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Guru Sakhis

Baba Nanak Janam Sakhis


literally means "Historical Account" or Story.

* The term refers to the accounts of the historical events in Sikhism. It is a tale usally from the era during the times of the Gurus. However, many Sakhis do exist from the period before and after the times of the Ten Gurus. Most Sakhis have a moral lesson and highlight important Sikh principles.

A Sakhi is a tale usually from the era during the times of the Gurus. However, many sakhis do exist from the period before and after the times of the Ten Gurus. Most Sakhis have a moral lesson and highlight important Sikh principles.

B-40 JanamSakhi : Guru Baba Nanak

A Pictorial of Guru Nanak’s Janam Sakhis

The India Office Library has a manuscript, accession number B- 40. The Janam Sakhi has been called after the number. It is the oldest extant manuscript of the Punjabi language. The year of its writing is 1733 A.D. Luckily the Janam Sakhi manuscript has 57 paintings. They constitute a unique achievement of Sikh art. Sikh painting is usually associated with the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The paintings are called Sikh because they were created for the Sikh patrons. B-40 paintings are doubly Sikh. They were not only painted by a Sikh for the Sikhs but also embody the basic doctrines of Sikhism. No other group of paintings has been found to fulfill an ideological function so far.

Some of the eminent scholars have examined, translated and edited the B-40 Janam Sakhi without paying enough attention to the extraordinary merit of its paintings. In fact the artistic worth of the paintings is at par with the literary merit of the Janam Sakhi. There were two reasons which made their neglect obligatory. A formal, aesthetic understanding of the Janam Sakhi genre was yet to be arrived at. The scholars had no inkling of the Sikh aesthetics, created and technically perfected by Guru Nanak to be strictly adhered to by the Gurus and the orthodox Sikh writers of Janam Sakhi and Gurubilas literature. That is why these paintings were supposed to be poor specimens of one school of art or the other. Nothing could be farther from truth.

There are five cardinal points of Sikh aesthetics. A number of things are naturally beautiful. But natural beauty is not enough. Man can suffer a loss of sense of beauty because of spiritual heedlessness. Bhagats, God, His abode, redemption, and means of deliverance are beautiful. The organizational form of redemption, i.e., the panth, is a constituent of beauty. The B-40 paintings eminently uphold the Sikh aesthetics to reinforce the janamsakhi intentions. The purpose and function of the Janamsakhi is to establish (1) the spiritual sovereignty of Guru Nanak according to (2) scripture and (3) tradition.

The miracles in the janamsakis are symbolic of the ‘spiritual prowess’ of Guru Nanak in the process of establishing his religious sovereignty. The B-40 janamsakhi has a detailed discussion on Sikh doctrines, which have to be conveyed through the paintings. Some of the doctrinal discussion is about the questions – how was Baba Nanak Guru without ever having a guru? Who was his Guru? What is the principle of the line of succession of the Sikh Gurus to nullify the claims of the rivals? The Janam Sakhi propagates a Sikh attitude towards contemporary reality in that the debased Kaliyuga has no influence over the Sikhs.

The painter, Alam Chand Raj (lit. bricklayer), has a profound understanding of Sikhism. He has the technical inventiveness to convey the ideas of Sikhism in the paintings.

A religious painting has necessarily to be un-realistic. Lok (world) and parmarth (transcendental reality) are on qualitatively different levels. That is why some of the paintings are divided intd two planes. In painting (1) the noisy school children are on one plane while the higher one is occupied by the teacher, the pupil Nanak and his father. Similarly painting (16) has Pathan revelers on one level, Baba Nanak and Mardana on the other. In (30) Baba Nanak reaches Mecca much earlier than the Muslim pilgrims who had refused him their company. This may sound trivial unless we reach picture (18). Baba Nanak is practising austerities moving from one heap of dust to another. The two planes of the painting are suggesting ‘here’ and ‘beyond’. Significantly, Baba’s feet do not touch the plane of the world. This is not the case in (1) where the wooden platform of the teacher stretches across the planes. The painting ‘Baba Nanak Practises Austerities’ (18) suggests that even when Mardana is a companion of Baba Nanak, his ‘nature’ is different. He appears to have ‘realised’ the divine in Baba Nanak and the distance separating them. He is disconsolate. His head is pressing on his knee. The rebec has dropped. Baba Nanak is in the supramundane sphere. The supramundane can meet the mundane. Any thought that Baba Nanak inhabits the ordinary world is mistaken. Division into planes (57) makes the representation of the message of death of Baba Nanak possible. Kamla; the servant is pictured as a boy. The three jogeshwaras are the messengers. There is a rope like twist in the joining of the planes. The lower part of the picture looks like the nether world with a stunted tree and a bird sitting on its roof or the base of the ordinary world. The sitting of a bird on the ground is the only instance of its kind in the painting series.

