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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh




Legendary Pioneers

– Personality, Motivation and Achievement of S. Sobha Singh –

Dr Madanjit Kaur

Sardar Sobha Singh may truly be regarded as the most sensitive modern interpreter in colour and drawing of the inner soul of the Punjab. He belonged to that generation of creative artists who gave shape to the spirit of national regeneration motivated by the desire to see India free. This generation was exposed to two types of influences. The Indian renaissance had its impact on them, but they were also very much stimulated by ideas of the west. In the motivation and achievements of Sardar Sobha Singh is seen an example of integration of the eastern traditions of self-realization and the western quest of the civilized man yearning for a life back to nature. Sardar Sobha Singh interpreted both the traits as they formed parts of nature and humanity. He experimented on them with tenderness and gave them a sensitive touch for providing inspiration to the young. By his art Sardar Sobha Singh enabled many not only in India but in other countries also to recognize and to share his own love of the good and the beautiful as found in the past and in the present. His greatest contribution is in the domain of iconography and his art is the rarest example of the co-existence of modernism and traditionalism. Sardar Sobha Singh had a keen aesthetic sense of blending the new and the old traditions and was immensely successful in depicting the spirit and history of the Indian people. Punjab can justly feel proud of Sardar Sobha Singh because his art is the embodiment of the pulsating life of the people. Sardar Sobha Singh has been a phenomenon and a popular figure in the recent history of the Punjab. The very name of Andretta is instantly taken as the abode of the great artist, where he lived, dreamed, painted and constructed an art gallery to display his works. Sobha Singh’s cottage at Andretta is now one of the places of pilgrimage for people who visit the Kangra Valley.

Sardar Sobha Singh was known to his friends as ‘Darji’, an endearing abbreviation of ‘Sardarji”. He had multi-faceted aesthetic sensibility, but worked with a single-minded devotion to establish himself as a successful painter. Self educated and well informed about happenings in the art world, Sardar Sobha Singh had, in himself, a firm and unflinching faith. He took life as a hard truth. lt was a measure of strength in character and determination that, notwithstanding a physical handicap caused by a fracture of his right hip bone, Sobha Singh could devote himself whole heartedly to pursue his aspirations and achieve the ambition of his life.

With one year of formal education in the industrial school at Amritsar, Sobha Singh started his career as a draftsman in 1919 in the Indian Army. He travelled through the Middle East (Iraq) during World War I. Painting had been his hobby since childhood. Experiences in the Middle East generated creative aspirations in him. He spent four years in Baghdad, where he learnt English language and studied books on European painting. Here, he had occasions io observe Lt. Col. Glover and Lt. Rigdom who were good painters, besides military officers. He took inspiration from the works of English painters, and made up his mind to pursue art as a career. After his return to India he worked as a professional artist and set up studios, in turn, at Amritsar, Lahore and Delhi. Here he painted as a commercial artist for the Indian Railways, Posts and Telegraphs Department and the rulers of the Princely States. At Delhi, his patron was Colonel G.D. Tate, who appreciated his work and gave him encouragement Finally, after going through hazardous experience of the agony of the struggle for existence, he emerged as a freelance artist. Besides painting, Sobha Singh used his leisure to try his hand at sculpture. He soon acquired excellence in this branch of art as well.

“Solitude is the school of genius’, says Gibbon. It is true that those who touch the pinnacle of creativity spend most of their time alone. Sobha Singh was a creative person. He led his life more deeply and meaningfully. According to Dr. Alex Carrel ‘two essential conditions for the progress of the individual, are relative isolation and discipline And Sardar Sobha Singh had the fortitude to master both. 

Sobha Singh derived his philosophy of art from Emerson. He believed that art is a branch of ethics and is an outcome of socio-historical reality.

Art has not yet come to its maturity if it does not put itself abreast with the most potent influences of the world. If it is not practical and moral, if it does not stand in connection with the conscience, if it does not make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer.

For Sobha Singh, the purpose of art in secular world is to invoke a sense of spiritual awareness and to provide inspiration:

       Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists.

Sobha Singh believed that the object of art in social perspective is that of naturalism and secularism but the artist has a duty to perform. The artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men. Thus, the new in art is always formed out of the old. The Genius of the Hour sets his ineffaceable seal on his work and gives it an inexpressible charm for the imagination. So long as the spiritual character of the period overpowers the artist and finds expression in his work, so far it will retain a certain grandeur, and will represent to future beholders the Unknown, the Inevitable, the Divine. No man can quite exclude this element of Necessity from his labor. No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share.

