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The Mural Arts of Panjab

by nishaan@magazine

Panjab had a rich tradition of arts and craftsmanship that reached its zenith during the rule of Ranjit Singh. Mural Arts had become common in Panjab from the 18th century onwards, but flourished in the 19th century. Ranjit Singh patronised the arts, especially in Amritsar, and taking cues from the most powerful ruler and the most important city, the mural arts permeated throughout society and graced almost every important building. Murals and frescoes existed in all important buildings such as shrines, gurdwaras, temples, deras, and akharas. The havelis and the bungas constructed by the Sardars around the Golden Temple were decorated with the same arts as those that graced the Golden Temple itself. In her acclaimed book ‘Royals and Rebels’, Priya Atwal mentioned that Mai Nakain (one of the senior wives of Ranjit Singh) restored the haveli and the fort of Sheikhupura for her personal use, and specially commissioned Pahari artists to decorate the interior apartments.

The Golden Temple itself had been successively destroyed during the Afghan invasions in 1757, 1762, and 1764. When Ranjit Singh began the work of repairing it around 1803 A.D., he invited master craftsmen from Chiniot (now in Pakistan) who were known for their woodwork, to Amritsar, to work in the Golden Temple. Another important development was the extension of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom over the hill rajas, including Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba etc, which had a vibrant art culture. This meant that the artists of the Pahari School of Art became closely associated with the arts developing under the Sikhs in the early 19th century in Panjab, and many of these artists settled in Amritsar and Lahore.

The surviving frescoes in the Golden Temple and in the other buildings in Amritsar constitute a very small percentage of the murals that would have existed in their heyday in the 19th century. Much of the mural work that existed inside the Golden Temple had begun to disappear as early as the late 19th century, when marble slabs began to be affixed to the walls painted with frescoes. Over the years, the murals and frescoes of Amritsar (and Panjab) have been lost to the ravages of time and the uncaring restorations of the kar sewa babas. Murals are amongst the most delicate of the crafts and are susceptible to spoilage due to weather and other natural causes. While the traditional paints could withstand time for much longer than the chemical paints used today, they do require regular care and attention, using skills that have almost been lost to us.

Even as late as the 1970s, there were about 50 buildings of religious as well as secular nature in Amritsar that continued to have extant paintings.

Today, Gurdwara Baba Atal is one of the few gurdwaras where one can see a range of murals still in existence dating back to the 19th century. These are believed to have been made by one Mehtab Singh. However, “renovations” in the 1970s resulted in these murals being painted over in gaudy modern colours. The most recent round of restorations over the last few years was again carried out without regard to protecting or conserving the existing murals, which have continued to disappear over the years.

The Mural Arts

The Golden Temple showcases a variety of arts and craftsmanship that are closely allied and come under the general term of mural arts. Besides fresco-painting, these include works in embossed copper, gach, tukri, jaratkari and ivory inlay.

Mohra-kashi or Fresco-painting is a long, complex process that begins by drawing the design on a fairly thick piece of paper in pencil or charcoal. This drawing is then perforated and is called a “Khaka”. Charcoal dust was rubbed over the perforated sheet to make a copy of the design on the base wall. The base wall was made of fresh-red coloured bricks that were laid in limestone mortar. Slaked lime and sand were then used to plaster the walls, to cover the masonry and to form the base on which the painting would be done. According to the Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash, traditionally only six colours were used in wall paintings – blue, green, red, yellow, black and white – and all of them were prepared from organic materials, including from semi-precious stones. The colours were applied to the plaster while it was still wet, which resulted in the paint permeating through the lime. This is the reason why traditionally painted murals retain their freshness and colours even after centuries.

There are about 300 different patterns on the walls of the Golden Temple. Seen from a distance, they resemble hung Persian carpets. The naqqashes had developed their own terminology for the various designs. For instance, Gharwanjh shows different animals grappling with each other, such as tigers, cobras etc., and Patta is a decorative border design used around the edges and often depicted through creepers.

Gach is a kind of stone or gypsum which was made into a paste and applied on the wall. Then it was fashioned into various designs using specific implements. When Gach work is inlaid with mirrors, it is known as Tukri work.

Jaratkari is the inlaying of coloured stones in marble to make various designs. This can be seen on the ground floor of the Golden Temple on its exterior walls. The inlay is done with semi-precious stones such as onyx and lapis lazuli.

