S G Thakur Singh Painting Sold at Bonhams on 30 Apr 2019

S. G. Thakur Singh (India, 1890/99-1976)
oil on canvas, signed and dated [19]30 lower right
61.5 x 46 cm.


  • Provenance
    Formerly in the collection of Thomas and Christie Accatino, USA.

    S. G. Thakur Singh: Paintings of Indian Womanhood, n. d., plate 16.

    The fulsome catalogue description of the painting runs: The hours of waiting are, in fact, the hours of prolonged anguish. The woman embellished with jewellery and brocaded raiment, and with the rose of love blooming in her heart and in her hand, is apparently awaiting the arrival of her faraway lover, long separated from her. Her expression reveals a mixed emotion of joy and sadness – joy in the hope of meeting and sadness born of uncertainty – sometimes the one and sometimes the other gaining ascendancy.

    Sardar Ganda Thakur Singh, an apprentice of the Lahore painter Mohammed Alam (1870-1940), began as a theatrical painter in Bombay and Calcutta. In 1917, at the age of eighteen, he was awarded a prize in an exhibition in Simla, and his painting After the Bath won 2nd Prize at the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924. The present painting epitomises the general tenor of his work: female subjects with hints of eroticism, often conveyed through clinging drapery. He also painted landscapes. He was a founder member of the Punjab Fine Art Society in Calcutta, the Indian Academy of Fine Arts in Amritsar, and the Thakar Singh School of Arts. In 1953 he was nominated as a member of the Punjab Legislative Council. The Russian and Hungarian governments invited him to exhibit his work in Moscow, Leningrad and Budapest in 1959 (he had travelled extensively in the Soviet Union). He died in 1976. For a brief survey of his life and work, see M. Hasan, Painting in the Punjab Plains, Lahore 1998, p. 165

S G Thakur Singh Painting Exhibition at Phoenix Art Gallery

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Organized thematically, Virtue and Valor: Sikh Art and Heritage explores key aspects of Sikh religion and history. The exhibition features a broad swath of objects from The Khanuja Family Collection. Portraits of the gurus, reflecting the meticulous style of traditional Indian painting, will be shown alongside photographs recording the Sikh military presence in British India and beyond, as well as a more contemporary image of the Sikh diaspora in North America. Various implements of war will also be on display, including swords, medals, and a helmet and shield, as well as religious texts with images painted by both Indian and European artists.

The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) lived in the Punjab region of India, which includes today’s north India and Pakistan. Sikhism set out the devotional path that God is One and all creation is equal, without distinction by caste, creed, race, gender or station in life. Guru Nanak was succeeded by nine gurus; the Tenth Guru decreed that no individual would succeed him but spiritual guidance would be drawn from the Holy Book (Guru Granth Sahib).

Since its founding, Sikhism has grown to include followers on all inhabited continents. Sikhs have played important roles throughout world history. Sikhs were an integral part of the British Empire in India, especially as Khalsa, the pure and saintly soldiers of righteousness ordained by the Tenth Guru. The British government utilized Sikh military prowess in India and other British Commonwealth territories. In the 1870s, some Sikhs moved to Malaysia and Hong Kong to serve as city policemen. During World Wars I & II, Sikh troops, including a women’s auxiliary corps, participated in numerous combat zones. In the late 19th century, Sikhs became immigrants to the US and Canada and have since integrated into many Western countries.

The Tribune Article – Risen from the Soil

Risen from the soil
B. N. Goswamy

From a simple village lad, who would wander off into the fields to draw, S. G. Thakur Singh became one of the most prominent artists of the region, all on the strength of his hard work and single-minded pursuit

B. N. Goswamy
B. N. Goswamy

The early years of the last century draw you to themselves in a very special way. For so much was changing in our land then, particularly in the field that interests me greatly: that of the arts. New winds were blowing, many of them coming from the West; new technologies, like photography, were asserting themselves; old structures of thought and vision were beginning to develop serious cracks. It is as if the past was in the process of sloughing off its old skin. For obvious reasons, the loud rumblings that change brings were heard first, or at least most clearly, in the big cities — Calcutta, Bombay, to a lesser extent Delhi — but it would seem as if the ‘outlying’ parts of the country were not too slow in registering those sounds either. It is an alluring trail to follow.