…He (the artist) should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye because it expresses a thought which is to him good; and this because the same power which sees through his eyes is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait he must inscribe the character and not the features, and must esteem the man who sets to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.

Sardar Soblha Singh’s discipline in art as well as in life is in sharp contrast to the non-conformist behaviour of most of the modern artists. Both in person and art, Sobha Singh was serene. He defied restraint but loved discipline. He was a devotional artist. In matters of Art he preferred Italy to France, because in his opinion; “Italian art is devotional while Paris highlights only emotion.” He was not only a celebrated painter and an excellent sculptor but also a philosopher and a well read scholar. He was a mystic and a conformist in religion in the spirit of the word. Apart from bani (devotional poetry) of the Gurü Granth Sähib (the religious scripture of the Sikhs), he evinced a special interest in Zen thought, Buddhism and writings of Chinese sage Lao Tse. He enjoyed greatly the writings of Emerson, Thoreau,Walt  Whitman, Ruskin, Rabindranath Tagore, Krishnamurti and Khalil Gibran.

Sardar Sobha Singh was a lover of nature. The captivating beauty of the majestic Dhauladhar and a quietness of the valley impelled him to settle at Andretta. The designing and beautiful layout of his cottage at Andretta, with a garden and a tank, the orderly setting of his studio, the cageful of exotic birds in various hues in the verandah of his art-gallery etc: are the evidence of Sobba Singh’s well cultivated aesthetic taste. Although a recluse in the Kangra Valley, Sobha Singh was a great humanist. He loved the company of friends, pets, birds and open sky. He was a simple forwarding looking man, childlike, an interesting conversationist and a man of rare wit. He loved to wear fine clothes (which blended well with his personality), but had very simple food habits. Visually the artist was as interesting as his art. With his chiselled features, white flowing hair from his head and long white beard to match, Sobha Singh looked every inch a rishi.

Sobha Singh was a strict disciplinarian; He had a fixed daily routine. He used to get up at 4 A.M. After a cup of coffee, he would start reading his favourite authors. Then he would stroll and sit in his garden to welcome the dawn.  After bowing to the sun, he would go to his easel and start painting. He used to complete the major part of his painting before the visitors started coming. After 10 A.M., he would be in a mood to relax and welcome all and sundry.

Sobha Singh’s cottage at Andretta was visited by scores of his admirers and visitors. But he did not allow his work to be disturbed.

Sardar Sobha Singh was proud of Indian cultural heritage. Bitter over the division of the Punjab, he was highly critical of the politics of divide and rule. He was thoroughly liberal and secular in his attitude. He was a staunch supporter of national integration. In the disturbed days of November 1984, he witnessed the trauma of communal tension; still he did not leave his abode at Andretta and made efforts to generate communal harmony in the region. Generally, the hill people almost worshipped this saint-artist from the Punjab.

Sobha Singh’s art is an extension of his personality marked by immaculate draughtsmanship. Whole of his personality was a product of his cultural back-ground which represented distinct socio-religious fraternity with a clear preference for freedom, equality and a value system deeply rooted in the social context.

Ethics and ethos were the motivating forces which operated coherently in various stages of the life and career of Sardar Sobha Singh. The cornerstone of power motivation’ of this legendary figure in the field of Indian Art was ethical-his own religious beliefs and impact on him of the teachings of the great Sikh Gurus.

Sardar Sobha Singh’s art is devotional rather than recreational in content. It is less of self-expression and more of context comprehension as a result of artist’s ideology rooted deeply in the folklore and religious traditions of the land. Sobha Singh was primarily a painter of the people.

Throughout his career, Sardar Sobha Singh had tried to extend his creativity through experimentation with colours. He worked with a variety of symphonies in shades and colours. The use of various colours in different hues lends freshness and new dimensions to his motifs.

Sardar Sobha Singh remained at his easel for more than six decades. He contributed enormously to the cultural climate of the country, particularly of the Punjab. The symbolic portraiture of the Sikh Gurus, which he had specialized in painting, have moved the hearts and minds of millions of the Sikhs in India and across the confinent. Besides, there are other paintings to his credit which mark him out as an artist of great talent and imagination. It is gratifying to know that reprints of his works are popular even in foreign countries especially in Canada, America and England.

