing the holy Ka’aba and is rebuked for the unintended insult. When chided for it, he asks the local mullah to move his feet in a direction “where God is not.” Unable to do that, for - according to legend - the Ka’aba itself moves with every shift of the Guru’s feet. The mullah learns the most precious lesson from the First Guru - that God is everwhere.

Though the artist had never been in that part of the world, he had to depict each and every element in great detail. The painting shows an entrance to the mosque with a prominent doorway, the floor of the mosque courtyard is neatly paved with tiles, the domes and the minarets are carefully decorated while the canopy over the grave in the courtyard is soaked in color. The whole attempt is to impart grandeur and richness to the scene.

Another painting dated to 1755-1770 - from The Kapany Collection - depicts a much-loved episode of Guru Nanak’s visit to the humble carpenter Bhai Lalo, accompanied by Mardana. As the Guru sits in conversation with Lalo, he continues to work. This painting breaks many barriers of a caste-ridden society. Guru Nanak sitting and eating in a home of a lower caste was unthinkable at that time.

A leaf, possibly formerly appended to a manuscript of the Guru Granth Sahib dated 1840, now in the National Museum, New Delhi, is probably one of the best examples of Sikh art done by the Pahari artists. It has the names of the worshiper and deities in the center of the lotus and those of the Ten Gurus visualized in the petals of the lotus. The Ten Gurus shown in the lotus petals with their families is highly unusual. However, we also have the two Hindu deities - added in poetic license by the Hindu artist - in the center, Mahakali the female deity and Mahakala, the male deity. It took 4 years to complete this and it was commissioned by Sodhi Bhan Singh of Haranpur in Kashmir and was scripted by scribe Maheshwar Prakash of Kashmir. Bhan is in the center and the inscription reads, "Sodhi Bhan Singh puja karde" meaning 'Sodhi Bhan Singh offers prayers.'

With the coming of the Mughals, the Sikh themes took another direction. The repeated depiction of scenes fron the janasakhis was now replaced by their age-old tradition of recording historal events and factual incidents. The element of royalty is clearly visible in the depiction of the Gurus. Emphasis is given to show each and every detail in their physical features.

In a 19th century painting, the First Guru is shown in deep meditation. It is unique as the artist has taken the holiest of words from Islam and Sikhism and wrapped the great Guru’s noble figure in them. The robe is inscribed all over with calligraphy in Arabic characters in the naskh script. The verses from the Holy Quran, Bismillah ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim are on the sleeves and on part of the hem of the robe. Verses from the Japji Sahib “Aad sach jugad sach hai bhi sach nanack hosi bhi sach”. The artist most likely is availing himself here of a janasakhi story according to which Guru Nanak was given in homage, while visiting Baghdad, a cloak on which verses from the Quran were embroidered, and which is believed to be still preserved at Dera Baba Nanak. But here the words are not only from the Quran but also of the Guru's Japji.

By the beginning of the 19th century, complete 'sets' of the Ten Gurus were being produced in a chronological order. A good example is a set of ten painted between 1810-15. All were once in the Lahore Museum, but after 1947, three were sent to India and seven remained in Lahore, Pakistan.

In one of the miniatures, the relatively withdrawn and contemplative nature of the Seventh Guru is well captured by the painter. The Guru is simply seen walking, holding a staff while an attendant follows behind, raising over the Guru’s head an enormous parasol. A very pleasant air, an expression of quiet thoughtfulness, marks this painting. The Guru is dressed in a long knee-length cloak of fine muslin worn over pajamas of brocade. A simple turban covers the head and there is hardly any jewelry, but a finely drawn nimbus surrounds the Master’s head. The decorative elements that the painter brings in are the flowering plant, the little dog which walks ahead of his master but turns back to look at him, the gold in the background - all work together to make a noble impression.

The twentieth century's Sobha Singh’s single-minded commitment made many of his works into the new icons of the community. He produced a number of paintings, mainly of Sikh Gurus, their life and work. The portraits of the Gurus are a manifestation of his devotion to the Divine Souls. He said, "I have painted Gurus to inspire people."

One of his early paintings of Guru Nanak transformed the art scene altogether. This is the way we have now come to recognize Guru Nanak. The palm which appears in this portrait of Guru Nanak is quite symbolic. It is not so much the hand itself as the lines on the hand to which our attention is drawn by the artist. In his notes about this painting, Sobha Singh recorded that for added authenticity, he consulted a Pandit Agnihotri of Hamirpur who prepared a palm print of the Guru based on his janam-kundli or horoscope. 

