S.Sobha Singh Artist
Singh : Artist of Unity
We are proud to present an article by courtesy of The Tribune.
This article was published on the occasion of the 84th birthday
of Sardar Sobha Singh (29th Nov.1985) in The Tribune Sunday
Reading (Nov.24, 1985). The Author, Dr. M.S. Randhawa,
Sobha Singh has not painted the martyrdom of Sikhs in their
struggle against Mughal rulers. He believed Such paintings would
never allow men to forget tyranny and hatred, and blood cannot be
cleaned with blood. The paintings of wars and religious
intolerance widen the gulf among men. But the paintings of the
martyrs of peace cover up the cleavages among human beings. Such a
painting is comparable to a lighted candle, which sends its glow
to a limited area, but its reality becomes very significant.
why he does not paint the hardships of life suffered by common
people, he replied It is already painted everywhere. The stark
poverty, suffering, misery, pain and tyranny are there in every
nook and corner for all to see. Is there any need to paint. it on
paper? I only want to paint beauty and the goodness of life, which
are getting rarer day by day. With me, the concept of 'Satyam,
Shivam Sundaram' becomes 'Sundram, Shivam and Satyam' (Beauty,
Goodness and Truth) in that order. One of Sobha Singh's Greatest
Masterpieces - "Guru Nanak" in the "Aashirwad" pose. This was
created during late 50's.The hand of Guru Nanak was recreated by a
renowned palmist Pundit Agnihotri of Hamirpur after a thorough
study of the 'Janam Patri' of Guru Nanak.
Art Gallery at Andretta
frail Sikh boy, Sobha Singh was rushing towards a creek in the
river Beas at Sri Hargobindpur to commit suicide. His father, S.
Deva Singh, a stern cavalry officer, had rebuked him for wasting
time in drawing figures on the walls of their house. The boy was
headstrong and resisted all attempts of his father to discipline
him. Deva Singh was angry at his stubbornness. While horses would
obey him and would stop, gallop or jump at his command, his son
would not obey his orders and continued to spoil the walls of his
ancestral house with his scribbles.
with the rebukes of his father, Sobha Singh felt life was not
worth living and decided to die. He learnt that a woman neighbour,
who had contacted chill, had died of pneumonia. He felt that
perhaps it was the easiest way to end his life. He ran towards the
Beas, jumped over sand dunes, and when he started perspiring, he
plunged into a creek. He did not catch chill but felt ravenously
hungry. He gorged himself with trapa nuts (singhara) which grew in
the creek. He soon realised that life was a precious gift of God
and deserved to be preserved and lived.
Saint Artist-Sobha Singh
Singh was an agile boy who enjoyed somersaulting. He met with an
accident while somersaulting over a gate. His right leg was
fractured and he became lame for life. However, his disability did
not discourage him and he derived comfort from the fact that
Byron, the famous poet was also lame, but continued to be admired
by good looking women.
In 1906, when he was five years old, his mother, Ichhran Devi,
died. He was brought up by his sister Lakshmi Devi, who lived at
Amritsar. At the age of 15 Sobha Singh got admitted to the
Industrial School, Amritsar, where he completed one year's course
in art and craft.
1919 he joined the Indian Army as a draughtsman and spent four
years in Baghdad, where he studied books on European painting and
also got inspiration from the works of amateur English painters.
1923 Sobha Singh returned to India, opted to work as a freelance
painter and set up his studio near Chowk Phawara. At that time the
morcha of Gurn-Ka-Bagh was in full swing. He watched with
reverence the spiritual glow on the faces of the Sikh satyagrahis.
He found the theme for hisart and made up his niind to paint the
Sikh Gurus who kept their heads high under the most adverse
1926 he shifted to Lahore and had his studio in an upper storey
room near the crossing of Anarkali Bazaar and the College Road.
Below his studio was a fruit-vendor's shop. At that time I was a
student of Botany in the Government College, Lahore. In 1929,
while writing my thesis for MSc. on the algae of Punjab, I
happened to meet' him and got my pencil sketches of algae drawn in
black ink by him. I also saw some paintings of beautiful salwar-clad
Punjabi women hanging on the walls. They delighted me. Here at
last, I felt, was a true Punjabi artist painting genre scenes from
the life of the people of Punjab.