Sardar Sobha Singh was one of the greatest and most potent modern artists who had set a worthy example of aesthetic, moral and ethical values in vindication of beauty of Nature, mystic experience, human dignity and freedom of expression.

His themes are mostly religious and traditional, but his artistic vision stands apart from most of the artists of his class. By virtue of his artistic skill of a creative genius, Sobha Singh was able to combine lyrical quality with a striking input of religious ethos and spiritual symbols. His style and technique though realistic borders on the poetic idealisation of a mystic. His profiles stand carefully perfected in its minutest details and draughtsmanship. His motifs are highly communicating and inspiring. Thus, he could successfully build the bridge between his art and his innumerable admirers spread far and wide.

Sardar Sobha Singh had brought art within the reach of a common man. Previously art was confined to the royalty and the aristocracy. (Sobha Singh’s photo prints are found in almost every middle class Indian household). During his career of 85 odd years, Sardar Sobha Singh had considerably contributed and helped to motivate and mould public opinion (of the Indians in general and the Punjabis in particular) on aesthetics and philosophy of art.

Although grown hard of hearing in his old age, Sobha Singh was still as alert and fresh in thought and as creative in action as in his youth. He was vitally interested in upholding marvels of Indian cultural traditions. He thought deeply, spoke softly, was more often, not a reconciler of opinions rather than an upholder of vested interests. He was a sensitive, hardworking and technically sound artist. He belonged to a very select now almost extinct class of Indian artists, who strove through the pages of the first half of the twentieth century Indian history with courage, dynamism and creative sensibility. He was a man outwardly living an earthly life but inwardly ever striving for the supreme goal of life. He was all out for upholding human values and seeking knowledge of the Ultimate Reality. Religion inspired him to acquire wisdom. Sobha Singh was an intellectual. Spiritual awareness had transcended his mind and self. He was free from conventions, dogmas and rituals. Art was his worship. Sobha Singh had philosophízed the art. He held firm faith in his conviction that: ‘Life is everlasting and art is its compensation’. To him promotion of art depended upon the determination of the artist. He believed that the purpose of art was to arouse people to a higher awareness. Sobha Singh indeed had painted history of the evolution of man’s soul and not only of prophets, saints and greatmen.

Sobha Singh ranks high in the galaxy of those great artists for whom art alone is a passion. It was his unique ability to visualize and bring about an identical work (he saw through the press many of his famous paintings taking every care to see them match the original ones) that made Sobha Singh to stand distinct among his contemporary artists. His skill with the brush earned him admiration far and wide. He was undoubtedly a venerable artist, who contributed great service through the medium of paintings. He stands unique among those creative artists who have enriched our culture and introduced new forms of asthetics into our lives, thereby enriching the Indian society.

Sardar Sobha Singh distinguished himself in the field of portrait painting. He drew his motifs from a very wide spectrum of secular and spiritual fields of Indian life. His objects range from legendary and mythical heroes and heroines of the Punjab folk-tales to historical personalities and religious leaders as also to national heroes. His art is not subtle but visionary and unfolds the realities of life to a discerning eye without much effort.

Sobha Singh is better known for the paintings of the Sikh Gurus, wherein he displayed not only his skill but also his intimate knowledge of the subject. He fashioned on his canvas the Gurus with deep feeling and understanding endowed with an element of spirituality. He created the divine faces of Sikh Gurus after a profound study of the Sikh scripture. Sardar Sobha Singh did not confine himself to a particular rasa (mood) in his paintings. His various works are reflections of a variety of rasas but shant rasa and veer rasa are predominant in his portraits of the Sikh Gurus. We do not find the element of terror and horror in Sobha Singh’s paintings. The symbolic structure of his paintings revolves around love, peace and tranquility. The artist was in quest of Beauty, Goodness and Truth (Sundram, Shivam and Satyam). He preferred to paint the Sikh Gurus as apostles of peace rather than martyrdoms. It is specially noteworthy that he had not painted martyrdoms of Sikhs in their struggle against Mughals. Similarly, Sobha Singh abhored to depict misery and hardships of life suffered by common people.

