Issue 21 - August 2005
My Art The art of late S. Sobha Singh in is own words
I never painted a woman to project her sensuality. I highlighted her qualities with the sole aim to show that the woman was great. As I see it now, I was seeking my mother in my paintings. It is another thing that a woman may forget her real self, but we have to remember that she has to face many hurdles in life. I have painted her, ignoring all her shortcomings.
Dr. Khokhar has authored three books on Sardar Sobha Singh: Sobha Singh Artist, Divine Artist-Sobha Singh and Soul and Spirit.- Editors
Everything has its cause and effect and it is the cause that eventually becomes the effect. The important thing is that the cause should be found out instead of discussing the artist i.e. the effect. The cause, which created art in him, should be found. Art in itself is nothing. Like other forces it is also one. Everything has its classification and art is a branch of such divisions.
I have been recognized as a painter. This is not something great in itself. I feel completely satisfied with the fulfillment of my deep longings through it; this is what is significant for me. The need is of awakening one’s own self. You have to prick, stimulate, and excite your own soul. Only then will the potential come out as reality.
When you say something, there is nothing new in it. You merely repeat what someone else might have said a few thousand years ago. It might have been in a book or just a part of the folklore. It is different with paintings. Paintings do not permit finding your own justifications out of them. What these are, they are, and there is no flexibility allowing you to fit your mind into them. You have to accept them as such. In paintings there is no repetition of the old ideas. If you have creativity and you are not simply a copier, you give new dimensions even to old ideas.
Out of the qualities of a craft, the greatest contribution is the motive in it. The vessel remains the same. All that matters is what you have put into that vessel for drinking. An empty bottle will give out the fragrance of the scent it once contained. In the same way, when I am absorbed in painting the Gurus, the higher thoughts arise in me which keep me thinking great. It is a stage of spiritual elation.
One can become an artist, or even a great artist, by working hard and not just by sitting near me. A masterpiece may get painted with dedication and not by sitting near an easel. It reflects not only the greatness of the painting, but also growth of the painter. The most significant experience for an artist is the state of absolute absorption which gives such moments, he himself being unaware of them, in which his body and soul work in perfect harmony. No doubt, such ecstatic moments last for a few strokes of the brush.
A painting is a creation. The quality matters, not the quantity. Every step of success generates courage and that counts. In the beginning an artist may take up commercial art to earn a living. After that, he starts painting to influence people. In the end, he paints to enjoy and to experience bliss. It is done for one’s own inner satisfaction and joy.
In an artist, the instinct to be known usually works. He may want to achieve this through his own effort. If a child is trying to climb a bed and you try to help him, he may get irritated and start crying. By doing so, you deprive the child of the joy at his first attempt. The genius wants success only in this way. It gives him the satisfaction and pleasure. The instinct of being known and appreciated maintains the growth of his art. It is like the desire of being accepted by his playmates in childhood, seeking his appreciation by the opposite sex in youth, and venturing for recognition by the world when he matures. He keeps on making efforts and passes through very many adventures. There are only a few whose genius gets fixed up on a goal.
I never painted a woman to project her sensuality. I highlighted her qualities with the sole aim to show that the woman was great. As I see it now, I was seeking my mother in my paintings. It is another thing that a woman may forget her real self, but we have to remember that she has to face many hurdles in life. I have painted her, ignoring all her shortcomings. I painted her with the appreciation of the lover. I realized that lovers were great. But, the lovers stay engrossed with their desires only. They never reach fulfillment; I achieved and enjoyed it.
I turned to saints. I wanted to paint them. I was influenced by their single-minded devotion. But they lived in their longing only. They longed for the one who was beyond reach. This was not acceptable to me.
I got a desire to paint those about whom I had been hearing since I could recognize the turban of my father. I knew that Panjabis, the people of Punjab, have a throbbing force of their spirit in their lives. I had been observing the dedication, devotion, and faith of the freedom fighters in their Gurus. I realized that even in spite of all this, the Sikh faith was wavering. To place before them their source of faith, I painted the Gurus who, to my mind, were the ideal men. Passing through various stages of the development of my philosophy, I started painting the Sikh Gurus. This is the ultimate of my aim, and I myself keep evolving in it.