In 1931 Sobha Singh migrated to Delhi and set up his studio in
Connaught Place. As a commercial artist he was a great success and
painted some out-standing posters for the Indian Railways and the
Post and Telegraph Depart-ment. His patron was Col. G.D. Tate, who
appreciated his work and gave him encouragement. Sobha Singh
painted a number of outstanding posters. -As an example of his
work, a poster showing the pomp and splendour of the princely
'State of Jaipur,- - is worthy of mention. The Maharaja is riding
on a splendidly caparisoned elephant. In the foreground are
musicians and elegantly dressed retainers. From the balconies,
women of the harem are enjoying the sight of the royal procession.
Singh, editor of the Punjabi Journal Preet Lari founded a colony
of idealists at a place' midway between Lahore and Amritsar, which
he named Preet Nagar. At this place, located in the countryside of
Tehsil Ajnala, writers, painters and educationists gathered from
all over Punjab. In 1942 Gurbux Singh invited Sobha Singh to live
at Preet Nagar. So Sobha Singh was not finding fulfillment in
commercial art, which could provide him a living but did not give
him spiritual satisfaction.He readily accepted the invitation of
Gurbux Singh. At Preet Nagar his companions were Nanak Singh,
novelist, and Balwant Gargi, essayist and dramatist. His studio
became popular with lovers of art. It is difficult for two strong
individualists to live together. Gurbux Singli got the feeling
that Sobha Singh's studio had become a critics cell and after
about six months they decided to part company.
In August 1947, Sobha Singh migrated from Lahore to India
He left Lahore empty-handed, leaving behind more than 60 paintings
and his household goods. He reached Andretta in the Kangra Valley
along with a pupil. It was raining heavily. It was a cold evening
and nobody gave them shelter. He and his pupil spread their
bedding on a plank in front of a shop. On seeing their plight, a
shopkeeper allowed them to spend the night in a shed used for
storing tealeaves. It was indeed a cold reception in the Kangra
Valley. After spending about eight months in a rented room, he
decided to build a cottage.
He bought two
kanals of land and left for Simla and Bombay to earn some money to
build the cottage.In October 1947, he went to Delhi where disorder
prevailed on account of influx of refugees from Pakistan, and he
did not find any lucrative occupation. In December 1948, when I
was posted to Ambala on transfer from Delhi after a hectic tenure
as Deputy Commissioner, I invited him to live with me. During that
period, one day I saw him kneading a lump of clay. I asked him why
he was doing so. He told me that he wanted to prepare my bust. I
was surprised, as I had known him as a painter and not as a
sculptor. I gave him a few sittings and in a week's time he showed
me the bust which, according to the people who saw it, had a
remarkable likeness. This bust was cast in bronze and it is now in
the library of Chandigarh Museum.
The cottage of Sobha Singh under the snow-covered
Dhauladhar mountain range in Kangra Sobha Singh was inspired by
the paintings of the Kangra School in which charming women are
depicted. His medium was oil painting on canvas. Even with this
medium he was able to achieve delicacy of treatment and minuteness
of decorative detail which we see in Kangra miniatures. His
painting of a young bride sitting in a palanquin, with a cuckoo in
front, reflects the charm of the Kangra folk song "bhabi cuckoo
keehan bolda." In another charming painting, a Kangra bride,
innocent and shy, is sitting on the floor with two wicker baskets
on her right.
His earliest painting was of Guru Nanak Dev as a child,
painted in 1934. It shows the influence of Christian art of the
Middle Ages. Guru Nanak Dev, the child, is held by his mother
Tripta in her lap. She is surrounded by women of the household. In
the background are Shiva, Rama and Sita and Saraswati showering
flowers on the. holy child.
The earliest portrait of Guru Nanak Dev, entitled "Nam
Khumari Nanaka Charhi rahe din raat" was painted in 1937. Here the
Guru, with his half-closed eyes, is shown in a mystic trance. No
wonder, this painting reached many Sikh homes and was worshipped
as an icon. The best paintings of Guru Nanak Dev by Sobha Singh
are in Chandigarh Museum. Realising their great spirit and
historic value, I purchased them for Chandigarh Museum, where they
are viewed with reverence by the visitors. Sobha Singh
appropriately called them "Meditations on Guru Nanak". After all,
there is no authentic portrait of Guru Nanak Dev and artists
painted him as they imagined him to be.
