SOBHĀ SIṄGH (1901-1986), painter, famous especially for his portraits of the Gurūs, was born on 29 November 1901 in a Rāmgaṛhīā family of Srī Hargobindpur, in Gurdāspur district of the Punjab. His father, Devā Siṅgh, had been in the Indian cavalry. At the age of 15, Sobhā Siṅgh entered the Industrial School at Amritsar for a one year course in art and craft. As a draughtsman in the Indian army he served in Baghdād, in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). He left the army to pursue an independent career in drawing and painting. In 1949, he settled down in Andreṭṭā, a remote and then little-known place in the Kāṅgṛā valley, beginning the most productive period of his life.
Sobhā Siṅgh was skilled in the western classical technique of oil painting. His themes came from the romantic lore of the Punjab, Indian epics and from the Sikh religious tradition. His paintings of Punjabi lovers Sohnī and Mahīṅvāl and Hīr and Rāñjhā became very famous. Sohnī-Mahīṅvāl was rated to be a real masterpiece ; its impact upon the Punjabi consciousness was of a lasting nature. What gave Sobhā Siṅgh the utmost satisfaction was his paintings of the Gurūs of the Sikh faith. As he put it, "Painting the Gurūs is nearest to the ultimate in the evolution of my real self." His earliest painting in the series was of the birth of Gurū Nānak done in 1934. The child Nānak was depicted in Mātā Triptā's lap, surrounded by his sister Nānakī and other women of the family, while Śiva, Rāma, Sītā and the goddess Sarasvatī appeared from out of the skies to shower flowers on the holy child. The motif clearly bore the influence of Christian art of the middle ages. The earliest portrait of Gurū Nānak by Sobhā Siṅgh captioned nām khumārī nānakā chaṛhī rahe din rāt (Let the rapture of the Lord's Name, saith Nānak, keep me in inebriation day and night) was painted in 1937. The Gurū is shown here with eyes lowered in a mystic trance. Several later versions of Gurū Nānak’s portrait by him are preserved in the Chaṇḍīgaṛh Museum. The portrait he made in honour of the 500th birth anniversary of Gurū Nānak in 1969 won the widest vogue. Likewise, he made a portrait of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh for his 300th birth anniversary in 1967 which also became very popular. Sobhā Siṅgh painted pictures of other Gurūs as well--- Gurū Amar Dās, Gurū Tegh Bahādur meditating in his basement chamber at Bābā Bakālā and Gurū Har Krishan healing the sick in Delhi. Earlier in his career, he had attempted a painting depicting Queen Nūr Jahāṅ in the presence of Gurū Hargobind, but ts prints were sealed following a protest from the Muslims in 1935.
Among Sobhā Siṅgh's portraits of contemporary personalities that of' Norah Richards, the matriarch of Punjabi theatre, was done with a rare delicacy and feeling.
Murals by him embellish the art gallery of Parliament House in New Delhi. The panel depicting the evolution of Sikh history features Gurū Nānak with Bālā and Mardānā on one side, and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh in meditation on the other. Sobhā Siṅgh also tried his hand at sculpture, and did the busts of some eminent Punjabis such as M.S. Randhāwā, Prithvī Rāj Kapūr and Nirmal Chandra. He left an incomplete head-study of Amritā Prītam, the poet. The originals of his works are displayed in his studio at Andreṭṭā.
Much acclaimed and honoured in his lifetime, Sobhā Siṅgh died in Chaṇḍīgaṛh on 21 August 1986.
S. S. Bhaṭṭī