When you do not allow yourself to get stuck to one thing, that is your growth. I never made any fixed idea. I painted whatever appealed to me according to my stage of development.
In spite of the fact that the Sikhs were deteriorating morally, the spirit, which the Gurus had infused into them, was still alive. To make them realize their ideal, my subject ultimately became the Sikh Gurus. I tried to stabilize the wavering faith of the Sikhs and put a check on this downward trend. This has been my contribution towards the regeneration of the community.
In my philosophy, religion comes at number one, sex at number two and the sense of possession at number three, in directing the lives of people in general. Religion is mental and sex represents the physical aspect of a person. Religion should protect the spiritual side of man. When the stamp of religion is affixed on him, then the whole thing gets lost. He becomes possessive. He should take the essence of religion and leave the rest. Now, he tolerates none, and is tolerated by none. Unparalleled atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. It is not the fault of religion; the ecclesiastic have always misused it. By painting the Gurus, prophets and other incarnations, my effort was to help people realize their primordial essence.
I do not attach much importance to art itself, but I do give importance to the expression in it. Art is a medium, may be it is painting, poetry, literature or music. The significance lies in the fact that the man in the artist should not be asleep. There should be no animal-man but the spiritual man in him who should be able to awaken the masses. He uses symbols to manifest that who is not manifest.
The crude form should be removed from whatever has gone by. Instead the artist should take up, in his painting, its ideal form and present it through an individual as a symbol. It is very important that the ideal he wants to place before others should be there in him, too. The symbol and the reality should be one, and the same thing for him, in person and as an artist, so that others can have faith in what he presents. Even in spite of this, a successful artist is he who has been able to understand and love humanity at large.
Art has its own limitations. One of the governing factors is the man behind it. A pistol in the hands of a kid may harm him and others; a saint may use it and protect someone, whereas a dacoit is sure to commit crime with it. The weapon is the same. The pistol in itself is a means only. Similarly, art is also one. What matters is the genius of the artists. One paints nature or the human figures. The other illustrates the inner man. The gradation depends on his perception, faculty, understanding, likes and dislikes, and realization of his ideal. Such a true man is always within us but it is covered up by mammon. The artist has to remove these covers and bring him out for others to see this.
The poet Kalidas, while praising a goddess, starts his narration from her feet and ends it on her forehead. Describing a charming woman, he begins his description from the parted hair on her head and stops at her silk-smooth things. What he chose in a goddess he did not touch in a common woman. He looked for maturity in the goddess and youth in the woman. He beheld woman through her sensuality. Through his devotion for the goddess he brought out her godliness.
The individual efforts of a painter-artist may be classified under the generalization of the realistic, abstract, imaginative, classical, progressive, modern and ultra-modern art according to its region of origin and practice. It was also labeled as Kangra, Moghul, Rajput, Bangla, etc. Kangra art is the first craft. Very minute details are given and every detail is finished very craftily. In it there is an (unsuccessful) effort to bring in the perspective but creativeness is lacking. Basauli is the place where Kangra art was born. The Raja of Kangra was married at Basauli. In his dowry, he got two artists as well. Two or three Moghul artists, turned out by Emperor Aurangzeb from his court in Delhi, also came to this Raja. The effort brought into being what is now known as the Kangra art. This joint venture covered the period of about thirty years, from 1776 to 1806.
On the other hand, Rajput art has force in its lines but it lacks naturalness. The artists draw the nose long, delicately thin, with unrealistic curve. They make the eyes very large and drawn out and the chin that is not as it actually is. The beauty is of course there in this art.
