Mohrakashi and the Naqqashes of Harmandir Sahib

in Overview
Published on: 05 December 2018

Dr Maneet Kaur

Dr Maneet Kaur is a researcher, academician, textile artist and designer. Under non-net fellowship, she completed her PhD on 'Evolution of Motif and Colour of Ikat in Gujarat, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh' from Design Department, Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. Prior to that she received fellowship on Small-study research grant on 'Bondo textiles' and 'Natural dyeing in Ikat Textiles from Lac and Jackfruit' from the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collection at Victoria and Albert Museum. Further she has submitted a documentary film on 'Bondo textiles of Orissa' to the handlloom office under Ministry of Textiles, Bhuwaneshwar, Orissa. She has taught as a Lecturer for a year in the Architecture and Interior School, LPU, Phagwara and as an Assistant Professor for two years in Design Department ApeeJay College of Fine Arts, Jalandhar. She has presented papers on 'Batik of Santiniketan', 'Kodpad Weavers', 'Telia Rumal of Pochampalli by Chiruveru Ramalingum', 'Crochet for Wearable', 'Punja Dhurries in Punjab' and 'Florals of Darbar Sahib' in seminars and conferences respectively. She has also been engaged in natural dyeing of silk, cotton and jute, designing organic jewellery, souvenirs with the folk artists and craft persons of Santiniketan; dhurries in natural dyeing with Nakodar weavers and introducing new motifs in Phulkari of Patiala. On Gurupurabs of Bandhi Chor Diwas (at Gurudwara Sri Gurugranth Sahib Vidhya Kendraand) and Guru Nanak Jayanti (Gurudwara Sri Gurudev Nanak Dev Darbar, Greater Noida) she has exhibited paintings and watercolours on paper, influenced from the motifs of Mohrakashi at Darbar Sahib, Sri Harimandir Sahib. She is currently engaged in interpreting nature's culture in visual art through the textile medium with three surface designing traditional technique of India, i.e. crochet, phulkari and applique from katran (using zero-waste textile materials) for exhibitions.


Sachkhand, Sri Harmandir Sahib (also called Sri Darbar Sahib) was blown up thrice, between 1757 to 1764, by Ahmed Shah Abdali. In 1764 Maharaja Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (1718–83) and Misl Sikh chieftains took the initiative to rebuild Darbar Sahib that stands till date.


In 1810, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on conquering Chiniot town (in 1764 Bhangi misl/ territories, now a province in the state of Punjab in Pakistan), was informed by one of his commanders about decorated wall paintings called mohrakashi (fresco) inside the havelis of the region. Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839), as an act of deep faith in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, took up the task of beautification through naqqashi at Darbar Sahib. Muslim artists from Chiniot town were invited to embellish the walls of Sri Harmandir Sahib. Maharaja Ranjit Singh entrusted the entire work of the decoration of the temple to Bhai Sant Singh and Giani. Some of the naqqashes belonged to a lineage of naqqashes, while others were trained as pupils of a master naqqash.   


Naqqash, in fact, was a term for a chitrakar, decorator or illuminator who did ornamentation of addresses, letter heads, nikah-namahs (marriage certificates), idis, janam patris (horoscopes) and other types of documents. They were also employed to undertake illumination of Arabic and Persian manuscripts, and sometimes they embellished specimens of calligraphy. In this case, they were trained draftsmen following a pattern and specific style of painting.


Naqqashes worked either in the form of guilds or as ustad-shagird (teacher-disciple) for executing mohrakashi art in this way; the naqqash developed a vocabulary both through experience and imagination. Also, the supervisor of the guilds or suggestions by the ustad added to the enhancement of the motifs. Here, the experience of the naqqash depended upon the number of years he had been an apprentice under the ustad and his understanding of forms, style, pattern, colour application. Similarly, the ability to imagine and translate to visual art depended upon the naqqash’s understanding of literary sources, daily observations and manual skills to speak through the language of line and colours.


