Janamsakhis and Sikh Art
Janamsakhis are stories about the life of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). They have been circulating orally, in writing, and in paintings and illustrations. B40 is one such documented artistic expression held at the British Library in London. Its fifty-seven beautiful iconotexts narrate the life of the first Sikh Guru from his first day at school to his final moments. The talented artist Alam Chand Raj illustrates Guru Nanak’s sensuous feel for the all-inclusive Divine, his interior and exterior journeys, his manifold inter-faith conversations, his environmental aesthetics, and his marvelous actions. In the language of vibrant colours Guru Nanak’s transcendent materiality and world-affirming existentiality are exquisitely written out. The stylistic infusions of Punjabi art, Chaurapanchasika style and folk-art style of the Rajasthani Malwa School bring the historical Guru close to the viewer. In Janamsakhi – Paintings of Guru Nanak in Early Sikh Art, along with the artwork there is a rich text by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh explaining the stories from a twenty-first-century perspective. She insightfully explores the question – how are the Janamsakhis relevant to the political, societal, economic, and environmental state of the world at present.
Below is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book.
The Janamsakhis as a Genre of Sikh Art
The pictorial representations of the janamsakhis have been vital expressions of Sikh devotion. These paintings provide some of the earliest examples of Sikh art: wherever sizeable and influential communities developed, familiar stories were rendered in easily identifiable forms. Patrons from these urban centres would commission local artists; consequently, numerous janamsakhi renderings have come down from different regions and different periods. Unsurprisingly, some come from the great religious centres in the Punjab like Amritsar, Anandpur, Damdama; but, other examples come from places such as Patna in Bihar, where Guru Nanak’s ninth successor Guru Gobind Singh was born in 1666. Still others come from Nanded, where, in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh breathed his last. Because of the geographical range of the oral tradition informing the janamsakhi genre, determining the provenance – the exact date and place of production – of individual extant examples is often difficult. Hence, the historical documentation contained in the B40 lends it a unique value (as will be explained below).
The janamsakhi genre, of which the B40 is a striking example, exhibits considerable variety of expression of core elements. The collapse of Mughal sovereignty in Delhi and Awadh quickened the dispersal of artists all across North India, ranging from the Punjab to Bengal. Thus the artists who painted Guru Nanak came from diverse backgrounds and religions and presented the Sikh guru from their individual perspectives. To a certain extent, their geographical location informed their portrayal of Baba Nanak. In one fascinating example, he is depicted in the Guler and Kangra styles of northern India; in another, in the eastern Murshidabadi or southern Deccani styles. However, the recent discovery of a creased sheet filled with thumbnail sketches of seventy-four events in Guru Nanak’s life has proved the speculation that templates were used by different groups of painters and scribes to retell Guru Nanak’s story – for we find very similar depictions of particular scenes in manuscripts from geographically distant regions.11
The stories artists chose to paint depended upon their personal interest, and much was contingent on their individual talent. The number of illustrations per volume varies, as does their quality. Some artists were preoccupied with the contents and hastily move the narrative forward, while others lingered on subtle details to evoke aesthetic sentiments. (The paintings from the Nainsukh family of artists are especially lauded for their refined work.) Yet, in every case, in bright colours and dramatic sequences, they painted the parables, allegories, and miraculous happenings associated with Guru Nanak. The janamsakhi tradition continues on as these narratives are now rendered afresh by modern artists and writers. In verbal and visual language, they depict the divine dispensation of Guru Nanak – his vision of the Divine One (ikk oan kar) and its consequent unity of humanity, his concern for kindness and social cohesiveness.
The B40 Janamsakhi belongs to the small surviving collection of early janamsakhi manuscripts. It surfaced in Lahore in the nineteenth century, and the India Office Library acquired it in 1907, giving it the accession number B40.12 The text is in clearly formed Gurmukhi script in chain writing (no gaps between words). Except for sakhis 1, 21, 35, and 57, which have no visual component, the text is accompanied by fifty-seven illustrations executed in rich colours with artistic finesse. Thirty of these paintings are full-page; sixteen fill two-thirds to three-quarters of a page; and the remaining eleven are half-page. The illustrations appear at the beginning of the individual sakhis and set the stage for the ensuing narrative to unfold. The only two exceptions are sakhi 24 (which has an extra illustration) and sakhi 34 (which has three extra illustrations). Most illustrations have a caption in Arabic script in the margin; eleven have an additional Gurmukhi caption. Since they lack the flair of the copyist, they have been attributed to ‘a later and much cruder hand’.13
Unlike other janamsakhis, the B40 contains important historical evidence. Two notes attached to the manuscript provide us with the date, and the names of the patron, scribe, and the artist; only the exact location of its production remains unknown.14 Hence, we know that the manuscript was completed on the third day of the light half of the month of Bhadon Samvat 1790 – that is, Friday, 31 August 1733. The patron is Bhai Sangu, who commissioned the writing of the text (pothi likhvai) to Daia Ram Abrol, ‘the son of Dasvandhi’. The artist for the paintings is identified as Alam Chand Raj, and his pictorial writing (surta likhia) parallels the process of verbal writing by Daia Ram Abrol. The artist’s name indicates his artisan background: the Raj Mistris – masons and bricklayers, along with the sub-caste of Tarkhans (carpenters) – have made distinctive contributions to Sikh art and architecture. Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room at Osborne House was designed by Bhai Ram Singh from a Tarkhan-Sikh family. As we praise the artist of the B40 for being ‘a distinguished forbear in terms of professional skill as well as caste affiliation’, we acknowledge his profound knowledge of Sikh ideals and values that manifest in his
iconographic repertory. Alam Chand’s ability to translate the scriptural tone and texture through his beautiful brushstrokes is most impressive.
