The Many Faces of Guru Nanak

The Images of Guru Nanak Down the Ages

On this 545th Anniversary of Guru Nanak, we present a selection of paintings of Guru Nanak starting from the year 1700 A.D. The images are arranged chronologically.

No paintings of the Guru done during his lifetime have survived. It was only after his death in 1539 A.D that his life was memorialized and embellished through a series of life stories called the Janamsakhi. This body of literature and Sikh Art emerged in the early 1600’s. Though from the point of view of a historian the Janamsakhi may be inadequate, they cannot be wholly discarded because they were based on legend and tradition which had grown up around the Guru in the years following his physical passing away, and furnish useful material to augment the bare but proved facts of his life. The most popular Janamsakhi is the Bhai Bala version (Fig. 3). Other main Janamsakhi which scholars over the years have referred to are the – Vilayat Vali Janamsakhi, Hafizabad Vali Janamsakhi, Bhai Mani Singh Janamsakhi, Meherban Janamsakhi etc…

The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
Guru Nanak (1469–1539), the saintly teacher and historical founder of Sikhism, is shown here in one of his most common representations, with his close companions Mardana (left) and Bhai (“Brother”) Bala (right). Nanak was disheartened by the frequent conflicts between Hindus and Muslims that were common during his lifetime. He proclaimed the essential unity of the two faiths, and his teachings illuminate essential religious truths that originate in and transcend these spiritual traditions.
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
This painting from the late 1700s most likely depicts Guru Nanak (1469–1539), who lived in Punjab and was the founder of the syncretic, democratic faith that would be called Sikhism—deriving from the word sikkha meaning “disciple.” Guru Nanak has historically been referred to as the “true king” (saccha padshah). In the small gold decorative panel above the painting is written (in Persian): “A picture of the dervish Nanakshahi.” The use of the name Nanakshahi in this work has been interpreted two ways: Shahi is an honorific title signifying royal stature, perhaps alluding to Guru Nanak’s being called the “true king.” Another interpretation suggests that Nanakshahi refers to a particular sect of Sikhs.
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
This painting of Guru Nanak is rare in that it is one of only a few known ones depicting him as a young man, during his sojourn in Mecca. He is shown, as he was during most of his travels, accompanied by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim minstrel. Mardana who is always shown playing the rabab, also appears as a foil to Nanak’s spiritual wisdom in the various biographies of the Guru. Mardana’s own compositions have been included in The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures.
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
The Many Faces of Guru Nanak
In Arpana’s painting Immersion/Emergence, the duality expressed is that of before and after, of searching and finding, and of ignorance and knowledge. In this diptych she evokes the idea of duality in the miraculous experience that Nanak underwent when he retreated from the world and was submerged under water for three days in 1499 at the age of 30. When he reemerged he uttered some of the most profound verses on the oneness of all beings. Nanak’s immersion provides the catalyst for his revelation and insight that he expressed as Ikk Oan Kar (the One Divine Being)––there are neither Hindus nor Muslims, only Humans. Dr. Mary Ann Lutzker

We also have portraits of Guru Nanak painted in different traditions and styles. Most of these were painted 300 years or later after the Guru’s death. This raises the question whether it is an actual likeness of the Guru. In the dearth of any portrait which we can firmly say was painted during the Gurus lifetime and is an authentic likeness to his physical form, we must dwell on the thought: is it at all necessary and relevant, especially from the artistic perspective, for the image to be an accurate likeness to be deemed a portrait.

Paintings of the 10 Sikh Gurus in series (Fig. 4) were done in the early 19th century. Based on the style favored by the patron, these paintings are in the Pahari Art or Mughal Miniature styles.

By the mid 19th century, contemporary influences in the styles had started to come in. A painting ( Fig. 5) done in 1848 by the artist Jodh Singh clearly shows European influences of perspective and colors. It shows Guru Nanak sitting cross legged under a tree, with a shawl draped over his shoulders. It is here that we first see a likeness of the image of Guru Nanak which has subsequently become the popular visage of the Guru. The most popular portrait of the Guru ( Fig. 6) was done by artist Sobha Singh 44 years ago, to commemorate the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in 1969.

The poet Jaswant Zafar also attempts to free Nanak from Sobha Singhs portraits in his poem Nanak and sees him thus:

“Penday di dhoor naal lathpath pinjanian,
tirkeean addiyan, nehri naal ulji khushk dari,
looan, barfan di jhambi pakror chamri.”

(Calves covered with the dust of long journeys, cracked heels, beard having the imprint of dust storms, skin dried up by the desert winds and icy breezes).

We see such an image of Nanak ( Fig 7a) in the portraits done by artist Jaswant Singh, who died in 1991. His iconic portrait of the Guru, show a man who lived the life of a traveler as we know. Another of his idiomatic painting showing only the legs of the Guru straddling vast stretches of mountains and valleys. His paintings are a tribute to the “real Nanak who had challenged the establishment”.
The contemporary artist Arpana Caur, born in 1954 celebrates the life of Guru Nanak and his philosophy in myriad ways. In the Gurus lifetime, women were deemed inferior to men and society was shocked when Guru Nanak outwardly preached women’s rights. Arpana’s art often revolves around this theme.
From these many faces of Guru Nanak, the message we keep with us is of compassion and love for all.

Nanak Naam Chardi Kalan
Tere Bhane Sarbat da Bhalla

 

 

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