Since the initial naqqashes for Darbar Sahib were from the Muslim and Vaishnav faiths, so we may witness inspiration and influences from Vaishnav and Muslim creative vocabulary. Muslim mohrakashi influence can be seen in the Irani motifs in which two or four big flowers are arranged sparsely. Also, a strong influence of geometry prevailed in mohrakashi. Naqqashes from Hindu faith created mohrakashi patterns with bold flowers and leaves to depict Sri Krishna’s ras-leela. They used thick brush strokes to create their paintings.


Mohrakashi naqqashs and artists included people such as Din Mohammad, Jawahar Latuni, Dacha, Sharaf-ud-din, Malha Ram, and so on. Since they possessed expertise as well as experience in artwork related to their respective faiths, to imagine the traditional motifs or develop motifs to match the Sikh faith, these artists did delve into Sikh faith and philosophy. Baba Kehar Singh was an eminent mohrakashi artist and evolved the renowned Sikh school of art. He was a leading artist associated with adornment work; it is believed that birds in mohrakashi were introduced by him. In the Sikh school of art, artists depict the objects in their real forms by means of shades. The colours are integral with the form. The naturalistic treatment of birds and floral designs are in the foreground.


Baba Kehar Singhji, nephew and pupil of Bhai Bishan Singh (1836–1900), worked inside and outside the walls of Darbar Sahib. Bishan Singh taught his two sons Nihal Singh and Jawahar Singh. They did not paint fairies, but instead some florals and animals. He specialized in arabesque and introduced fresh and bright brush strokes. Floral decoration excelled under Rudh Singh, Amir Singh, Ganesh Singh, Gian Singh, Kapur Singh, Puran Singh, Aroor Singh and Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash. The latter is the last mural painter.


After the demise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839, the task of completing the work was given to local artisans and naqqashes. Most of the naqqashes in Darbar Sahib remained unknown. We have been able to identify only a naqqashi undersigned as naqqash at Darbar Sahib i.e. Atma Singh Naqqash in 1960.


Mohrakashi was never really recognised as an institutional art or was recognised for its unique visual language. From time to time artists, painters, conservators have engaged themselves in upholding the art form. The recent restoration of mohrakashi art has been done by Gurpreet Singh Mankoo assisted by many budding artists.  


Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash: The last mohrakashi artist


Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash was the last mohrakashi (fresco) artist who worked as an official naqqash (painter, artist) for 32 years till 1931 in Sachkhand Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. Son of Sardar Taba Singh (a comb maker), he studied till the 5th standard and joined Ustad Bhai Nihal Singhji for training in drawing and painting. Drawing from the legacy of the ustad-shagird parampara (teacher-student discipline), for 14 years, he worked under Ustad Bhai Nihal Singh, and later with his brother Jawahar Singh, who too worked at Darbar Sahib. The latter trained him in the Kangra miniature style of painting and in the Sikh school of art. As a naqqash, he worked with different forms of painting: mohrakashi, gach, jaratkari and tukri. Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash was greatly influenced by the Akali lehr and he painted khanda and kirpan in the mohrakashi of Darbar Sahib. He did not paint symbols in black but in deep surmai (greyish blue) as he wanted to remain close to the real world.


His lifetime work on mohrakashi in Darbar Sahib were at a portion near Har ki Pauri: those have now been retouched. Some of his compositions and designs have been repainted, however, his introduction of new motifs on the inner walls, ceiling and arches of the windows of the first floor, have corroborated and survived as reference. His expertise in painting motifs lay in his depiction of local seasonal flowers as part of dehin in mohrakashi. What remains remarkable is his painting of the arrangement of flowers, leaves, creepers or bushes surrounded with grapevine or arabesque floral patterns in corners, squares and rectangles. His fluidity and consistency of line and intricate drawing in miniature forms can be seen in mohrakashi where he painted historical gurudwaras on the body of a vase as a dehin motif. As per his grandson, Surinder Singh, Bhai Gian Singh introduced Punjabi script with words from Ashtapadi of Sukhmani Sahib on the interior arches of windows on the first floor of Sachkhand Darbar Sahib. He also possessed expertise in creating pietra dura stone inlay work designs in many gurudwaras across the country. In 1949, he was honoured with Siropa (the robe of honour) by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar (Punjab, India).