The patron, the scribe, and the artist of the B40 are acknowledged as humble servants of the sangat, the collective body of Sikhs, defined in the colophon as ‘the court of the perfect Guru’ (guru pure ka diban hai), ‘the voice/tongue of the perfect Guru’ (guru pure ki zaban hai).15 The word guru is multivalent with several semantic applications in Sikh religiosity: it can refer to the true absolute One – Satguru, Wahguru; it is the medium of revelation – any deity, teacher, or text; it is the personal guru – including the ten historical Sikh gurus; it is the sacred volume – the GGS, the very centre of Sikh life. Occupying a key position in the self-consciousness of the Sikhs in this post-guru period, the sangat spells out the function, purpose, and performance of the B40: ‘the gift of gifts is Name; rejoice… Rejoice! Move the tongue. Say wahguru’ (B40, p. 155).16 Clearly, the text and the illustrations were produced by the collective body of the Sikhs for their combined consumption and joy – to forge communal bonds and praise the Divine One, to bring knowledge that would bloom in the heart. Its overarching function is tersely expressed in the imperative, ‘rejoice!’ (khusi karni ji). The pervasive mood of the colophon is sumptuously scripted in Alam Chand’s brushstrokes.
Like the other janamsakhis, the B40 draws its materials from various written and oral sources. Many of its stories overlap with the Puratan and some with the Meharban, and likewise its illustrations resemble with those appearing in other manuscripts.17 McLeod praises the B40 for including all the major forms of the janamsakhi genre and the various Punjabi dialects: ‘nowhere else is this range of content and language available in such a compact form. This feature alone would justify the claim that of all extant janam-sakhis the B40 manuscript is the most important.’18 On the other hand, precisely because many of the stories overlap with the Puratan accounts, the B40 has been mistakenly considered a copy of this version, and as a result, it has been neglected by scholars. The B40 is considered to be the third-oldest extant illustrated janamsakhi manuscript. The oldest is the Bala (dated 1658), which features twenty-nine illustrations and is owned by P.N. Kapoor of New Delhi. The second oldest (dated 1724), with forty-two illustrations, is held by Bhai Sikandar Singh of Bagharian. The B40 came nine years later. It bears striking stylistic likeness to the Bagharian volume, as well as to the later Kapany Unbound Janamsakhi Set from the Bala tradition.19
To date, there are no extant portraits of Guru Nanak made during his lifetime, so we really do not know how he looked like. There is some mention of portraits made of his successors, but so far, no authentic works have come to light.20 The B40 illustrations were painted two centuries after the passing away of the founder guru. Hence, they do not reproduce his exact features or complexion. Yet, they are a hidden treasure for both the community and the academy. One only wishes these precious paintings had received more attention from the expertise of scholars such as Goswamy, who has offered exquisite analyses of some later janamsakhis. We are fortunate that Piar Singh edited the Punjabi B40 text and published it as Janam Sakhi Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1974); that Mcleod published an excellent translation of the B40 text with a useful introduction and extensive notes on its historical sources and compilation (1981); and that the illustrations were collected by Surjit Singh Hans and published with a brief introduction (1987). The B40 and its lovely companion iconotexts make a compelling plea for greater scholarly attention and exploration.
11 Though the sketches are extremely minimalist, each episode is numbered, and identified with a brief inscription in Persian and Gurmukhi characters. I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion by B.N. Goswamy and Caron Smith (NY: Rubin Museum of Art, 2006), 36–37.
12 Factual details on the janamsakhis here come from W.H. McLeod, Popular Sikh Art (Delhi: Oxford, 1991), 5–6.
13 W.H. McLeod, The B-40 Janam-sakhi (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 1981), 8.
14 For more discussion, see Susan Stronge, ed. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms (London: Victoria and Albert, 1999), 209.
15 Piar Singh in B40 Janam Sakhi Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 1974) gives it at the end of the text, 155.
16 sirdana ke dan naam dena ate khusi karni… khusi karni ji/rasna halavani ji/akhu wahguru
17 For example, in the Bagharian Janamsakhi and the Unbound Kapany Set at the Asian Arts Museum. See Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, ‘Guru Nanak at the Asian Art Museum: Biography in the Language of Colors’, in Sikh Art, edited by Paul Taylor and Sonia Dhami (CA, Palo Alto: Sikh Foundation and Smithsonian, 2017), 98–115; ‘Visual Phenomenology: Seeing-in Guru Nanak at the Asian Arts Museum’, in Sikh Formations (Routledge, 2015), 61–82.
18 McLeod, The B-40 Janam-sakhi, 4.
19 I am very grateful to Sardar Sikandar Singh Bagharian for showing me the manuscript at his home in Chandigarh, 17 July 2011.
20 Goswamy and Smith, I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art and Devotion, 30; NGK Singh, 2011, 164–68.
Publication Year: 2023
Price: INR 3500
Publisher: Roli Books
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Dr Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh received her BA in Philosophy and Religion from Wellesley College, MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and PhD from Temple University. Dr. Nikky is the Crawford Professor and the Chair of the Department of Religion at Colby College in Maine, USA. She has published extensively in the field of Sikh Studies. Some of her books include 'Poems from the Guru Granth Sahib', 'The First Sikh: Life and Legacy of Guru Nanak', 'Sikhism: An Introduction, Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-memory of Sikh Identity', 'Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent', 'Physics and Metaphysics of the Guru Granth Sahib'. She has lectured widely, and her views have also been aired on television and radio in America, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, India, and Bangladesh. She has received many awards for her scholarly works. In 2022, the city of Fresno in California proclaimed 26 March as ‘Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh’ Day.