The Many Facets of a Sikh Artist by Dr. Shivdev Singh

* Read the Introduction to this Feature
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Dr. Shivdev Singh - Self Portait

As a Sikh, I had the privilege of retaining the best cultural values of both Punjab and of the West, thus enriching my sensibilities & attitudes. I was a surgeon for about thirty years and now am an artist.

My professional training as a Pediatric Surgeon started with passing M.B.B.S from the Medical College of Patiala, followed by M.S (Master of Surgery) from Medical College of Amritsar, Punjab University. After this I obtained F.R.C.S in General Surgery & Special Certification in Pediatric Surgery from Canada. Then I passed American Boards in Surgery & was elected as F.A.C.S. (Fellow American college of Surgeons). I came to USA as a Cardiothoracic Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, and completed Pediatric Surgery training at Children’s Hospital Boston. I obtained additional expertise in Pediatric Urology as a visiting consultant at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Manchester, Liverpool & London in the UK; Paris, France; and Barcelona, Spain. I was Associate Professor of Pediatric surgery at Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research in Chandigarh, and was a staff surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles before I switched to art. Nevertheless, the pursuit of art has been as fulfilling and inspiring as my tryst with the medical profession.

With the desire to learn the art of painting and drawing, I approached the Professor & Head of Art Department at the local college in California, who outlined a course with two years in basic art and an additional two years in advanced disciplines of drawing & painting, normally required for Bachelors of Arts Degree. My art education was according to classical atelier techniques, in California, at the Art Department of Antelope Valley College, Lancaster, California; the Art Institute at Westlake Village; and the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, Van Nuys.

Contemplation (Oil). 16x12”

Click to Enlarge – Contemplation (Oil). 16×12 inch

I am extremely grateful to my instructors who spent an inordinate of time with me in the studio, in the wilderness, on the mountains and along the sea shore, impressing on me to notice the finer nuances of light, color & composition. The cult of hard work, discipline and precision in my surgical career has served me well in learning art. Several years were spent painting Plein Air watercolor landscape in all kinds of weather at varied times of the day. Several times I did painting at night in which case a detailed sketch is first made of the landscape in the day, and then the painting is completed at the night with a headlamp. It is fascinating to discover that many more colors of darker shade are present in night scenes, than one would expect. Presently I am focused on figure drawing and portraiture, and do mostly oils. I am asked often about interpretive, abstract or surreal depiction but I prefer to paint as I see it. I like to paint value-based realism.

Out of the 102 of paintings in my first solo art exhibit, there was a series of 12 watercolors of scenes from rural Punjab, partly inspired by my memories from growing up there in the through 1950s and 1960s. These were very appreciated by several American artists, who commented that this series was superb as it was from my soul.

My second art exhibit was in Chandigarh for which there were favorable comments by the art critics of the daily papers published in North India. I had my third solo art show in December 2009 at the Visual Art Gallery of the India Habitat center in New Delhi. This was comprised of 71 art pictures in charcoal pencil, water color & oils.

Breaking Waves-Canary Islands, Spain (Watercolor). 17x23 inch

Click to Enlarge – Breaking Waves-Canary Islands, Spain (Watercolor). 17×23 inch

Following are some of the comments from the experts.

Dr.Alka Pande, PhD, Curator of the show at the Visual Arts Gallery in New Delhi:
“A painstaking eye for detail, draftsmanship, pictorial composition and representation enriches every canvas that emerges from the studio of Dr.Shivdev Singh. Each work of art bears testimony to hours of relentless labour that infuses a life-like realism in each portrait and landscape. Shivdev now stands firmly as a dedicated artist of academic realism. He belongs to the genre of traditional classical painters where line, form, color and composition must be in harmony and balance. Shivdev follows the classical painting techniques where beauty reigns supreme.

Shivdev has come a long way from a brilliant surgeon to a consummate artist, whose work literally leaves every viewer gasping with wonder at evocative drawings, and the beauty he captures in utterly realistic landscapes, still life and portraits he executes. Here is a master at work-oblivious to the noise of the world outside, listening to music in his heart, unknowingly creating jewels of incredible beauty, to be shared and enjoyed by the world around him. Switching from surgery to art, Shivdev did not find this shift very challenging as it calls for a similar intensity of focus, the single mindedness of intent, and the very same steadiness of hand that now drive his water colors and oils. Subconsciously, he still wears the surgeon’s hat and the surgeon in him still breathes deeply in his heart. Nevertheless, this easy, charming manner belies the steely determination and the relentless pursuit of perfection. However he discards much of his output, often giving away skilful works to the models that pose for him, or to the cleaning lady who helps to keep the studio clean.”

Contemplation (Oil). 16x12”

Click to Enlarge – Green Vase and Yellow Roses (Oil). 16×12 inch

Professor Patricia Crosby Hinds, M.F.A., M.A., Professor Emeritus, Art, Antelope Valley College, California: “While there are undoubtedly several excellent qualities in the works of Shivdev Singh, the two most outstanding that I would choose to highlight are the sheer range of his body of work, and the strong sense of detail contained in his realistic subject matters. Shivdev’s works demonstrate a competent skill and a superb application of techniques, whether a complicated landscape or a portrait. Equally commendable is the scope he employs with material usage with most media, including charcoal, oils and watercolors. Shivdev Singh’s controlled use of detail is exceptional and his sensitivity to line economy is extraordinary. This is especially evident in his charcoal portraits that are reminiscent of Western Old-World masters. This quality of detail is pervasive in all his works and speaks of the level of mastery that few artists ever achieve in their oeuvre.”

