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Essays on Sikh Values
Essays on Sikh Values

Sikh Missionary Society: Publications: Essays on Sikh Values:

Ruby in Rags

Ruby in Rags

Sobha Singh in his fifties

Divine Artist Sobha Singh

The saintly Artist who painted the Divine.

29 November 1901 AD, to 22 August 1986 AD.

In this world, renowned artists are there, but Sobha Singh was a painter with difference. Once he attained the elevated level, he spent his whole life painting the Gurus, avatars, and prophets. His work was his deep meditation on his subject - mostly some Guru. He spent his life like a recluse. He was a God-oriented, saintly person, and a role model not only in the Sikh world, but also for every human being. This write-up throws a light as to what a Sikh , particularly an artist, should be.

The renowned artist enriched the world with the object of inspiration - marvelous paintings of the Gurus, Avatars, and prophets. In the Sikh world, he held a unique distinction of painting the Gurus, and these paintings were considered to be the standard work for others to follow.

Ruby in Rags

A usual boy from a mediocre family, educated up to 5th grade, became a widely known artist-painter, and a highly learned person. He was a realistic Master-Painter. In the months of November and December 2001, his 100th birthday was celebrated at the public and government levels at Andretta, leading towns of the Punjab, Delhi and at other important cities as well as towns in and outside India. In the USA, seminars and talks were held at about half a dozen places. The Government of India issued a stamp bearing his self-portrait.

Who knew, he was a ruby in rags!

Dar ji

Dar ji was a tall, fair colored, handsome person with flowing white beard and brushed back white hair. He wore the clothes of light natural color. When going out, he would wrap him with a pashmino shawl, and kept with him a slim document case. He was always smiling, and walked with a limp but long strides. He personally attended his visitors.

Out of reverence, most of visitors after touching his feet, preferred to sit on the thick carpet on the floor. His art gallery was next to his bedroom and the doors of his room cum studio and gallery opened into a semicircular verandah to the east, which had a large cage of twittering parakeets (budgerigars - small parrots). The verandah faced the snow-covered Dhauladhar mountains. Darji would sit there in the cool of the early morning to mingle with the dawn and enjoy the rising sun.

Room of the Artist

His room had a spiritual aura. On entering it, the mind calmed down, and peace manifested. He lived an organized, ethical and simple life of a hermit. Out of his love and respect, everyone addressed him `Darji' - Respected Sir. His room used to be meticulously clean, and set with an artistic taste. Decoration pieces, books, and other items were aesthetically arranged. His paintings graced the walls of his studio cum bedroom. Fresh flowers beautified the windowsills. The easel of the artist was set between the headboard of his bed and an artistically designed window on the west.Birth He was very soft spoken, calm, patient, understanding and compassionate. He was born on 29 November 1901, Wednesday, at Sri Hargobindpur in District Gurdaspur, Punjab, to his mother Achhran and father Deva Singh. He lost his mother when four and had a very trying childhood under the strict discipline of his father who was a retired draftsman from army. He was brought up mainly by his elder sister Lachhmi. Circumstances did not permit him to cross even the middle school. He cleared 5th grade, entered the 6th, and could not go further. But he became a highly learned person.ArtistRoaming on the banks of the river Beas at Sri Hargobindpur - his birth town, drawing figures with fingers and sticks on the sand, and carving sand stones with a piece of tin or a crude knife, he came up to sketching and sculpting the faces of his classmates. He picked up the scale drawing from Mangal Singh, husband of his sister Lachhmi. He was in service at Amritsar. Sobha Singh learned a bit more from a couple of art and craft schools. His one principal encouraged him to paint portraits.

He would offend nobody, but would take into the fold of his friendship only the ethical people with high thinking. He was a teetotaler, vegetarian, very selective and frugal eater, and was fond of the sugary things.


In 1919 AD, he joined army as a draftsman and went to Basra-Baghdad. There, Colonel Glover and some other Europeans had the hobby of painting. He watched them painting with open eyes and critical mind, and became expert in the color-mixing and painting techniques. Colonel Glover, as well, polished his English.


On coming back from Baghdad, he married Inder Kaur. Whatever amount he had been sending to his sister from overseas, she had not saved anything out of it for him. They had a real hard beginning due to the stringency of money.


After returning to India, he set up his studio at Amritsar. After a while, the studio moved from Bazar Mai Sewan close to Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar, Punjab. Nanak Singh, who became a well-known Punjabi writer: novelist, was his bosom friend. Sardar Gurbux Singh, editor Preet-Lari, a distinguished Punjabi writer, was their contemporary.

