The love-soaked image of Sohni resting her head dreamily on Mahiwal’s shoulder and blissfully wading the troubled waters is so sublimely intense that it drips with timeless emotions of ecstasy, tragedy and magic all at a glance.
Now, for the first time ever, 68 years after Sobha Singh immortalised this love legend of Punjab on a modern-day canvas in 1944, the masterpiece, Sohni-Mahiwal, has left its ‘home’ in Andretta village and graced the wall of a city gallery.
In what could be called a gift for art lovers, 12 original works of Sobha Singh, the premier 20th-century Indian artist, are on a three-day display at Punjab Kala Bhawan in Sector 16.
The bounty includes a portrait of Guru Angad Dev, which was still in the working studio of the painter when he died in 1986 and has never been displayed publicly.
The rare exhibition also showcases photographs that depict the journey of the life of Sobha Singh, one of the most popular artists of Punjab.
“When Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi decided to name its art gallery after Sardar Sobha Singh, we decided to reciprocate to the befitting commemoration by bringing his works to Chandigarh on the request of Akademi’s president Ranjodh Singh and its secretary RM Singh,” says Dr Hirday Paul Singh, the grandson of the artist, on what took the internationally claimed works so long to travel out of the Kangra valley.
“Then, there is always an apprehension of damage to paintings in the process of packing, transportation and display; some of them are priceless,” says Singh who is also the secretary general of Sobha Singh Memorial Art Society, which organises activities to perpetuate Sobha Singh’s philosophy of art.
“He put beauty before everything else. His idea of art can be encapsulated in ‘Sundaram, Shivam, Satyam’. He never painted personalities but their virtues, be it Kangra Bride or Norah Richards,” says Singh about the artist who is best known for his portraiture of Guru Nanak Dev and other Sikh Gurus.
One of the paintings of Maharaja Ranjit Singh made by Sobha Singh fetched Rs 1.04 crore at Sotheby’s auction last year.
“The post-globalisation transformation in the world of art or what can be termed as commercialisation of art is, in fact, good for the budding artists. Sardar Sobha Singh’s father discouraged him from painting as he thought it would reduce him to penury! Today, art, including Indian, is evaluated in the international market, there are so many art colleges and the environment is encouraging,” feels Singh, who, back home in Andretta is combating a threat posed by moisture to the works of Sobha Singh whose 111th birth anniversary falls after three days on November 29.
Singh says the place is the second wettest after Cherrapunji. “Experts have advised us to put dehumidifiers at the gallery, which involves high cost, as the moisture level should not be higher than 40-45%. Though the Himachal Pradesh government is ready to come forward to help, the bureaucratic labyrinth is a roadblock. The HP government has sent us an advisory to approach the government of India. We are trying to raise funds to bring the gallery up to international standard,” says Singh.
Whether art gets its due in due time is a different story. But those who want to have a brush with a dozen pieces of original art, including Bhutan Palace, Swami Ramanand, Norah Richards, three paintings from the collection of Dr MS Randhawa and of course the love-soaked Sohni-Mahiwal, here is a chance to find Sobha Singh on the bare walls of creativity.