Gurvinderpal Singh at Central Sikh Museum (Courtesy: Sayan Gupta)

In Conversation with Sardar Gurvinderpal Singh: Painting the Sikh Martyrs

in Interview
Published on: 21 November 2019

Sayan Gupta

Sayan Gupta is an MPhil research scholar in art history and visual studies at School of Arts Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research interest lies in popular, folk, vernacular and bazaar art of India. He is also interested in Indian medieval architecture, culture studies and comparative religion. He worked for Critical Collective of New Delhi for library research in 2017, and as course instructor for Arts Acre Foundation of Kolkata in 2015. He is a guest lecturer at College of Art, New Delhi, and teaches twentieth-century modern art and art criticism.

Sardar Gurvinderpal Singh is senior painter at Central Sikh Museum, also known as Kendriya Sikh Ajaibghar, at Shri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, Punjab, India.

Gurvinderpal Singh talks about the importance of Sikh shahids (martyrs) and gurus, and the effects of this martyrdom on Sikh art, the source of inspiration for recreating the past in the form of painting, journey as an artist and the role of the museum authority in his artworks.                                                                                 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview which was originally conducted in Hindi on September 5 and 6, 2018, at Central Sikh Museum.  

Sayan Gupta (SG): What is shahadat? Who is a shahid (martyr) in Sikhism? Why are shahids important in Sikhism? Can a woman be a shahid?

Gurvinderpal Singh (GS): One who dies protecting the dharma is a shahid in Sikhism. To be martyred for protecting dharma is shahadat. Our sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, says we should protect our dharma (religion). We cannot tolerate any intruders who try to destroy our dharma [way of life, culture, customs and religion]. We do not desecrate other dharmas. We should die protecting the dharma. 

After the martyrdom of the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev, the sixth guru started militarising the Sikhs. Later, the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa and initiated Sikhs to protect their dharma.

Mostly men were martyred in the war; Mai Bhago was one of the women warriors in Sikh history. Women died in the ghallugharas (genocide by the Mughals in 1746 and by the Afghans in 1762); they are considered martyrs. 

SG: Do you visit any other Sikh museums?

GS: Yes, I have visited other Sikh museums. I visited Baba Baghel Singh Museum and Bhai Mati Das Museum in Delhi, Virasat-E-Khalsa and Guru Tegh Bahadur Museum in Anandpur Sahib, and Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum and Ranjit Singh Panorama in Amritsar.

SG: Where do you place the pictures of the martyrs in your house and how do you interact with them? Do you pray or offer sacrifice in front of the picture of gurus or martyrs? Is it different from the Hindu way of worship?

GS: Yes, I hang pictures of gurus and martyrs on the walls of my home. We have now started hanging pictures of the gurus. I feel the guru looks at me; it keeps us from committing any sin or doing bad deeds. 

Our interaction with our martyrs is different from the Hindu way of worship. We respect the guru pictures but do not worship them. We only worship the Guru Granth Sahib ji. We respect the picture of gurus but do not do puja. We may decorate pictures of the gurus with garlands but do not offer flower or prasad.

SG: Why did you choose to paint shahadat tasveeran ?

GS: I belong to the Ramgharia caste, the traditional artisan community of the Sikhs. My father, Sardar Harbhajan Singh, was a commercial artist working on book illustration and calendar art. He painted illustrations based on Sikh history. I grew up seeing my father’s paintings on Sikh history and also other paintings on this subject [martyrdom]. It was easy for me to choose this profession and this subject for my paintings. I am a self-taught artist. I started my career as a professional artist at the age of 16, after finishing my matriculation. I had practised watercolour and pencil sketching for almost four years and then I started oil paintings and portraits.

Although my father followed the miniature style of painting, and medium was watercolours, I follow the Western academic realistic style and the oil medium. I worked as a commercial artist before I joined the Central Sikh Museum. 

I have been working as a senior artist at Central Sikh Museum for 22 years. I have painted almost 200 canvases on Sikh history for the Sikh Museum since 1996. The subjects include the martyrdom of Chhote Sahibzaade, portraiture of Mai Bhago, portraiture of Guru Gobind Singh with Raikala, portrait of Bhagat Sain and martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur. 

