’ART & SOUL
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
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
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.