Nearer home, in Punjab, the period is marked by a series of interesting developments too. For here, one finds, quite suddenly, several young men taking to the arts and setting out manfully to make a mark in a world that was not necessarily hospitable. Names keep coming up, some of them better known than others. I had an occasion to write, in this very column some time back, about Hari Singh who landed up in Calcutta, painting ‘sceneries’ for the theatre; Sobha Singh, whose name is, in most minds, synonymous with Punjab painting, chiefly on account of his having painted ‘life-like portraits’ of the great Gurus now seen on calendars in countless homes; one is aware of the work of Malla Ram and Hussain Baksh and Jaswant Singh, among others; I recall, in my student days at Amritsar, cycling past, almost daily, the Indian Academy of Fine Arts building, with its founder’s name, S. G. Thakur Singh, so prominently displayed that it registered itself quickly upon the mind. I might state that I do not see myself as a great admirer of the work that this unusual group of artists produced but I am fascinated by the struggle and the spirit of enterprise, that ran like a thread through their lives.

Sunrise on the Sea. Painting by S. G. Thakur Singh. 1929
Sunrise on the Sea. Painting by S. G. Thakur Singh. 1929
After the Bath. Painting by S. G. Thakur Singh, 1924 Collection, the Maharaja of Patiala
After the Bath. Painting by S. G. Thakur Singh, 1924 Collection, the Maharaja of Patiala

To take the case of the last mentioned, S.G. Thakur Singh, through the kindness of whose son and grandson I landed upon some material relating to his life and work. Thakur Singh’s early life reads like an unlikely story. Born, in 1895, in a simple Ramgarhia family in the small village of Verka near Amritsar, young Thakur Singh did not cut his teeth on any artistic heritage: the family had followed rural smithy and carpentry as a profession. But, according to all accounts, he had a natural inclination towards drawing, often wandering off into the fields to sketch from nature, or seeing one of his aunts paint folk patterns on the walls of their home. Regular studies did not interest him but to his good fortune in his village school, there was an art teacher, Mian Muhammad Alam, who took the young boy, all of 10 years of age then, under his wing. Some time later, when Muhammad Alam got the job of an ‘art director’ in a theatrical company in Bombay — painting backdrops, one imagines — he sent for Thakur Singh, who joined him.

The twosome were back in Amritsar a year later, however; Thakur Singh was sent then to Lahore to join the Victoria Diamond Jubilee school of art but his disinterest in formal studies continued and he was back home in two years. Bombay beckoned again, and both young Thakur Singh and Muhammad Alam set off for the place but could not get past Ambala at first, for want of money for train tickets. Looking around even for some casual work there, they came in touch with a Saharanpur ‘seth’, who asked them to paint ‘curtains’ for his Ram Leela: but that earned them enough for moving on to their destination, Bombay. There the two worked for some years, and there is the charming episode of Thakur Singh’s gifts being spotted — as he sat on the Chowpatty beach, painting the sea at sunrise — by the editor of a Parsi newspaper, who encouraged him to participate in an art exhibition then scheduled to be held at Shimla. Thakur Singh did take part, and came back with the first prize. He was 18 years of age then. After this, there was no looking back for him.

After Bombay, it was to Calcutta that teacher and pupil headed, for so much was happening there then: theatre, art, music. Names like Abanindranath and Rabindranath Tagore hung about in the air; a large and talented group of artists was doing things differently; jatras and Parsi theatre were drawing crowds; European paintings could be seen in the flesh: there was much to learn and, with luck, something to earn at the place. Thakur Singh attached himself to the Maiden Theatrical Company of Rustamji, painting large ‘sceneries’ for the stage, but he was also constantly painting on canvas and paper on his own. For sixteen years, he stayed on in Calcutta, establishing quite a reputation for himself. Clearly, there was a market for his kind of academic work: figure studies and landscapes and romantic themes. Commissions started pouring in from rulers and politicians and the well-to-do, everyone looking for ‘life-like’ work that fitted into their ideas about what art should be like.

There is mention of his having painted close to 10,000 works in those years. Some works were entered in exhibitions in India; others went abroad. Recognition came from state and society; his works were published and written about; there were letters of appreciation from the notables of the time. When Thakur Singh decided to return to Punjab and establish himself at Amritsar, complete with an Academy and an Exhibition Hall all his own, his had emerged as one of the most prominent names among the artists of the region. For the next 40 years, till his death in 1976, this is the way it stayed.