Levitation in (2), (3), and (12) makes Baba Nanak belong to a higher world. It is certainly not the case that Alam Chand Raj does not know how to balance his figures.

The painter can be emblematic. The onlookers in ‘Mendicants, Baba Nanak and Mardana at Mula Khatri’s’ (23) are wee little figures in the windows by the top of the tree. So is ‘Baba Nanak and Mardana with Two Countrymen’ (41). Baba Nanak has spiritually matured with his beard in ‘Baba Nanak and Mardana in Wilderness’ (5) when he leaves home for an udasi for the first time. His beard has started going grey after his meeting with God in ‘Baba Nanak in the Ecstasy of Prayer’ (28). The painter has his own reason why Guru Nanak is called Baba, grandfather. In (47) four flags represent the four hoards of the magnate.

Baba Nanak establishes his ‘spintual sovereignty’ because he is the supreme bhagat of God to defeat the leaders of other religious denominations in spiritual combats, described as goshtis. Baba Nanak scores over Abdul Rehrnan. In the text Mian Mitha points out that he has gone ‘red’ because of his association with khudai ka lal which means the ‘favourite son of God’ i.e. Baba Nanak or the ‘diamond of God’. Diamond is a symbol df nam in SiTh religion. It is commonly known that mqjith, an extinct plant yielding a red organic dye, is a symbol of devotion in Sikhism. In the painting (7) the traditional blue dress of the Muslim Abdul Rehman has changed to a variety of red. The capofBaba Nanak and the dress of Mardana stays deep red throughout the book. The color of Abdul Rehman’s cap is just like the one on Baba Nanak’s head, not the Islamic green on Mian Mitha’s head. The victories over the caretaker of Mecca (12), Shaikh Ruknud-Din (13), Haji Rattan (14), Kamal and Shaikh Ibrahim Farid (15), Karoria revenue-collector (17), female magicians (19), Gorakhnath (20), Pilgrims to Durga (22), siddhas (27, 44), kings (29, 32, 35), fakirs (30), Dattatreya (46), a magnate (47) a robber baron (49), Shaikh Sharf (50), a philosopher (52), Gorakh and Death (53), a demon (8) and Kali yuga (10) are direcfly portrayed.

The painter makes a symbolic use of color to make red stand for submission in Kamal’s clothes (15) the king’s dress (29,32,35), the shepherd’s turban (40), the tank at Achal (27, 44), the dress of the magnate (47), the clothes of the robber baron (49) and the transvestism of Shaikh Sharf (50). The same color on the caps of Baba Nanak and Kabir (31) points out their spiritual affinity posited by Sikh theology. The white of Kabir’s dress, denotative of spirituality, is shared only by Baba Nanak (6, 10, 29, 44) his father Mehta Kalu (4, 6),Death (53), Guru Angad (21, 22), Gorakhnath (2Q; 27, 44), a Sikh (11). The white exquisitely represents the ‘spiritual’ disguise of the robber (9). Alam Chand Raj uses a repertory of devices . At times one cancels the other: for instance, the white cloak of the Pathan is negatived by its placement in the lower plane.

Alam Chand Raj has recourse to a number of technical devices to portray the spiritual sovereignty of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak’s portrayal is divinized by painting his face three fourth. All the other major characters are painted in profile. Alternatively a three fourth face is shown only in the case of minor figures like school children (1), the prisoners of a demon (8) the Pathan revelers (16) the temptresses (19, 34), a traveler to Durga temple (21), a pilgrim to Mecca, (30), ordinary man (36, 41, 42). The device of portraying the face three fourth is at times cancelled by another one of a different kind. The demon’s symbolic face (8) is cancelled by its animality; those of siddhas (20,27,44) by the smallness of their size; and those of the traveler to Mecca (30), Death (53)’ jogeshwaras (57) by their being in the lower plane. Only Kabir (31) is painted like Guru Nanak. His face is only slightly smaller in size; he is just a little on the& lower plane. These little differences have a theological meaning. The afflnity of Kabir and Guru Nanak had already been pointed out in relation to the device of while dress.