Some of the martyrdom paintings that I have painted, were also executed by [another self-taught artist] Kirpal Singh previously, including the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur. Kirpal Singh mostly painted violent scenes from Sikh history—he showed the beheaded figure of Guru Teg Bahadur—but I have portrayed the guru differently. I have painted the scene before the execution of Guruji. Guru Teg Bahadur sits in meditation while the executioner holds a sword. I cannot paint grotesque and violent scenes; it affects me emotionally. I think all artists are emotionally attached to their artworks. It is challenging to illuminate violence on the canvas. It hurts. I always associate myself with the paintings. So, I avoid showing violence in my pictures.

SG: Do you ever take inspiration from the earlier painters, pre-modern Sikh miniature and wall paintings?

GS: Yes, I have taken reference from earlier paintings. I am influenced by my predecessors Sobha Singh and Kirpal Singh. Sobha Singh and Kirpal Singh both used the Western realistic academic style. Sobha Singh was the first Sikh painter in modern times to do Guru portraiture, and Kirpal Singh painted Sikh martyrdom. I follow Sobha Singh when I paint the portrait of gurus, especially Guru Nanak Dev ji, and I follow Kirpal Singh for painting martyrs. Both artists recreated the past. I refer to their paintings for Sikh costumes, weapons, architecture and indoor and outdoor backgrounds. I have also taken references from paintings, lithographic prints and vintage photographs of European artists of the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, August Theodor Schoefft and other European traveler-artists like Emilie Eden and William Carpenter. These European artists give us the realistic idea of the style. They painted court scenes, festivals, rituals and rites but not Sikh history paintings. 

I don’t take reference from Kangra [formerly a Rajput state in the foothills of Punjab] miniature paintings. I only follow the realistic painting style, not the traditional miniature painting style. As for my point of view, I think the miniature tradition is not good for today. We need to opt for the realistic style, not the childlike forms of the miniature tradition. Miniature paintings are painted from the mind and do not follow the reality. It follows a schematic tradition. Miniature paintings have their great value and are appreciated by a few scholars, not by the masses. I paint for the masses and common folk.

SG: How do you recreate the past? Do you read Sikh history books or take references from folklore or accounts of Europeans during the eighteenth century?

GS: First, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC) decides which story I will paint. They instruct me, and then I discuss the story with the advisory boards, including scholars and historians of the Sikh Reference Library at Shri Harmandir Sahib. They give me the historical and factual details of the scene. I often ask them questions to clarify my doubts. Then I recreate the scene in my mind under the guidance of historians. It is like the recreation of a movie or performance in my mind. 

Yes, I have also studied Sikh history, and I read two or three books on the story before I start painting. I always depend on the guidance of the historians and scholars of Shri Harmandir Sahib, and take reference from books like Mahan Kosh by Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha and Panth Parkash by Gyani Gyan Singh. So, I need to take time to think and study [before I paint]. I draw the layout and pencil sketches based on the story after the discussion. It takes almost two or three days. 

I need to think about the costume, features, background scene, time (day, night or evening), place (indoors or outdoors), seasons (winter, summer, monsoon or other) and facial expressions. I generally prefer a canvas that is three feet wide and four feet long for history painting, and two feet wide and three feet long canvas for portraits. 

After I decide the scene of the story in my mind, I start working on canvas.  

SG: Do you also paint other subjects apart from Sikh history and martyrdom? How are they different from the Sikh history or martyrdom paintings?

GS: Yes, I had done some paintings and sketches based on love stories—Punjabi romances like Mirza–Sahiba, Sassi–Punnu, Sohni–Mahiwal and Heer–Ranjha, Sanskrit classic romances like Dushyant–Shakuntala, Mughal romance like Shahjahan–Mumtaz and paintings based on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam apart from paintings of Sikh history before I joined the Central Sikh Museum. I was a commercial painter before I joined the museum. I worked as a textile designer, book illustrator and calligrapher. I have lost all my paintings based on Punjabi romance and folklore. I used to read all these folklores and stories and then paint.