Thakur Singh’s life is well documented in the form of photographs that his family has preserved. There are pictures of him with his mentor, Muhammad Alam, and a group of other young hopefuls; one sees Muhammad Alam’s own photograph, wearing an elegant suit; records of exhibition openings; and the like. But my favourite is an old sepia-coloured photograph of Thakur Singh, in his mid-thirties perhaps, posing, seated on a European style sofa, dressed in a three-piece suit with an ivory-handled walking stick positioned close to his legs and the wall behind him covered with paintings — his own work, apparently — some in gilt frames, others half-finished: an actress dressed up as a character from a Parsi play, some smaller portraits, a young woman holding on to a branch, a view possibly of the Golden Temple, and what looks from a distance as a framed testimonial. The young village lad from Verka, who used to wander off into the fields to draw, had come a long way, all on the strength of his hard work and his single-minded pursuit.

The Bathing Ladies – News Article in Business Standard

What became denigrated as is now enjoying a revival among collectors of academic realism.

At first sight, you could be fooled into believing that these paintings have the signature of the same studio, though the only thing they have in common is their content. Early 20th century artists from India’s art schools were trained in a style that has since come to be identified as academic realism. Whether it was who bound his loyalty to the romantic Bengal school, or the court painter S G Thakur Singh, they could not but pay obeisance to the style that was all the rage among the buying cognoscenti.

Already, the stirrings of a bolder modern and Indian idiom were being felt, and in another decade they would sweep aside the sentimental idyll of realism. But the twenties and thirties were given to the pursuit of Indian art that had its origins in Western ideology. Begun by Raja Ravi Varma, the bath became a way of both titillating as also creating legitimacy around the semi-nude body. concerned himself with ladies preparing for their bath, thus his Begum’s Bath and Preparing for the Bath included the process of disrobing. Later artists brought in a process of eroticisation with religion thrown in for good measure. Women in general, but particularly in Bengal, are known to offer their prayers at a temple followed by a ritual dip in the water tank clad in nothing but a simple, white saree. When wet, the cotton fabric turns transparent and clings enticingly to the body. Voila! Here was a way to bring what could otherwise have been considered prurient into a gentleman’s drawing room.

The subject became such a favourite, it still has followers in street art, but at the time it was taken up as a challenge by the likes of Mazumdar and Thakur Singh, who used it to show off their skills. Their inspiration lay in the West where the painting of nudes was a valid subject, but which in India would have caused a scandal — as, indeed, Amrita Sher-Gil’s works did, though her body of work in India was vastly different from her salon style in Europe.

About Mazumdar, enough is known — but  In a sense, Thakur Singh subsumed his identity as court painter to the Indian government, losing therefore his popularity in a free market. Born in 1899, and winner of such awards as the Simla Fine Arts Society first prize in 1915, and the second prize from the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924 (ironically for the first of his After Bath series), he was the quintessential court artist who accepted commissions from princely families and counted several maharajas as well as Lord Irwin and Lord Linlithgow among his patrons. He accepted museum and institutional commissions — for which he employed trainee artists to assist in his atelier, a fact he was loath to share publicly. He became popular for his portraits, his studies of womanhood where the subject was objectified, as well as his landscapes which tended towards the sentimental; his still-life compositions, somewhat more abundant than necessary, remain his weakest.

On his death in 1976, his estate passed to his son, S Paramjeet Singh, and is currently handled by his US-based grandson Harsimran Singh who is hoping to create awareness of his legacy. That this coincides with a revival of interest in the academic realism of the early twentieth century is happenstance, yet Thakur Singh, whose works hang at Rashtrapati Bhawan, will not have an easy task gaining that recognition. Because most of his work was based on commissions, precious little of it is in the public domain, and almost none of it was exhibited. As a result, posterity has not been kind and his scholarly value remains obscure and is still debatable.

Osian’s auctioned his 11” x 19” Sunset for Rs 10 lakh (against an estimate of Rs 6-9 lakh) in March this year, while an earlier lot from a 2008 sale, estimated at Rs 16-20 lakh, remained unsold. After Bath, shown on the estate website, has an estimated value of Rs 60-70 lakh, which appears steep (other works are more modestly valued), but Thakur Singh’s grandson argues that the “expert” pricing is based on the values of the best-known artists of that period, such as Jamini Roy and Abanindranath Tagore. He also makes the claim that the works on the site are “superior, in much better condition, bigger in size” and among the late artist’s “favourites”.

The family may not be in a hurry to flog his works, but Thakur Singh’s current opportunity lies among newer museums that need to fill in the chronological gaps in Indian art, collectors who have sensed the romance in the academic realism genre, and among the Sikh diaspora. But a scholarly review might be even more important if his bathing ladies are to find their due place in the art history of the country.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.

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