Guru Nanak always occupies a higher elevation in the pictures. He is more richly 4ressed than the others. The modern viewer is shocked into a realization that opulence and spirituality could go together in the medieval times. The area covered by Guru Nanak is always more than any other person. Symbolically, Guru Nanak has canopy of tree on his head, denotative of his spiritual royalty. Sakhi 57 itself gives an indication of it – ‘~there was a pipal tree in the court of Baba Nanak. He had his manji i.e. throne under it". In the paintings, Guru Nanak always sits under a tree except when the demands of composition rule this device out. At the same time, it must be confessed that ‘The Meeting with the Siddhas at Achal’ (27, 44) is emblematically puzzling. The ‘royal’ tree is alive with birds and laden with fruit. It is symbolic of the spiritual power of Baba Nanak which makes the hustle and bustle of earthily existence possible.

The painter employs the unsettling device of Guru Nanak’s gaze. The characters in the paintings focus their eyes on the center of action or on Guru Nanak who looks to be directing his gaze beyond them and the world to the viewer. This is equivalent to producing ‘the proper frame of mind to receive the spiritual message’ in the Janam Sakhi text. This is especially so where there are numerous figures (6, 7, 8,10,11,15,19, 23, 27, 29, 32, 34, 35, 36 41, 44, 45, 46, 48, 50, 52, 53). The double vision of the picture stands for the split between the mundane and the supramundane (41, 48). The closed eyes of Guru Nanak at Mecca (12) speak of his sense of sight, having reached the presence of God. Here levitation and closed eyes mutually reinforce the suggestion. Interestingly Mardana’s gaze almost always runs horizontally to suggest his self-effacing devotion, echoed by the red symbolism of his dress. All the devices seem to concentrate in The Meeting with Bhagat Kabir’ (31). The attention of the birds reinforces the action in the picture. Even their movements are to a purpose. In (49) the birds compositionally repeat the figures. In (31) the peacock jumps from a tree over Guru Nanak’s head to the one over Kabir. The peacock jumps from the side of Guru Angad to the one of Guru Nanak (54) when Guru Angad has just assumed the Guruship. Not surprisingly, Guru Angad is now on a higher elevation in the painting.

The perspective in the pictures has the quality of ‘being on the end of the world’. In (17), it suggests that the Karoria is meeting Guru Nanak away from the village. So is Guru Nanak’s meeting with his parents (6). The ‘end of the world’ perspective is a means of festering a spiritual frame Of mind. There is hardly any sky in the paintings. Whatever sky is there is filled by the flight of birds. Yet the paintings are not claustrophobic. The flight of the soul has paradoxically made the pictorial space into an expansive world especially in (3,6,7,8,10,11,14, 15,29,22,26, 46;51,52,53,56).Thus the concentration of a number of motifs in ‘The Practice of Austerities’ (18), ‘The Ecstasy of Prayer’ (28), ‘The Meeting with Bhagat Kabir’ (31), and ‘the Assumption of Guruship by Guru Angad’ (54) makes them great paintings by any standard.

The gesture made by hands is used with exquisite facility to portray spiritual combat. A hand is raised in authority by the school teacher (1), Rai Bular, the zamindar of Guru Nanak’s native village (3) and from (6) onwards only by Guru Nanak. His hand is raised with the authority of a spiritual message, symbolized by rosary (7). In (7), Abdul Rehman, too, is making a doctrinal point. ‘The Innocent Robber’ (9) is yet to submit. The caretaker of Mecca is raising his hand in protest (12). The hands of the debating siddhas make sense (20) . But the gesture of submission with folded hands like Kaliyuga (10) is the norm. Alternatively, they rest on the knees (13) of Haji Rattan or Dattatreya (46); Death is subordinate only to Guru Nanak by being on the lower plane but it is an ‘authoritative’ cause of the birth of spirit (53). One is struck again by the theologically artistic greatness of ‘the Meeting with Bhagat Kabir’ (31). The repertory of technical devices to establish the spiritual sovereignty of Guru Nanak is always selectively used according to the requirements of the doctrine and context.

