'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Guru And His Portait

The other day, I noticed an icon/portrait behind the cash-counter of a sweet shop - it showed Guru Nanak at prayer. I had seen him, almost always, depicted with his right hand in 'Abhaya Mudra' (blessing) but here, the Master seemed to be lost in meditative contemplation, eyes heavenward, hands folded in supplication. There was also a touch of sadness on his face. I sensed, in the atmosphere of the picture as well as in the figure, a certain similarity with representations of Jesus in the Garden - a very common picture in Christian households of Kerala (an adaptation from renaissance Europe).

The web tells me that except for one portrait of Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Guru), no Guru-portraits were made in their lifetimes - not surprising, since the Gurus mostly lived simple, almost ascetic lives and probably did not care too much for formal portraits - and Sikhism does not encourage idol/icon worship. The earliest known picture of Nanak apparently dates from 1770, more than two centuries after his passing - and neither that portrait, nor a Mughal-style portrait of the Guru done (apparently) in mid-19th century (both visible online) really resemble his modern representations. Indeed both these pictures make him look more like a Sufi mystic than the elderly but robust 'Sardarji' of modern icons. The latter came to be the norm, it appears, due to the highly popular artist Sobha Singh (1901-1986), who has played a major role in 'standardizing' the appearances of the Gurus - somewhat akin to Ravi Varma 'setting' the looks of Hindu Goddesses in the late 19th century Maharashtrian mould.

One can clearly see that Sikh religious art, though not a very ancient tradition, has a rich and eclectic history. Along with earlier indigenous artistic traditions, European religious art too might well have contributed in its development - and the resemblance of the prayerful Guru Nanak to Jesus might not really have been a coincidence.


  • At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for a very good post. You are absolutely right about the influence of Sobha Singh on Sikh iconography.

    Over the years the representations of the Gurus have also changed. In my grandpatrents' house decades ago for example, Guru Nanak was always accompanied by Bala and Mardana- a Hindu and Muslim follower of the Guru, respectively.

    During the time of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, Bala and Mardana disappeared and noways it is rare to find paintings of Guru Nanak accompanied by two- the Guru now appears all alone.

  • At 10:47 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks bhupinder for visiting.

    "the Guru is now all alone" rings very sad. And it reminds me of the only occasion I have seen a picture of Nanak in the company of his disciples - at the Guru Nanak Jheera gurudwara in Bidar.


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