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Essays on Sikh Values
Ruby in Rags
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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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