The murals represented varying themes including tales from the janamsakhis, portraits of the gurus, martys from Sikh history, other distinguished men from Sikh history, such as Baba Budha ji, stories of Hindu gods, and Muslim holy men, battle scenes, 19th century royalty and nobility, as well as erotic scenes in the private chambers.

Who were the artists? Naming the Naqqash

The Golden Temple is the central shrine for Sikhs. As a result, almost all Sardars contributed financially to its repair and the additions made in the 19th century, which happened over a period of time. Similarly, there would have been hundreds of painters and craftsmen who worked in the various arts but barring a few, their names remain unknown. One list of 20 artists who worked on the Golden Temple has been collected, and gives the following names: Baba Kishan Singh, Baba Bishan Singh, Kapur Singh, Bhai Kehar Singh, Mahant Ishar Singh, Bhai Sardul Singh, Bhai Jawahar Singh, Bhai Metab Singh, Mistri Jaimal Singh, Bhai Harnam Singh, Bhai Ishar Singh, Bhai Gian Singh, Lal Singh Tarn Taran, Bhai Mangal Singh, Mistri Narain Singh, Mistri Jit Singh, Bhai Atma Singh, Baba Darja Mal and Bhai Vir Singh.

Of the names of artists and artists families that are known to us are the Rajol family of artists – Nikka, Gokul, Harkhu, Chhajju, and Damodar – who were connected with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Sher Singh and the Sandhanwalia Sardars.

The lineage that many of the current artists trace is to Kehar Singh, who trained a number of naqqashes including his nephews Kishan Singh and Bishan Singh. Bishan Singh’s sons, Nihal Singh and Jawahar Singh, continued the family tradition. Kapur Singh, son of Kishan Singh, would become one of the most prominent artists of the late 19th century though he is not known to have worked with murals. His son, Sardul Singh, however, reconnected with the family tradition and painted murals in many Hindu shrines as well as in the Golden Temple. Kehar Singh trained Isher Singh, whose work was considered to be of the highest calibre.

Gali Naqqashan in Amritsar was the residence of many of the painters of the Golden Temple including Gian Singh. Bhai Gian Singh is widely considered as the last great painter of murals. Most of our knowledge of the process and technique followed by the wall artists in Panjab comes from him. He served in the Golden Temple for 32 years and with his death in 1953, the line of great traditional painters in Amritsar came to an end.

A Family of Naqqashes

It was in the late 16th century that the city of Ramdaspur, now known as Amritsar, was founded. The fourth guru of the Sikhs, Guru Ram Das, encouraged craftspeople and artisans from all over Hindustan to come and settle down in the Guru Ki Nagri. Bazaars were designated for potters, sculptors, weavers, artists, and popular lore counts more than 30 varied professions. The nagri grew in status with Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth guru of the Sikhs, giving it its renown with the construction of the Harmandir Sahib, the most revered Sikh temple in the world. Destroyed several times by Afghan invaders, the Darbar Sahib, as it is known in Panjab, was rebuilt many times by the Sikhs. It was during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that marble, copper and gold foil were used on the building, giving it the name by which it is known the world over today – the Golden Temple. It was also under the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that the Sikh School of Art, a distinctive blend of Kangra and Mughal art, emerged, the prime display of which is the inner sanctum of the Harmandir Sahib, with its inlay work, frescoes and calligraphy, showcasing the finesse and dedication of the artists who worked on them over the decades.

“Gone are the bazaars and the roads that lead to Harmandir Sahib. The old buildings, built in the Sikh architectural style, with frescoes, have been broken down. In their place, are plazas and modern buildings that are made to superficially resemble them. But very few people understand the gravity of loss. These buildings will never compare to the ones that were demolished. The frescoes on them will never be as spellbinding and awe-inspiring as the ones that were painted by the masters of years gone. The style is the same, but the techniques used have changed”, laments Satpal Danish, the grandson of Amritsar’s famous naqqash (fresco artist), Gian Singh Naqqash.

The artistic legacy of Amritsar is alive, though barely. There are people who remember, who try their best, but the lack of awareness and support makes their efforts futile.

Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash (1883-1953) was one of the most  famous fresco artists of the Sikh School of Art and the official naqqash of the Harmandir Sahib for more than thirty years. Gian Singh’s father was a comb-maker, and Gian Singh was the first in his family to take on art as a profession. At the age of five, Gian Singh was sent to school run by Giani Thakur Singh, who later rose into prominence as a Sikh missionary and scholar. Giani Thakur Singh’s influence on him was everlasting.