Muslims were prohibited to draw the human figures lest these were used for worship by those people. Moghul art, therefore, had no choice but to originate from the figures of plants and vines, giving expression to their aesthetic sense. Later, the transformation included into it the gradual appearance of birds and animals. The sense of sin and guilt was strongly attached to the human figure. Therefore, that originality failed to come up and develop, but they gave great refinement to the lines in which they captured it. In the same way the Bangla and Madras arts evolved. These were typified by round faces, black eyes, etc.
Western Art, that is generally believed to be the product of the west, had mainly religion before it. Later, the ideal and constructive subjects were also taken up. There is not much for me to say about the so-called Sikh art. Such things develop when people get some breathing time. Cultures are produced in calm and peaceful periods. Till the turbulent waters do not calm down, how can one see things deep below? Unfortunately, Sikh history, especially the early Sikh history, has been marked by turbulence.
The fact remains that we cannot define art in categories. One may have more of Moghul in it, the other more of Rajput and still other Basauli. I think that art, be it music, painting, literature, science or politics, is to help in the evolution of life. If these do not help the development of it, then they are insignificant. In itself art is a faculty only. With this you may paint the devil or the divine. The duty of an artist is to keep in mind the spiritual and emotional problems of the people and the needs of the time and to draw such things, which by their direct approach or by indirections, uplift man and help his moral development in society.
We should not try to give a name to art as we are in the habit of naming everything. Art is a medium and it becomes a style according to the faculty of the artist. The main thing is that one has to reach a goal and here it does not matter which way or medium one reaches there. The name of the method adopted has no significance. Sohni had to reach Mahiwal. She reached him and did not wait for a transport or an auspicious or convenient time. An earthen pitcher was handy and she used it to cross the river so as to meet him.
In art the technique is a means and hence it cannot be defined because it is unique for each artist. Consciously or unconsciously one absorbs the benefits of the experiences of others. His work keeps paving its own way for its development. Therefore, the technique of an individual keeps on changing from time to time. The Kangra, Rajput and other arts keep on taking something from one another. The technique is strictly individual and one acquires it with a lot of effort and hard work. Therefore, it is futile to understand the techniques of others since no one can do anything for the development of an artist’s own style. One gets it with his own hard work and out of the ocean he may fill up a pot or a pitcher according to his own capacity or capabilities.
I need not to have a view about my own art. I can only tell as to what my desire or wish is. At the most, I can define my approach only. It is not possible to affix a stamp of an artist on his work. He picked up one thing from here and the other from there beside his own originality. All these combined to give individuality to his art. There are physicians and out of them some may be specialists. Out of the specialists, one may have deep and penetrating knowledge whereas others may not. My own background, circumstances, mental make-up, and effort add to give me my individual style.
If you label mine style as Punjabi art, then every Punjabi does not paint my way. I cannot be a realistic artist even. If the subject is Mahatma Buddha, one painter may give the calm and the other a troubled expression to his work. One may use his imagination and the other may need a model. I cannot be termed as a Sikh artist either. One carpenter makes a toy and the other builds a coach. The difference is not only in the degree but also in the stage of the development. If I am called a religious artist, then we will have to define religion first. If I am a devotional artist, let us remember that devotion is only a longing; it is good in itself because in it there is a wish to reach the highest stage. In fact, the important thing is what I think of art and what is my conception of it. On how art develops in a person is a secondary thing. The development of religious art depends on the artist’s own lifestyle. Ultimately, we are left with defining art with no adjectives attached to it. There is nothing that can be labeled as “my” art.
I want to paint a perfect man. He should be all forgiving and all forgetting. You may name the aggregate of such qualities as Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh or any other prophet or incarnation. By virtue of the compilation and combination of their qualities, their greatness should influence the mind of the people and encourage them to become like the Gurus or the prophets. By painting Guru Nanak and the Buddha, I want to convey that it happened, it should happen and that it can happen right now. I bring together the past, present, and the future in my work. This can be done only if your subject is an ideal man who can be placed before others as an example for them to emulate. Such great men gave discipline to the world and they brought the higher values of life under one flag of “Humanity”.