Bhai Gian Singh kept himself involved in the field of documenting heritage art and local craft, by writing books in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi, published at Amritsar by Bhai Buta Singh Pratap Singh Pustakawale. In 1920, he authored Taj-e-Zargari (Vol.I) which contains designs of Indian ornaments and jewellery, and Nikashi Darpan was published in 1924, which consists of line drawing with Urdu, Punjabi and English vernacular names of stylised flowers, birds, animals, different limbs and organs of the human body, border designs, vase stands and calligraphy of the Punjabi alphabet.


Further, with the support of numerous well-wishers, the Vishvakarma Darpan, consisting of writings and illustrations of ornamental architectural and furniture designs in Urdu and Punjabi, was published in 1926. Much admiration for his illustrations and detailed work led to the publication of the Taj-e-Zargari (Vol.II), Design of Indian Ornaments, in 1930. In 1942, he authored his last book, Nikashi Art Shiksha, about sketches that give intricacy to drawings. Besides this, he framed pictures, and practised photography after retirement from Sri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar. In the  last phase of his life, Bhai Gian Singh coloured wooden toys and sold these to earn his livelihood. 


Bhai Gian Singh’s  floral paintings are expressions of nam rasa. He added intricate and fine details to every petal, which represented seasons and ragas; this explains the rhythmic formation of the florals. Before beginning work on mohrakashi, Bhai Gian Singh sought the blessings of Vishwakarma; he also expressed gratitude towards his ustadsLate Sriman Bhai Nihal Singh and Jawahar Singh. The technique of making mohrakashi, documented by Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash in Naqqashi Darpan, has been translated, and narrated by his grandson, Surinder Singh.


Process of painting


The process of mohrakashi painting first involves the etching of the design or patterns on paper, which is then transferred on to the wall. The composition needs to be in exact proportion or scale, as required by the dimensions of the wall. The khakaa (stencil or perforated tracing based on the pattern, made by pricking the outline of the motif with a needle) is then prepared. A thick paper is selected to prepare khakaas, as a soft paper surface does not allow a prolonged use as stencil. The outline on the wall is done by placing charcoal dust on stencil. These fine coal powders are kept in potli (small cloth bundles).


The technique is to cure the wall before it is plastered, a process called pora, and to plaster only that portion that is to be painted on while it is still wet. If the brick walls are not cured well, the plaster or pora will bulge out after drying. So, the artist needs to complete the work on time; if the work is delayed, the colours would not hold. The white khakaa is then placed on the plastered portion, and the coal potli is smeared on the khakaa so that impressions of the pattern are created on the wall. Goat hair paintbrush 1 to 5 or squirrel hair brush 1 to 4 are used for mohrakashi painting.


The colours used for mohrakashi are mostly earth colours since it has to withstand lime. The pigments get embedded in the lime plaster by tapping with a nehla (small wooden-handled trowel) while the plaster is still wet.


Some of the colours used for mohrakashi are made in the following ways:


  • Desi Hiramchi (red oxide, oxide of iron):

A red tint that comes from stones of mountains; it is easily available at local grocery store. The red gravel is grinded on black sil-batta (grindstone); drops of water are continuously added while grinding to make it as fine as surma (antimony ismid). The prepared colours are kept wet in a small bowl or in a coconut shell for subsequent use.


  • Gulzard:

It consists of many layers; usually a saffron-like layer is preferred on a black sil-batta. This powder is mixed with marble chips or with white marble dust. It is then left in the shade to dry, away from light, as on drying it gets lighter.


  • Narelh/thutheya (coconut shell) ink:

Oil is applied to both sides of a dried coconut and burnt on wood. Once the copra is fully burnt, it is lifted with tongs and dipped in water. It is then grinded on black sil-batta, to which a few drops of water are added and then kept in a bowl.


  • Sang sabj (green stone):

Available in local grocery shops, this colour is made from small gravel stones that is finely powdered and kept wet in a small bowl. It is then grinded on a black sil-batta by adding water to form a smooth paste.


  • Zardi /gacchi/ gacchni (multani mitti, also known as Fuller's earth):

It is powdered on a black sil-batta; a few drops of water are added to it and then kept in a bowl.


  • Lajward (lapis lazuli):

It is dipped in sirays (water soluble resin). Marble dust is mixed with lajward to make a lighter shade of it.


