It was in Ladakh, a few kilometres from Leh, at the Pathar Sahib Gurdwara that the Gurbani mool mantra sounded the most evocative to me. It must have been to do with the purity of the air, the mountains around the site, the echo and the silence of the place. It could also have been because I was impressed that while in the modern age, I had reached Leh by a flight and taken a vehicle to reach the gurdwara Guru Nanak had hiked his way to.
Listening to the mool mantra also drove home the very strong meaning: The belief in the formlessness of God, on a belief that God is truth and not a representation of truth in a form, human or idol. In 1969, the first Punjabi movie ‘Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai’ was released. It did generate some controversy on how Guru Nanak was depicted in the movie. In Sikhism, we do not give a physical representation to the Gurus. We stay true to the mool mantra even though the mantra is about God and the Guru is not God but a medium to the God. If I remember correctly from watching the film on television in the 1980s, the only way it portrayed Guru Nanak was through a moving light. It was as formless as one can get in a visual medium. Now, ‘Nanak Shah Fakir’ has been released and there is a controversy on how Guru Nanak has been depicted in a human form.
SOBHA SINGH’S WORK
In the mid-nineties, I visited the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, and just before walking out, I came face to face with the wall-sized portrait of Guru Nanak by leading Sikh painter Sobha Singh. I had noticed Sobha Singh’s name earlier on a portrait of Guru Gobind Singh in our drawing room. Both images, the larger-thanlife Guru Nanak standing in a sea and the fiery but restrained Guru Gobind with his quiver of arrows and white plume have had a deep impact on me. When I bring to mind Guru Nanak’s painting, I feel bliss. When I do so with Guru Gobind, I feel courage. The paintings have become iconic. They are put up in most Sikh homes but for many years, they remained two dimensional — paintings or images.
Now days, we see parodies of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind as small sculptures that adorn many Sikh cars and homes. They are small enough to fit on a dashboard. They can even be garlanded. When they wear out, which they often do because of the Chinese-make plastic, they can be thrown and replaced with new shiny icons.
If the Sikh clergy now resists ‘Nanak Shah Fakir’, because it depicts the Guru in a human form, it would do well to consider how blasphemous the Sikh community has been with the images and icons of the Gurus. What would the Sikh clergy do about that? Would they stop the use of these images and idols? Would they withdraw all images by Sobha Singh and others depicting the Gurus? Would they themselves stop using these images and idols to propagate Sikhism and focus the congregation on the essence of the mool mantra and Gurbani? Will animation be okay as was done with the successful ‘Chaar Sahibzaade?’
If not, then because movies are just the new art — moving images — there is no need to ban the film. It is becoming almost a joke that either the Sikh clergy or the Punjab government is up in arms against so many movies: ‘Sadda Haq’, ‘Kaum de Heere’, ‘MSG: The Messenger’ and ‘Nanak Shah Fakir’, or the controversies that erupt when Bollywood depicts Sikhs. At the same time, the government or the Sikh clergy does not even acknowledge a movie like ‘Chauthi Koot’ which has made it to the Cannes Film Festival. All that the Punjabi film industry seems to encourage is stupid comedies which are worse than bedroom farce.
What is it that threatens Sikhism or Punjab? It is unemployment, lack of development, social or economic. What happened with ‘MSG’? It did not destroy Sikhism. No movie can. If the Sikh clergy or the government really has the best of interests of the community at heart, then let it dedicate itself to serving the community and not drumming up emotions and paying lip service. Especially when the ban would only attract more people to the film and find viewers in geographies where the state or even national ban do not apply. Then there is piracy.
The writer is a fellow at Akademie Schloss Stuttgart, Germany. His recent book ‘Roll Of Honour’ is translated into Punjabi as ‘Gwah De Fana Hon To Pehlan’. Views expressed are personal.