Glen Knowles, M.F.A., Artist and Professor of Art, Antelope Valley College, California:
“Dr. Shivdev Singh’s recent works of art demonstrate a broad range of methods and subject matter, from water color to oil painting of the landscape, to charcoal drawings. Each painting displays a unique color scheme and color harmony. His compositions, as a whole, demonstrate strength and clarity. His imagery tends towards the naturalistic with narrative content. His figures and animals are unified within the landscape, forming an integral part of it. His is the gift of raising his subjects from the quite literal into something infinitely more poetic. Shivdev unveils the landscape of people’s faces to the keen observer. After accomplishing the challenging task of a likeness, the demonstrates his ability to glimpse beneath the surface and bares levels of beauty not always visible on the outside. Shivdevs perspective on painting, enriched by his life of extraordinary accomplishments, give the observer a profound insight into the depth and richness of his current artistic pursuits.”

Buddy Schuman, Executive Director, California Art Institute, Westlake Village, California:
“Shivdev’s mastery of watercolor is evident in his technique -the purity of the pigment is maintained even as it is diluted. He shares the vision of the world around him through careful editing, giving the eye just enough information to infer the landscape. In his figurative, his models portray a sense of emotion and vitality. We stand back in awe at his progress.”

Life Drawing (Charcoal Pencil). 20 x18 inch

Click to Enlarge – Life Drawing (Charcoal Pencil). 20×18 inch

I had the good fortune of visiting the home and studio of S.Sobha Singh. His daughter was extremely gracious in showing me his original art and telling about some episodes of his life and gave me a book containing a collection of his views on art and on life in general.

Sikh art, as I understand, probably started in 18th century, sometime after Sikhism and the Khalsa came into existence. Earliest were the paintings depicting the Gurus and episodes from their life, including those of Janam Sakhis. The artists and artisans painted in the style prevalent, mainly Mughal. The walls of the inner sanctum of some important gurudwaras were decorated in mural technique by famous artisans. Then the court painters under the rule of Maharajah Ranjit Singh were commissioned to paint the court and subsequently some prominent courtiers. Similarly, later artists were engaged by states governed by Sikh Maharajas.

Presently, most of Sikh art shows war scenes between Sikh & Mughal armies and all kinds of paintings of the Gurus. Contemporary Sikh artists are painting folk and rural scenes of Punjab as well as family and social activities. Some Sikh artists now are producing works of art besides the Sikh themes. The trend toward adopting different styles, interpreting both Sikh and other conventional scenes will continue, as there are no boundaries limiting fine arts.

Sikhs abroad are extremely successful in their chosen vocation, some achieving international recognition. However, after retirement, very few choose any intellectual pursuits in creative endeavors such as music, writing, painting, sculpture, etc. Those who do venture, limit themselves to history and art in the Sikh context. I believe they narrow their interests to avoid the risk of critical comments from within the community and outside. Additionally, if the objective is to sell the art, this may narrow the scope to a more conservative approach.
On the other hand, we are now the fifth major world religion and it is time that our intellectual output should be able to withstand international critical scrutiny. We need a concerted effort to promote fine arts in all areas, now expanding our perspective to address the wider world.

In all my years of art training and shows, I was never treated any differently or with a bias for being a Sikh artist. In my experience, your performance is appreciated on the merits of your work and your character.

To my wife, Bira, and Manrita and Tejbir, my daughter and son, I wish to show my appreciation for their unstinting support while the man of the house spent days and night, first on the hospital wards, and later many hours in art studios in his quest for what he desired to achieve.

At every point in my life I have always chosen to challenge myself and take a different path in life. The way forward, if not certain, has always been a fascinating journey and it is with God’s grace that I have had the freedom to experience many different paths.

Dr. Shivdev Singh
Northridge, California
January 2, 2011

* Read the Authors Bio & Introduction to the series here
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4 Responses

  1. jetty Singh says:

    A Noble Old, Wise, Committed and Handsome GurSikh Soul Doing SEWA as mandated by his GURUS.. Wahe Guru Bless you Sir… jetty Singh

  2. Dr. Sukhraj Dhillon says:

    Very impressive and devotional hobby, Shivdev ji. I agree with your general statement that many of us don’t have passion to follow a creative hobby as you have.

    I am trying to follow my passion for writing after a life-time career as a research scientist in molecular biology.

    I have published information under “Self-help and Spiritual Series” in 12 books.

    Wish you all the best. There was something very attractive in your charcoal pencil drawing.

    Edit: Unrelated link removed, but thank you for the comment

  3. GAJINDAR SINGH SETHI says:

    Through ‘Sikh Foundation International’ I have located my long lost friend Dr.Shivdev Singh with whom I shared an apartment at Francis St ,Boston,Ma. Shivdev had come from Patiala as Ped Surgeon and I was on IAEA fellowship Program. He was in Harvard Medical School and I was In Harvard School of Public Health.
    Shivdev’s rise as an Artist is a maater of pride for me.I would like to know more about him and his Art.can ‘Sikh Foundation help me in that quest.regards.
    Gajindar S.sethi
    Mumbai,India

  4. Hardev Singh Coonar says:

    Shivdev is a born Artist. I remember his excellent sketches
    of human and amphibian anatomy for his early days.
    Well done Shivdev and keep it up.