To avoid stagnation, as well to keep on evolving, he moved on in search of wider fields for his work. Wherever he went, in a short time he became popular and an important social figure. His charming personality, humility, wisdom and sincerity, besides his superb painting, made him a distinguished person. Anyone, who came in his contact once, was his fan forever.

Right from his early days, Darji loved visiting the mountains beyond Pathankot. Usually, Nanak Singh accompanied him on his such forays.

Prit Nagar

When he was on move, he had a short stay of about 3 years at Prit Nagar, a development close to Amritsar. Here, he had association with Gurbux Singh and Nanak Singh.


From Preet Nagar, Amritsar, he moved to Lahore. In a short time, he became a well established artist and an important person in the society. He did not forget his friends at Amritsar, and kept visiting the mountains with them.

From Lahore he moved to Delhi.


At Delhi, the artist had his studio in Cannaught Place. At that time it was isolated, calm and quiet place with small hills in the vicinity. Colonel Tait, an officer in the Railway Publicity Department, was an art lover, and he became a devoted friend of Darji. The artist stayed at Delhi for twelve years, in the full bloom of his youth, and became a central figure in the social gatherings of importance.

Occasionally, he would sit at his easel even for 18 to 20 hours. He did the first painting of Sohani-Mahiwal at Delhi. It gave him an instant fame.


This village is about 12 miles from Palampur, in the District Kangra, in Himachal Pradesh, India. It is located in the charming Kangra valley.

He was possessed by the desire to settle somewhere away from the rush of a town, in the solitude of nature. Nohra Richards, mother of the Punjabi drama, who lived at Andretta, became a deciding factor and Darji went to this village in 1947, shortly after the partition of India.

He was visiting Lahore from Delhi. On the partition of India, the town got engulfed by the communal riots. He sent his wife to his friend Mr. Mehta of the Mehta Printing Press at Delhi, and himself left for Andretta. All his previous paintings still lying at Lahore, were lost to the fire of raging riots.

This small village became his home, and he built his house on its outskirts. In the heart of the pine-forest, besides a creek, on the hill nearby, he built a small cottage as a retreat for his occasional introspection. The visiting thinkers would go there to enjoy the solitude and to be with the nature.No army top brass, Chief Minister, Governor, or any other important person, considered his or her visit to Himachal complete without meeting him and seeing his gallery. He had almost a continuous flow of visitors, especially on the weekends. A metalled road was laid down from Palampur to this village for his and the convenience of visitors.


Inder Kaur, wife of Sobha Singh, was not destined to become a mother. Her heartbreak developed into her frustration. This invited high blood pressure and diabetes. She could hardly reach fifty-five. Darji, besides being left alone, started showing the effect of age. Harbir Singh Bhanwar and his wife Gurcharan Kaur moved to the residence of the artist to look after him, to care for the guests, and to manage the house. This contributed to the lease of life to Dar ji, and he would remark, �Some more years to create a few more paintings.� Gurcharan Kaur and her son Hirdaypal Singh dedicated their lives to serve him with unique devotion.

Himachal, His Home

Mr. M.M Chowdhry, Governor Punjab; Giani Zail Singh, Chief Minister, Punjab; Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak committee and some of his sincere admirers tried to bring Darji to Punjab. Mr. Parmar, Chief Minister of Himachal, other politicians, dignitaries, friends, and the people in the village and area, felt deeply hurt. The state did not want to lose the man of such an unparalleled distinction. He himself could not compromise with the idea of leaving the place which he loved so dearly. It had clean, calm, peaceful environment, and moderate weather. To find it, he had spent a lifetime. The people around loved him dearly, and he equally reciprocated. They were simple and sincere. Some would see Sohani-Mahiwal and say, �This is Sobha Singh's Sohni.� The artist had carved a statue of Dr. M.S Randhawa and fixed it in a wall of his room. Some would take it as a deity and bow to it offering flower petals. They were so pure of heart!

Evolution of His Art

His painting started with the search for the love of his mother whom he lost when he was a child. He thought the love was great, and it passed on to his painting the love-lores like Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal etc. Gradually, he realized that the worldly love was not mortal and he switched on to the paintings of the saints. In time he felt that the devotion of the saints was only their yearning to meet God, and was not complete. On his realization that nothing surpassed the faith in the Gurus, his art evolved to paint the Gurus, Avatars and Prophets. Painting the Gurus was his meditation, and he got totally absorbed and lost when painting them. He was a perfectionist and would even get up in the middle of the night to retouch an old painting.