  • Doga (white marble):

It is burnt and kept in water in the same way as dipping in lime water. It is then run through a sieve and a curd-like mixture is obtained. Besides white, all other colours are mixed with it for lighter shades and tones. Only white is mixed with gachhni meti. Wherever one wishes to apply yellow pigment, one needs to apply white, followed by pink.


A family legacy of art


Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash lost his elder son, S. Sundar Singh, during the Jallianwala Bagh firing on April 13, 1919. His youngest son, G.S. Sohan Singh, followed his father's footsteps and took up painting as his vocation in August 1914, but he works with oil on canvas. This was in spite of the fact that Sohan Singh learnt the Sikh style of painting from his father. He too was skilled in the old Kangra, Pahari, Mughal and realistic styles of painting on subjects such as landscapes, Indian monuments, portraits and imaginative subjects.


Due to a personal financial crisis, he started framing paintings and also painted banners for the theatre. He went to Pakistan to learn block printing for printing of paintings. He mastered in block prints in monochrome and tri-colour halftone blocks for religious paintings. Simultaneously, he experimented with photography, calendar design, oil and watercolour paintings, commercial labels, book-jacket designs and newspaper advertising. His artworks were published in periodicals such as Preet Lari, Ajit, Veer Bharat, Sher-e-Bharat and many other magazines. He was much admired and was part of a social circle that included painters and writers such as Sobha Singh (eminent artist), M.S. Randhava, Mulk Raj Anand, etc.


In the second generation, two of Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash’s grandsons—Surinder Singh, and Satpal Danish—showed an interest in art. Surinder Singh, born in 1938, was privileged to observe Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash’s daily routine and artistic practices. As an adolescent, Surinder joined his father Sohan Singh to learn block printing in monochrome and tri-colour. He used to design title letters for monthly magazines in blocks. He prepared Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi offset printing plates of the Guru Granth Sahib for Chela Ram in Karachi to print 10,000 swaroop. The Hindi swaroop was printed in 14 ragas representing 14 colours to depict mood, time and season. He also printed 10 swaroops of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in 4 x 5 inch size. He has made his name as a renowned professional graphic artist, an expert in block prints in monochrome and tri-colour halftone blocks of religious monuments and paintings. He has been intensively engaged in preserving the paintings and artworks of his forefathers and other artists. He has also been a photographer for laser eye surgery. He has discussed heritage artworks with scholars, religious preachers and writers. He is known to various religious preachers such as Sardar Mohinder Singh (United Kingdom).


Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash’s second grandson, Satpal Danish, born in 1949, inherited the realistic style of painting from his father,  Sohan Singh. He learned photography from his brother; his daring endeavours and passion in photography further allowed him to make a mark as a press photographer; he captured rare and significant images of heritage art and architecture of Darbar Sahib during Operations Blue Star and Black Thunder. He also dabbles in a Punjabi poetry, and writes for Punjabi newspapers.


The third generation of Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash’s family was sent to school; Harpreetpal Singh, (1967), M.Com., became Principal, Education Department, Punjab Govt. This generation of great-grandchildren have joined their fathers to maintain a website on the works of their forefathers and family members. Kirandeep Kaur, the great-granddaughter, in an attempt to document their family legacy has authored two books in Punjabi: Darvesh Chitrakar (2015) on G.S. Sohan Singh, and Hastakhar on Bhai Jaswant Singh Hazoori Ragi. The younger great-grandson of Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash, Hardeep Singh, has published his own books on calligraphy and developed his own font style in Ladhiwarh Gurumukhi and Punjabi with pigments and organic paper. He regularly participates in and conducts workshops on calligraphy, and has been recently portrayed in the film, Dhun Mein Dhyan by Meera Dewan.


In context of the mohrakashi artwork of Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash, an essential panel of artists from relevant fields has been formed. They have spent time on understanding the style of detailing of Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash‘s drawings and compositions at Sachkhand, Sri Harmandir Sahib.


G.S. Sohan Singh has expressed an earnest desire for setting up a  reference library or museum for documenting and recording Bhai Gian Singh Naqqash`s works and that of other naqqashes, to create a sense of awareness and revival of heritage among the masses.