A brief study of the great Sikh Artist - extracts from a book by Dr. K.S. Khokhar.
Sardar Sobha Singh was an eminent artist of Punjab. Widely acclaimed as the saint-artist of the people, he created a new intensity by delving deep into the spirit of the subject. The conception and execution of his portraits and the landscape paintings remain singularly unique in the sense that they introduce the great spiritual masters and the heroes in a manner that simply evokes adoration. Art for him was not merely an amusing pastime. He held that it had the capacity to elevate the soul and refine the taste of the people. He painted great men, martyrs and pleasing aspects of nature and refused to accept the ominous events and erotic scenes as objects for his art. His portraits of the Gurus, avatars, saints and the immortal lovers shall endure the test of time.
Sobha Singh, for his young admirers was the famous artist 180 cm tall, fair complexioned, sharp featured, slim and handsome of delicate build, with a few sprinkling of pock marks on his face. Normally he wore soft and natural coloured long shirt and pyj ama. When going out, he half wrapped himself in a soft pashmina shawl and carried a black thin, wide, zippered portfolio in his hand. He used thin frame spectacles. To compensate the length of his left leg, he wore a high wooden sandal on this side. He gave an impressive look with his shining grey hair immaculately brushed and his long beard and moustaches. He took long strides limping on his left leg. He had long soft hands and he could strike them against his forearms separately by bending them backward. He was very soft spoken, humble, full of wit and wisdom. His talks were seasoned with anecdotes, quotations, similes, parables and sometimes with indirection.
My art is my religion and my aim in it is to give a form to the formless - Sobha Singh
When at work, he used a long stick to support his hand especially when the painting was large and the canvas was wide. He sat at his easel for eight to twelve hours even during his eighties. An early riser and in the ambrosial hours he used to read the philosophical works of Krishnamurti, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman who were his favourite writers. Khalil Gibran attracted him in his late years. He lived a free life suiting his aesthetic sense. He loved solitude, and felt himself complete in harmony with nature. He was a strict vegetarian, frugal but very selective eater, avoided food seasoned with condiments and was fond of sweets, fruit and coffee. He was born at Sri Hargobindpur in Punjab but lived most of his life at Andretta, near Palampur in Himachal Pradesh, a small village and a very calm place with snow capped Dhauladhar forming the imposing backdrop.
The semi-circular verandah of his house faced east and gave a broad view of the horizon. It had paintings hanging on its walls. There was a big cage with parapets and sparrows. Rinti - a light golden big Gaddi sheep dog was usually seen around. He came out in the morning, sat and enjoyed the dawn in their company. His famous paintings are Guru Nanak (Blessing attitude with raised hand), Guru Gobind Singh (Last-Resort) and Guru Tegh Bahadur. His painting of Sohni-Mahiwal brought him an instant fame. He was a member of different art academies, art societies and art-associations. He was a fellow of Punjabi University, Patiala He was the State Artist of Punjab. He was declared Artist of the People in 1972. The Government of India in 1984 awarded him Padamshri. The Punjabi University conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Literature (Honoris Causa) in 1985.
The cottage at Andretta where Sobha Singh lived and worked since 1948 for over 38 years
Dr. S.S. Johal, Vice-Chancellor, Punjabi University Patiala, honouring Sobha Singh with the degree of Doctor of Literature, honor i s causa
Promotion of Art depends upon the determination of the artist - Sobha Singh
Sobha Singh-The Seeker of the Divine Grace
My Art is my religion and my aim in it is to give a form to the formless. Sobha Singh
Receiving the Padma Sri Award from Giani Zail Singh, President of India-1983
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, a great critic and connosieur of Art, died on March 3, 1986.

Sobha Singh : Artist of Unity

Sobha Singli 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, arid 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.

Asked 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
Function of Art is to portray human emotions and convey the abstract through the concrete-Sobha Singh
A 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.

Fed up 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
Sobha 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.

Sobha Singh with Dr. Rajindra Prasad, President of India, at the exhibition of his paintings held at Delhi
Bibi Inder Kaur-wife of Sobha Singh
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. In 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.
Spiritual Glow

In 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 circumstances.

Sobha Singh-Profile of a sophisticated personality & the Art Director of the film 'But Taraash'
In 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.
Guru Gobind Singh-Lord of the White Falcon
Preet Nagar

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.

Gurbux 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.

An early painting by Sobha Singh done in 1927 showing Guru Arjan reading from the Adi Granth, while the infant Guru Hargobind keenly sitting by his side.

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.

Bust of Dr. Randhawa by Sobha Singh

I arranged an exhibition of Sobha Singh's paintings in the Sirhind Club, Ambala Cantonment. A number of his paintings were purchased by the officers of the Indian Air Force. Here he also painted a portrait of Guru Gobind Singa which I purchased for the library which was established in Ambala City.

With the funds raised by the sale of his paintings, Sobha Singh built a cottage on the outskirts of Andretta village. This cottage is now one of the main attractions for people who visit the Kangra Valley. It is picturesquely situated; to its north is the snow-covered Dhauladhar and below it are green paddy fields.

Dr. M.S. Randhawa with Sobha Singh
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.
Capturing the beauty of the Kangra brides

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.
Guru nanak being painted by the maestro
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.

Guru Gobind Singh at the Anandpur Fort
The 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 copyright. He 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 beauty.
Sobha Singh paints Maharani Karan Singh, who were his biggest admirers and had many paintings by him including the renowned "Sohni Mahiwal"

Love of the romantic led Sobha Singh to paint Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal in a painting to which he gave the title "Her Last Desire".

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.

Last Desire - Origin of the Taj Mahal

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. The Mahatma is depicted wrapped in a white khadi chadar. It is a symbol of truth and purity, the twin ideals which inspired the great leader. This portrait was accepted as an official portrait of the Mahatma by the Punjab Government and was printed in colour and displayed in its offices.

For the Postgraduate Medical Research Institute (PGI), Chandigarh, he painted a portrait of Partap Singh Kairon, a former Chief Minister of Puniab, who was the founder of this great institution and saved it when it was dubbed as a white elephant by mindless critics. In the portrait, the firmness of Kairon, his ruthlessness and determination are well depicted.

As a tribute to our friendship, be did my portrait also. My major work has been rediscovery and popularisation of Kangra painting and its folk songs, and beautification of India by landscaping, involving the planting of flowering trees. Sobha Singh painted the snow-covered Dhauladhar mountain of the Kangra Valley, as seen from his home at Andretta in the background and a flowering peach in the foreground. People who know me are of the view that this Portrait is life like and conveys to the viewer the nature of my work and the environment of the Kangra Valley, which I passionately love.

Art Centre

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.

Jesus with the cross
Sheikh Farid
Lord Krishna
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 G6vernment 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.

Sobha Singh with actor/writer Balraj Sahni and Bibi Gurcharan Kaur, a close relation and caretaker Sobha Singh in his fifties
Sobha Singh with Sant Longowal
Making bust of Amrita Pritam - the poetess
Most of the above information and pictures with courtesy of Madanjit Kaur from her book "Sobha Singh"
Next - to ART Gallery of Sobha Singh