The little-known artists from area

Until quite recently, historians of Indian art have tended to adopt a cautious, even at times, a caustic attitude to paintings of the … (Punjab).

— WG Archer, Paintings of the Sikhs. 1966

Historians of art have generally evaded coming to terms with painting in the nineteenth century Punjab: they have drawn near to it but, almost as if they were examining a thorny branch, touched it gingerly. No serious student of Indian art has been able entirely to ignore it and yet a close look at it has frequently been cast with reluctance, if not distaste.

— Oriental Art, Spring 1969

I was not exactly looking for it — it just turned up in the sheaf of images I keep ferreting away somewhere in my folders — but it did two things, this sketch. It brought a quick smile to my lips, and, at the same time, introduced me to a Punjabi ‘artist’ whose name seems to have got lost in the whorls of time. It was a sketch, recording/celebrating? virtually the first coming of railways to our part of the world, somewhere in the early sixties of the 19th century, and the painter/draugtsman seems to have drawn it — on a sheet picked up from a discarded sarkari register perhaps — at the asking of a lithographic press, the Chashma-e Noor, at Amritsar. In the lower part of the sketch is a complete scene: at the extreme left three persons, one of them a Muslim, at the ticket window, with a large clock on the wall dutifully recording the time as 12.50; the train having just steamed away, two and a half carriages are seen, one of them occupied completely by women — a zenana dibba, to be sure — but all desis, with the words, in English letters, ‘THRD CLASS’ — the artist evidently not being on good terms with vowels — and, in Urdu letters, ‘darjasoyam’, meaning ‘Third Class’, emblazoned outside. In another carriage are seen hatted gentlemen — British or Anglicised — the three sporting superior airs. Right in front of course is the engine, the driver, a hatted figure, busy at work, obviously employed by Northern Railways, for the words ‘NR’ are painted on the door of his cubicle. However, the ‘artist’ does not forget to claim credit, and adds — clearly establishing his knowledge of English — the words ‘HURNAM SINGH’: his own name. Sadly, we — at least I — am not aware of any other work by this artist. But it would have been nice, considering the delightful vignette that he boldly brings in at the top of the sketch: a rag-tag party of four musicians and three soldiers following their leader, an English ‘sahib’ on horseback with a whip, which looks more like a morchhal than a whip, hurrying, having perhaps just performed with elan the ceremonial task of celebrating the arrival of railways.

One would be entitled to wonder where all this is leading, if anywhere, especially when I open with what many would be inclined to dismiss as a negligible work of art. It is not that I am unaware, as far as the plains of the Punjab are concerned, of more substantial names — apart of course from those of painters from the Punjab Hills, Pahari in other words, who were working at different courts including that of Lahore or in the Malwa states, or, again, artists from Jaipur/Alwar working at Patiala — who were active in the 19thcentury. But I am greatly interested in seeing if we are missing out on some names. To that purpose, I am aiming at exploring collections, in the hope of making some discoveries.

 A Railway Train, lithographed sketch by Hurnam Singh. Mid 19th-century.

Private collection.

I am encouraged in this endeavour by the initial flush of success I have had, while working with the great collection of paintings in the Chandigarh Museum. There are, for instance, two Punjab portraits here, each quite accomplished, of personages that one surely does not know much about: one, a simply dressed elderly Sikh of gentle bearing, sitting cross-legged, hands resting in lap, on a finely woven durrie spread out in front of a half-open door. There is a gravity of air about the figure, reflectiveness written all over it, and the colouring — shades of brown — deftly handled. On verso is a pencilled note in English, identifying the person as “Chaudri Sadhu Singh, Member MC (?) Jhang” — Jhang being the name of a town and district now in Pakistan, and associated in the Punjabi mind with the immortal love story of ‘Heer’ — and stating that is is “by Pir Bakhsh of Jhang”. Interestingly, there is another portrait by Pir Bakhsh also in the collection: a fierce looking person identified by the pencilled inscription at the back as ‘Nawab Mohammed Ismaeel Khan Tial’. Not having ever heard of Pir Bakhsh, I searched for him only to discover that he was also a painter of monuments, and in the collection of the V&A Museum in London, there is an attractive study of the Mausoleum of Hazrat Burhan Shah at Chiniot, that town having been once a tehsil headquarters of the district of Jhang. More than this we do not know anything, at least at the moment, about Pir Bakhsh.

Portrait of Chaudhri Sadhu Singh by Pir Bakhsh of Jhang, 1850. Chandigarh Museum.

Nor do we seem to know much about the painter ‘Ganga Ram’ who seems to have been active at Patiala or some Phulkian state in the 19th century. There is a portrait by him of ‘Hakim Sadr Din’ — Sadruddin surely — : a noble-looking figure seated in a chair who, judging from the finely designed chogha he wears and the expensive looking carpet on which the chair is placed, might well have been a royal physician, and thus part of high nobility attached to a court. Patiala perhaps? The figure is clearly identified by an inscription in Gurmukhi on the top margin which says it is a ‘tasveer’ baqalam — that is in the hand of — Ganga Ram. More about the painter we do not seem to know.

Finally, it is time to turn attention — in this very collection — to the engaging work of Sardul Singh whom one knows a bit about, as being the son of Kapur Singh, well-known painter, and thus grandson of the celebrated Kishan Singh. Active around 1900, Sardul Singh — based as a painter and photographer in Amritsar — turned out series on the lives and deeds of the great Sikh gurus. Of uncommon interest is a folio in the collection — painted in the style that we easily associate with 19th century Punjab — showing how the Janamsakhi of Bhai Bala came to be written. Bhai Bala is seen narrating the events of Guru Nanak Dev’s life to Guru Angad, while, seated in a corner, Baba Buddha ji, is reducing everything to writing. Boldly lettered inscriptions in Gurmukhi describe everything, including the painter’s name who speaks of himself as the ‘das’ — humble servant — of the great Gurus.

As for my endeavours, not too bad for a beginning?

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