Rather than giving you a discourse on the higher values, I make a portrait of a man depicting those and I place it before you. If this is Guru Nanak, I need not explain what the great man did and through which ordeals he had to pass. Thus I paint a face of the benevolent man who fears none, frightens none, and only blesses everyone out of his grace. If such an all-embracing personality happens to pass by you, in that fleeting moment you may not be able to get any benefit. If there is his painting that is forever with you, you may look at that again and again and for any length of time you please. If you have lost your center, you are frustrated, disappointed, and suffer loss. When desperation visits you, you simply stand before this painting. Out of its all-loving and all-understanding contours, you will get your hope and solace. This is all that I want.
I have standardized the paintings of the Gurus which will be acceptable to the man of today as much as to the man of tomorrow. A need for it arose, because this is an era of science and even a child wants to know the how and why of everything and it has to be explained in a painting. My effort is to eliminate the confusions produced by the way the Gurus have been painted by other artists. If I get to live longer, I will paint the Gurus at a level of human understanding that will allow a man of common intellect to understand what the Gurus command and demand, and inspires him to rise to that highest level by following their dictates.
If torch-light is thrown on something, it makes the object visible. Nothing manifests if the light is turned towards the sky. To stay within Sikh philosophy, is to get light reflected from this object and not to worship it (the light of knowledge and understanding).
Guru Gobind Singh
My aim is to paint the Sikh Gurus and this is my religion. I try to give form to that which is formless. I do not think of selling my paintings for money only. I do very much long that these be propagated for the benefit of the masses, for their spiritual and moral uplift.
I keep on growing as my paintings grow. The evolution of my paintings is my own evolution. I see my past, present, and future in these paintings. Therein, I behold the integrated growth of my paintings. The philosophy of trinity, that is, it had been done, it can be done, it should be done, depicted in the paintings of a great man is not merely a manifestation of his devotion, but it encompasses divine intelligence, perception, and conception.
I can call Guru Nanak an artist. Out of his perfection, with his affectionate approach to humanity, he tried to build and spread goodness. You may call him a reformer or a prophet. Unless you make a prophecy, you cannot bring in reform. You know that you will give this medicine and it will cure the ailment. Guru Nanak knew that he had to give to people their guiding wish, and to awaken them so that they could live a purposeful and ethical life with honor and dignity. You may paint the Gurus as best as you can, it will have different effect on the followers of different faiths. This is because a painting represents a symbol, which the artist wants to give to others, and it may or may not be acceptable to anyone. Guru Nanak is the symbol of goodness but others may take him as representing the Sikhs only. The reason is that their vision of knowledge has not yet developed and they cannot go beyond the “form”. They draw joy out of the form only. A person with wisdom goes beyond color, lines and forms. Anything will give pleasure proportionate to the depth and angel with which we observe it.
In England, the television people asked my opinion about, “Art is long and the life is short.” I told them that life is not short and art not long. Art is a compensation for life. In fact, it is not possible to measure both of them. Life is everlasting. Due to disharmony in God made and the man made laws, gaps and pits come up in life. Art is to level these up. Art is for life whether it is a painting, music or literature. Life is not for it. Nothing can be greater than life and the life. To keep life going people do everything – good or bad. There is another aspect to life, which is bliss. Bliss is a state of mind. Other aspects of life are the sentimental, and the carnal.
Carnal life has its own greatness. People sacrifice it to preserve its higher form saying, “We will not bow to the untruth.” Life has its stages and it is sad if we fail to understand it. Life is there in a seed, a fully-grown tree, in leaves and in flowers. The leaves fall, decay, and turn into manure to give life to the tree. It is one continuous process. You cannot constrain life in different intervals. By so doing its charm is lost. Life is the art of the Lord!
There is nothing like “contemporary artists”. Different artists who live in one time-period differ in their individuality according to their faculty, aim, and dedication. Some give themselves the label of progressive artists and others define their art differently. Then there are those who run after name, money, and fame..