B-40janamsakhi has a detailed discussion on the Sikh doctrines. One of the key questions in Sikh religion is the nature of Guru Nana’s Guruship. How was he a Guru without having a guru? In Sakhi 28 "God is Guru and Baba Nanak is jagat guru; i.e., the guru of the world. Gorakh Nath tells Baba Nanak in Sakhi 22 that "his Guru will be born of him". He is Guru Angad transmuted from Lehna not only in name but also in substance. The pictorial representation of the doctrine is in painting (54) when Guru Nanak ordains Guru Angad ‘to speak of God in the accompanying Sakhi53 Sakhi 23 speaks of jote mehjote samai, the merging of the spiritual flame of Guru Nanak with that of Angad; picture (22) is an attempt at the idea. The text gives an indication that Angad is dressed in white. In this case, it must be conceded that the pictorial representation does not match the narrative skill. The pictorial and the narrative representations are different by their natures; their very difference makes complementariness possible.

The Janam Sakhi supports the orthodox line of succession of the Sikh Gurus. In Sakhi 27 Guru Nanak tells Ajita Randhawa (his legendary Sikh, symbolic of Sikh panth) of nave jame, the ninth incarnation, and numerous claimants ghari ghari manjian) to the Sikh throne. Guru Nanak is called ‘Govind’ in Sakhi 54. The representations of Guru Angad pictorially proclaims the orthodox line of succession in that he is always painted in the image of Guru Gobind Singh. Here, the image is the argument. After Guru Nanak the most painted person is Guru Angad (20, 21, 54, 55, 56). Ajita Randhawa comes next in the frequency of representations (26, 43) followed by a Sikh (11, 51). Keeping in mind the representation of face in (9, 41, 49), one gets the impression that the painter is obliquely suggesting the panth of Guru Gobind Singh. Lastly it is remarkable that the ins B-40 was produced in the period of persecution of the Sikhs. Not surprisingly, Sakhi 38 advises the Rohilla Pathans specifically against the persecution of the Sikhs.

The picture of Kaliyuga (10) makes an important point of Sikh theology. Guru Nanak created religion beyond the evil influence of Kaliyuga to ensure its effectiveness. The text indicates that Ka1iyuga was ordered by Guru Nanak t& assume a human form. His submission to Guru Nanak in the picture corroborates his promise to him in the text that he would not harm his Sikhs.

In the picture (28), Baba Nanak is in the ecstasy of prayer in the court of God. It is literally an ek + stasis of a dancer like posture. The hands of Guru Nanak are pointing out to God as if they are offering him the rosary of devotion. Looking more attentively at the picture one realizes that the weight of Guru Nanak’s body falls on neither of his feet. Inspiration has thrown him off his balance. But his figure is not unstable in the painting. Probably, the falling weight of Guru Nanak’s head makes it balance. The stretched neck has raised his face slightly as if he were concentrating on God only to be dazed by His glory. An impression of the ecstasy of Guru Nanak can be had from the bird in the tree which is looking intently at him. Guru Nanak’s inspiration is affecting Mardana too. An ecstatic play on the rebec is making the instrument press hard against his shoulder. The look in the eyes of Mardana is creating an impression as if he has lost his power to look at Guru Nanak. He is literally wide-eyed in his incapacity. The area covered by the sky is so small that the place looks to be the end of the world. The technical convention has helped to make the picture as if ‘the Court of God’ was around. It is a beautiful picture of ‘inspiration’ even if the viewer is ignorant of its symbolism.

‘In Wilderness’ (5) gives us a contemporary appreciation of nature. There is social history with Bhola, the Robber (9). ‘The Practice of Austerities’ (18) embodies the medieval vision. ‘The Ecstasy of Prayer’ (28) has been discussed above. ‘The Meeting with Bhagat Kabir’ (31), ‘Baba Nanak, Guru Angad and Mardana’ (54) are the hallmarks of theological painting. The group of 57 paintings is a supreme example of the Sikh aesthetics in painting. It must be remembered that the practice of Sikh aesthetics is not easier but more difficult than that of the conventional art. An ideological pictorial art requires a number of paintings to bring home to the viewer the conventions which have been specifically adopted as the vehicles of expression. As a consequence, all the paintings in the series are necessarily on different levels of artistic merit. The B-40 paintings pictorially match the art of the B-40 janamsakhi narrative. A higher praise is difficult to imagine.

Introduction to Janamsakhis >>


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