After he had passed his primary school, Gian Singh was apprenticed to Nihal Singh Naqqash, a third generation descendant of Bhai Kehar Singh Naqqash, who enjoyed court patronage under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Gian Singh served his apprenticeship for 14 long years until the death of his mentor in 1905.

Bhai Gian Singh would work for 33 years on creating and restoring the frescoes in the Golden Temple, some of which dated back to the 1830s.

His inspiration was to infuse his love for nature into mohra-kashi (fresco art), using his signature style of adding highlights and details, giving a 3D effect to the frescoes. His work, along with that of other artists, stands out for its intricacy and finesse, as do the verses from Gurbani on gach (plaster). Painstakingly painted, using self-made natural pigments and handcrafted brushes, the works of Bhai Gian Singh and the other artists from his time, stand out against the newer attempts to restore them.

“These are difficult times, with very little value given to art in Sikhism today, especially in Panjab and India, where the Sikh art forms were conceived”, says Satpal Danish. “Our patrons today are the people living beyond the shores of India, those who are still connected to their roots.” A renowned photojournalist, Satpal Danish is also a painter and a writer, at the moment working on a coffee table book featuring the artworks of his illustrious family.

“For my grandfather, mohra-kashi was a meditative practice. It was his way of connecting with Waheguru. He recited Gurbani as he painted, and the influence of the raags and the changing seasons can be seen in his work. He made his own brushes and extracted pigments from natural elements like precious stones, ash and plants, grinding them, blending them, to get the colours that he used ”’, continues Satpal Danish. “My father followed in his footsteps. My brothers and I grew up with art all around us, bonding over creativity, adapting to changes in the artistic field, yet holding on to our roots.”

Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash’s son, G. S. Sohan Singh (1914-1999), took his passion for art into the modern world, showcasing his expertise in portraits, still life, film posters, labels and book covers. Remembered as one of India’s finest modern artists, his paintings and prints grace the walls of many galleries and private homes. He painted portraits of famous personalities, and is remembered for the portraits of Guru Ram Das, Guru Nanak Dev, Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and Bhai Kanhaiya. His legacy has further been embellished by his sons Surinder Singh and Satpal Danish, and grandson Hardeep Singh.

“As a family, we have bonded over our reverence for art, standing by each other through thick and thin. And as artists, our family has kept the legacy alive, through stretched periods of financial difficulties. But what saddens us is that there are very few in India, especially Panjab, who understand the importance of preserving the artistic heritage”, says Hardeep Singh, who although an academic, and by profession, specialising in graphics and information technology, has kept alive the legacy of Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash, through his paintings, graphic art, and calligraphy. “The paper I use is from Jaipur, from the same family firm that provided paper during the time of Guru Arjan Dev. The quality of the pigments and brushes that we get today is good, though there are some pigments that I make myself. It’s time consuming, but I don’t want to compromise on the quality of my work.”

Satpal Danish and Hardeep Singh, while working towards creating a digital repository of Sikh art, also vocalise the dismal state of art heritage, due to the lack of mass awareness and governmental funding and support. What is lost cannot be recovered, but their unrelenting effort gives us hope; hope that we can ‘restore’ and preserve the artistic legacy of our region, hope that our children will value the uniqueness of our culture and get inspired, and hope that the forgotten heritage of Amritsar and its masters will once again be remembered with pride.

Books by Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash:

  • Naqqashi Darpan
  • Naqqashi Art Shiksha
  • Taj-i-Zargari, dealing with the designing and execution of beautiful gold and silver ornaments of all types
  • Kasheeda – dealing with designing and execution of beautiful naqshas on shawls and other fabrics

Books by G.S.Sohan Singh:

  • Gian Chitravali – Master pieces of Bhai Gian Singh ‘Naqqash’
  • Amritsar – The Sacred City of the Sikhs
  • Holy Places of Pilgrimage
  • Revealing the Art of G.S.Sohan Singh.

G. S. Sohan Singh Artist Memorial Trust, founded by Surinder Singh, Satpal Danish and Hardeep Singh, works towards preserving and presenting the cultural heritage of their family and promoting the Sikh School of Art, which was founded during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.  For further information contact: info@art-heritage.com

Artika Aurora Bakshi &

Ganeev Kaur Dhillon

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