He keenly desired every house to display a painting of the Guru, Avatar, or a Prophet, so that there might be a moment when the observer might get inspired and get evolved. He never meant a worship of the paintings. He provided these as role models to uplift the humanity by placing before them the paintings of their Gurus with the hope, �Be like them!�The important and popular paintings of the Sikh Gurus were - Guru Nanak Dev with his hand raised in the blessing mode; Guru Gobind Singh with his horse and a falcon perched on his wrist; and Guru Tegh Bahadur in meditation. His other masterpieces were, Ram Avatar, Sri Krishana, the Christ Carrying the Cross, Bhagat Farid, Saint Ravidas, Bhagat Singh Shahid, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Prince Dalip Singh, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Mrs. Indra Gandhi, and many more.

Once, the author asked Darji, �How many paintings are there to your credit?� The smart reply was, �I did nothing else but painted all my life.� He believed in the creative work, and stressed, �The work should keep you evolving. Such a work needs time and the number does not matter.�

Popularity of His Paintings

The prints of his life like paintings are commonly seen decorating the houses, the places of worship, offices, institutions, and are also in the Governor's House, Chandigarh, and in the Punjab Assembly. His close friend Maharaja Karan Singh of Jammu and Kashmir has a special hall exclusively for Darji's paintings. The first painting of Sohni Mahiwal is also with him. The museum at Chandigarh has his selected works. The Parliament House at Delhi, has a big panel made by him. His paintings are seen wherever the Indians live in the world, including England, Canada, America, New Zealand, Australia, and Africa - from plains to the lofty mountains (Hemkunt).


Besides being a portrait painter, his reputation knowing no limits of the borders of his country, he was an evolved person with great aptitude for literature, and was a philosopher of the high order. He was fond of Walter Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Krishnamurthi and other thinkers. The shelves besides his bed had the selected works (books) of the famous authors. He was a precious treasure house of the unlimited knowledge of multifarious dimensions. He was fond of Guru Granth Sahib - the Sikh Holy Book, and studied it to get inspiration. He would decorate his talks with quotations from the Holy Hymns.


Sobha Singh was a sculptor too! Besides M.S. Randhawa, he sculpted Prithviraj Kapoor, Amrita Pritam, The Dawn, etc. He made the bust of Guru Nanak Dev and respectfully kept it in his art gallery.

Divine Artist

He used to get deeply absorbed in painting. Like many other masters perhaps, this contributed to his marked deafness. He was a realistic painter and portraits were his field par excellence. Besides a few paintings of some of his friends, governors, chief ministers, and the dignitaries like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, he devoted his brush mainly to the Sikh Gurus, avatars, saints and to the historical figures. This made him �Divine Artist� - an artist who painted the Divine.

Name and Fame

Artist Sobha Singh enjoyed the name and fame in his own lifetime. A couple of times he went to overseas and had exhibitions in England etc. Punjabi University, Patiala, honored him with the Doctorate and an Honorarium. Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, recognized his contribution to the humanity in the same way. Lalit Kala Academy offered its superb citation. The Punjab government declared him the �State Artist.� In 1976, an art society at Delhi organized an exhibition of the artist under the auspices of Maharaja Karan Singh. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was especially invited to it. In this, Sobha Singh was proclaimed �Artist of the People.� In 1986, the Government of India conferred on him the title of �Padam Shri.� This brought in an unprecedented deluge of celebrations in and out of Punjab, to honor him.

End of an Era

In his last letter to the author he wrote, �Nanak says, fix your mind on the Lord. All that happens is his will.� Shortly after that, he went down the hill suddenly. The Chief Minister, Punjab, Mr. Surjit Singh Barnala, got him air-lifted to the Post Graduate Medical Institute, Chandigarh. He could not make it. At his ripe old age of 86, he merged with the Lord on 22 August 1986, soon after midnight. He was given a state funeral at Chandigarh. The nation mourned the loss, and the Governor Punjab S.S. Ray said, �This is the end of an era!�

After His Death

The residence cum art gallery complex of the renowned artist is taken care of and maintained by Mrs. Gurcharan Kaur, and her son Mr. Hirdaypal Singh and his wife. It has the status of a shrine of Art, and is pride of Himachal Pradesh. It is a very popular place and is visited equally by the common people, artists, scholars, army officers and the political dignitaries, exactly as when he was alive. His cherished memory is revered by everyone!
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