Sardar Sobha Singh commanded wide appreciation and was almost revered not only by Sikh community but also by a large section of the Indian populace especially the army men. This is, evident from the fact that reproduction of Sobha Singh’s paintings runs into thousands. The prints and reprints of his originals have to a large extent ousted the calendar-art decorating the walls of the middle class Indian homes. There is hardly a Sikh family which does not have Sobha Singh’s print of the Gurus, This is indeed a great achievement and a significant service of the artist to Indian society. It appears that art never posed a problem for him. Materially speaking, Sobha Singh had rightly earned a good dividend. He enjoyed economic security and all comforts in his life.

Sardar Sobha Singh was also a faithful custodian of, the cultural heritage of India. The primary object of the artist was to convey his feelings of love, peace and harmony through the medium of his paintings. He painted to boost the mental bearing of the Indian masses. There is a motto engraved in bold letters right on the facade of his house at Andretta ‘GROW MORE GOOD.’

While he paînted Sohni Mahiwal to the delight of all Punjabis, he provided “Kangrà Bride” and “Gaddi Belle” and the landscapes of Khajjar and Rewalsar to the hill people Sardar Sobhà Singh was primarily the painter of the Divine. His life-like portraits of the Sikh Gurus and also those of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna and Jesus Christ are endeäringly held by a vast number óf our people. While his “Mumtaz Mahal’s last Desire” and “Queen Nur Jahan in presence of Guru Hargobind” (prints of this painting were sealed following a protest from the Muslim Press in 1935) are yet another proof of his talent and craftsmanship which he employed in carving out an image of the medieval past. His portraits of the National freedom fighters like Baba Ram Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri etc. are reflections of his national outlook. His murals decorate verandah of the art gallery of the Parliament House in New Delhi. The Panel depicting evolution of Sikh history has Guru Nanak with Bala and Mardana on one side and Guru Gobind Singh in meditation on the other. Some of his other well known creations are “The Last Report”, “The Devil”, “Know Thyself”,  “The Dawn”,  “Lady Snake Charmer”, “The Foundation Stone”, “The Lalla Rookh’, “Sassi Pannun”, “Omar Khayam and Saqi”, “Music and Poetry” etc.

Sobha Singh has painted memorable works which are original in conception and varied in treatment. But the portraits of the Sikh Gurus have been acclaimed as his master creation.

Sobha Singh had been greatly inspired by the Indian epics, the Medieval Indian History, Sikh Religion, Punjab Romance and Indian National heroes. He was deeply concerned with the struggle and aspirations of the National Freedom fighters. He attended the historic meeting of the Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar on 13 April 1919 and witnessed the brutality of the Colonial administration. Further, he was so much moved by the dauntless courage and unflinching faith of the Akali volunteers of Guru Ka Bagh Morcha days that he shifted his studio to Chowk Phawara, from where he could have the full view of the bands of the Morcha volunteers and draw inspiration to paint the portraits of the Sikh Gurus who had spread their mission of spiritual and social reforms in adverse circumstances and instilled self-confidence among the people. It is said that Shaheed Bhagat Singh visited Sobha Singh’s studio (at Lahore) in disguise to see with his own eyes the master paintings of the artist to derive inspiration from them. All these events show how personality and situation interacted to influence the motivation, thought and achievement of Sardar Sobha Singh.

His artistic talent and spiritual bent of mind combined to make him one of the most celebrated artists of the modern Punjab. For his devotion to the Sikh faith, his high moral character and artistic skill, Sardar Sobha Singh was highly respected by his contemporaries.

His work has won him international fame and reputation. His paintings are adorning various museums, art galleries, shrines and also the collection of some very distinguished connoisseurs of art in India and outside.

Art critics and scholars admired him for his single-minded devotion to art and his choice in retreating to a remote village in hills to live in peace and solitude and to create manifestations of his meditation in colours and shades of his choice. What he painted and wrote is the gospel of love of humanity and life we most easily understand.

One of the most welcome developments in recent times is that the collective consciousness is taking roots in the mind of the intellectuals of the Punjab towards bestowing due honour to those sons of the soil who have contributed to the aesthetics of the society.

In the wake of this awakening our endeavour to present the life and works of Sardar Sobha Singh in the contemporary socio-cultural perspective in which the artist had to stride over constraints of the times is an interesting story to relate.

He emphasized on the central truth of the artist’s life which has been adequately pointed out in his biographical note: “eh ho sakda hai (This can happen) wherein he wants us all to fight evil in all its forms wherever it rears its head. Like Tolstoy and Gandhi, believed in the datum that resistance to evil must be grounded in love and the strife for the artist. The union of human souls is the highest and the only law of human life.






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