For the Gurdwara of Bangla Sahib in New Delhi, Sobha Singh
painted a scene showing Guru Harkishan healing the sick. It is
very Indian in spirit. The portraits of Guru Nanak Dev are in
shanta rasa The object of the artist was to convey his feelings of
peace and harmony through these paintings. His paintings of the
tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, are in vira rassa. An early
painting shows the Guru seated on a throne holding a hawk. A later
painting shows the Guru riding a spirited horse. In the background
are the Shivalik hills. The determined look of the Guru is
symbolic of his defiance of tyranny of the Mughal rulers.
Sobha Singh was drawn very early to romantic tales
of Punjab. In 1929 he painted Sassi lost in the sand dunes of Sind.
She is painted as a charming young girl clad in salwar kameez,
running in search of her lover who was forcibly carried away.
Sassi typifies ideal Indian womanhood: selfless, devoted and loyal
to her lover for whose sake she bore great hardships and
ultimately sacrificed herself. Her selfless love inspired the
poets and the people of Punjab and Sind; A fine tribute to her
love was paid by the Punjabi poet Hashim, who wrote a ballad which
is still popular in Punjab on both sides of the border.
Omar Khayyam's poetry on wine and music was a favourite with the
English educated middle class Punjabis in the thirties. In a
painting Sobha Singh has shown the poet strumming a mandolin
reclining against a bolster. To the right is a beautiful young
woman offering him a cup of wine.
Studio of Sobha Singh in Kangra
Another romantic tale of Punjab, which attracted the attention of
this artist, is that of Sohni and Mahiwal, Sohni's love and
ensuing tragedy touched the hearts of the people of India. Fazl
Shah, the Punjabi poet of Lahore, wrote the love tale in verse
during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1824. But there must
have been earlier versions because it had already become a
favourite theme in Mughal and Rajput paintings.
Sobha Singh's most admired painting is that of Sohni-Mahiwal,
which he painted in 1944. This painting he had entrusted, along
with his other paintings, to a friend at Sheikhupura, and it
remained in Pakistan.Sobha Singh painted it again in 1948 and sold
it to a customer. He painted it for the third time and sold it to
Maharaja Karan Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, but retained its
got it printed from a quality press, and it was sold all over the
country and is found in most middle class Punjabi homes. The lithe
figure of Sohni, with a wet dupatta clinging to her torso reveals
her physical charm. It is a delightful representation of feminine
Sobha Singh paints Maharani Karan Singh, who were his biggest
admirers and had many paintings by him including the renowned "Sohni
Mahiwal" In spite of the developments in photography, including
colour photography, portrait painting still remains an art. A good
portrait gives an idea of the character of the sitter, which no
photographs can provide. Besides, the colour tones of a good
portrait can never be matched by a colour photograph.Sobha Singh
has painted a number of outstanding portraits. In 1948 he painted
a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi for the Public Relations Department
of the Punjab Government.
Sobha Singh's Greatest Masterpieces - "Guru Nanak" in the "Aashirwad"
pose. This was created during late 50's. The hand of Guru Nanak
was recreated by a renowned palmist Pundit Agnihotri of Hamirpur
after a thorough study of the 'Janam Patri' of Guru Nanak
Sobha Singh's cottage at Andretta has become an art
centre, which is visited by scores of his admirers. Local hill-men
and women also drop in. For their benefit he has constructed a
separate gallery in which apart from his portraits of the Sikh
Gurus, he has displayed the paintings of Sri Krishna, Sri Rama,
Sheikh Farid and Jesus Christ.
Sobha Singh is revered by the Punjabis as a people's artist.
In 1973, at the initiative of Mr. I.K. Gujral, the Union Ministry
of Information and Broad-casting prepared a documentary on him. In
1974 the Punjab Government acclaimed him as the State artist. In
1982 the Punjab Arts Council gave him its highest award. In 1983
the Government of India conferred upon him a Padma Sri.
Sobha Singh worked hard to earn his laurels. He continued to paint
with zest for thirty years. A disciplined life and methodical
working have been the secrets of his creativity. No other artist
has made such an impact on the spiritual life of the people of
Punjab. When the scribbles and daubs of paint, which pass for
abstract art are forgotten, Sobha Singh's paintings will live and
be cherished as treasures, as they have a message to convey. They
have undoubtedly a unique place in the art heritage of Punjab.
Paintings by S Sobha Singh
MORE PAINTINGS BY S SOBHA SINGH