With the coming of modern and contemporary painter of unusual sensitivity like Aparna Caur, the art scene within Sikhism took a sharp turn. She has depicted the Gurus immersed in spirituality. One of her paintings beautifully depicts the first Guru floating within the primeval waters of Infinity. The image of Guru Nanak echoes the words from the Guru Granth Sahib itself: ‘Nanak has found that Lord, through the Guru, who feeds all his Creation on sea and on land.’

The image of Guru Nanak can be seen in a sea of blue and the arti, “Gagan mai thaal…”  comes to mind. An English translation of which goes like this -

The firmament is Thy salver

The sun and moon Thy lamps

The galaxy of stars as pearls strewn

A mountain of sandal is Thy joss-stick

Breezes that blow Thy fan

All the woods and vegetation

All flowers that bloom

Take their colors from Thy light

Thus we wave the salver of lamps:

How beautiful is this ritual!

Another notable modern artist is Sidharth whose paintings on the theme of Barah Maah have been well received. 

And in this journey of Sikh art so far, we cannot forget the present day Sikh artists settled in countries and regions across the diaspora: including the Singh Twins from the United Kingdom, S. Sewa Singh Khalsa from U.S.A. and another Jay Jaswant Singhfrom Canada. Their work is remarkable and noteworthy. 

A painting by Sewa Singh shows Guru Ram Das standing in a frontal pose, holding a child in his arms. It is influenced by European art, as it immediately reminds one of Madonna and Child by Leonardo or Raphael. The flowers in blossom represent happiness. The beard of the Master is neither black or grey but golden and so is the hair of the child, who is feeling so secure in his arms.

This is but a sampling of energetic talk presented by Inni Kaur on Sikh art.


July 14, 2011


Conversation about this article

1: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), July 15, 2011, 3:05 AM.

Of all the Sikh painters, I must say that I am very much drawn towards the works of S. Sobha Singh and Arpana Caur - they are both such sensitive souls and they both succeed to convey the love they both have for God's beloved - their message is so honest and convincing. There are lots of works of art that are so skillfully drawn and clever but have not touched my yearning soul as much as these two artists. Sikhs should really be proud to have such artists in their midst.

2: Devinder Singh (India), July 15, 2011, 5:34 AM.

Referring to the opening quote and Manjeet Shergill's comment on the art of Arpana Caur and Sobha Singh, the true function of art is to elevate the experiencer. The progressive mind is seen at its noblest when it strives to elevate the whole race to its own level, whether by sowing the image of its own thought and fulfillment or by changing the material life of the race into fresh forms, religious, intellectual, social or political, intended to represent more nearly that ideal of truth, beauty, justice, righteousness with which Man's own soul is illumined. The struggle of the mind to elevate life is the promise and condition of the conquest of life by that which is higher even than the mind.

3: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), July 15, 2011, 7:48 AM.

Perhaps the true function of art is to make you weep - feeling separated from the source of truth and beauty. Artists create art so that they can work with minds and materials for documentation or just to have conversations with THE ARTIST - to understand the human condition and ... failing most of the time.

4: Harbans Singh Gill (U.S.A.), July 15, 2011, 1:03 PM.

The concern here is that most of the Sikh artists had been busy throughout their lives making figurative representations of Sikh Gurus. In fact if we pay attention to finding the meaning of what our Gurus are saying, we need artists who are able to make us experience spirituality without tying us down to the physical images of the Gurus: artists who can remind us of the core of Sikhi or the religion of humanity. This power is there in Sohan Singh Qadri's paintings but his philosophy is closer to Buddhism. From more recent times, Jeet Singh Aulakh's paintings represent the state of mind in deep meditation and also the celestial powers of Waheguru, as mentioned in Japji and Jaap Sahib. They are the Mark Rothko's of Punjab, our treasures.

5: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), July 15, 2011, 1:37 PM.

I am against making images of the Gurus because some of these portraits are treated like idols. Some people pray to these pictures, do aarti in front of them, among other things. The portraits aren't even accurate representations. They are just drawn out of the imagination of artists born long after the Gurus were no more. If the Gurus wanted us to make images of them, then they would have done so while they were still alive.

6: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), July 15, 2011, 5:28 PM.

It's almost impossible to be a Sikh artist because the Guru Granth Sahib is the ultimate work of art - anything compared to it looks shallow and inadequate. I still enjoy the French impressionist artists because the original idea of working with light and doing painting biblical stories still interests me. Painters like Lucien Freud working with the idea of psychology are also interesting because Sikhs are advised to conquer their minds if they want to conquer the world. Not sure what conquer means yet, but the mind is a very powerful and mysterious space, too.

7: Paramjeet Singh (Patna, Bihar, India.), August 02, 2011, 5:20 AM.

Very informative talk by Inni ji. We need Sikh artists to work aggressively on depicting our history and heritage.

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