Paintings of Guru Nanak in Janam Sakhis

Dr. Jaswinder Singh Bhullar
Manuscripts are an important and constructive medium for
the study of history of any
society and culture. So far research has not been able to determine which is the oldest manuscript and who wrote it.
Most scholars are of the opinion that religious texts are the oldest manuscripts. Scholars consider Jewish scripture ‘Torah’, the oldest manuscript in the world. This tradition was very strong during the Mughal rule in India. Jahangir’s memoir ‘Tuzak-e-Jahangiri’, Babar’s ‘Babarnama’, ‘Akbarnama’ are famous Persian manuscripts. In Punjab, tradition of Janam Sakhis started late after Guru Nanak Dev Ji laid the foundation of Sikhism.
Writers first memorized the words of the Gurus in the form of Bani. They also collected the events of the lives of Gurus in the form of anecdotes, the tradition of which had previously been oral. Later, these oral anecdotes began to be recorded in the form of manuscripts. Aim of the Janam Sakhi writers was not only to record the entire life span of the Gurus but also to evoke a sense of devotion to them by presenting the major events of their lives. We recognize this presentation of a life event as a Janam Sakhi.
Talking about the structure or construction of Janam Sakhi, it is done with folk motifs to express the ideals of a historical person. Writer portrays the main protagonist in his sakhi as spiritually strong, doer, capable of all four qualities. But when it comes to mythology in Janam Sakhi, it has to be filled with miraculous elements. Due to miracles, the depiction of Lok Parlok is beautifully depicted in the paintings. Janam Sakhis are conveying a moral/welfare message like policy stories. Sakhi writer expands the narrative of his protagonist by using devotional stereotypes associated with his protagonist, giving them a backdrop of fiction. The protagonist in Sakhis is the possessor of divine powers sent by God, to whom even the enemy powers work in his favor. There is no room for question marks on the devotion created in the anecdotes. So Janam Sakhis depict the socio-culture and the truth in the minds of the people of that time.
Emergence of Janam Sakhi literature, The Post Nanak period dates back to late 16th century. The Janam Sakhi tradition was in full swing in 17th century. Some anecdotes are heavily influenced by Islamic and Buddhist myths. On the left page of manuscripts on the pattern of Mughal’s, paintings related to Sakhi were made by an experienced painter. These Janam Sakhis were beautifully calligraphed. Manuscripts have been made more beautiful by painting flowers, leaves and designs around the text of Sakhi. The result is the beginning of a new painting tradition in the Guru’s time, which we have dubbed the “Sikh School of Janam Sakhi Painting”, i.e. the Janam Sakhi Sikh style of painting.

Prakash Purab Special

It is said that Guru Angad called Bhai Bala, a close associate of Guru Nanak, and asked him to record the major events of Guru Nanak’s life in Gurmukhi in the form of anecdotes. Thus the Janam Sakhi of Bhai Bala written by Paida Mokha came in existance. Writers have performed anecdotes in two major forms: one in the form of handwritten manuscripts and in the form of murals on the walls of gurdwaras, monasteries and akharas. Here we will focus our study on the paintings in the handwritten old manuscripts only. In earlier times only the events related to Guru’s life were written in the form of Sakhis but later along with the text, sakhi incidents were also painted. Painters decorated the page by painting flowers, leaves and designs around the text. By drawing a picture, he made the reader look as if the event was happening in front of him. The Janam Sakhi tradition emerges from the curiosity to know/see about Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Undoubtedly common man did not manage to understand the deep meaning of Bani. But he was amazed to see the illustrated events in Sakhi, which satisfied his soul. Understanding the pictorial incident in the Sakhi made it easier for him to understand the entire Sakhi. Thus, Sakhi writers managed to draw related pictures along with the text of Sakhis. As a result, the Janam Sakhi painting tradition was formally started.
There are four major Janam Sakhis available, including Bhai Bale Wali Janam Sakhi, Meherban Wali Janam Sakhi, Adi Sakhis and Puratan Janam Sakhi. The first part of the sakhi deals with the childhood of Guru Sahib, the second part deals with Udasis and the third part deals with the establishment of Kartarpur. Daya Ram Abrol’s written illustrated Panj B-40 Janam Sakhi (1790), is available in London Library. Some Janam Sakhis are in Shahmukhi alongwith relevent paintings in it. Copies of manuscripts of Janam Sakhis were also prepared to propagate Sikhism and to convey the teachings of Gurus to increase the sense of devotion. The description of the Sakhi written in Gurmukhi is on one side of the paper and on the other side there was space left to draw a picture related to that Sakhi. Sometimes separate images were pasted. The image related to a sakhi is sometimes divided into two parts and elaborated to understand the text of that sakhi. This division creates worldly and otherworldly worlds and differentiates between worldly characters and divine beings. The painter has painted worldly characters below and Dib Purushas (Great Humans) above. By presenting mythology, the painter easily depicts the contemporary society and culture. In Janam Sakhis where miracles do not solve the crisis /disaster, Gurbani offers the solution.
In the paintings, the size of Guru Nanak’s body is larger than the size of all humans. He is depicted in the local costumes of the country he visited during the Udasis. Guru is depicted wearing a Mughal style turban or wearing a Selhi like a Sufi, a Kalandhari hat and sometimes wearing a turban according to the costume of that country. Many paintings depict Guru ji is wearing earrings in his ears, a necklace of pearls around his neck, pearl-studded armbands on his arms, holding Simrana in his hands, and wearing a thick thread (Janeu) like a Vaishnava Hindu.
In the paintings, both eyes of Guru Nanak are sometimes closed and sometimes half-dusted in Naam Simran. In a few paintings the faces of Guru Sahib, Mardana and other characters are depicted with one eye. Guru Nanak is depicted wearing a long yellow stove and in a few red, saffron and white stoves. Sometimes Guru ji carries a dushala (shawl) around his shoulders and waist. Mardana, like Guru ji, is depicted wearing a red robe and a yellow embroidered girdle. The costumes and colors of other characters in the paintings are according to their social status and religion. In B-40 paintings the appearance of Guru Nanak is seen under the complete influence of the orthodox wisdom. Because in contemporary times Sanatan and Islam were very dominant in the society. Due to this effect, their dress, hats, turbans and ornaments have the mark of traditional Sanatan and Muslim culture.
Since Guru Nanak Dev was the founder of Sikhism, he is portrayed as a great religious and spiritual figure, as in the sakhi incarnation of Guru Sahib, Bal Nanak is depicted as the incarnation of Akal Purakh. Guru Nanak is depicted in the Janju Sakhi as refuting preconceived notions, as religious orthodoxy was a weapon of exploitation of the lower classes by the wealthy. Guru Sahib is sitting in front of Pandha holding a plaque in his hand, on which is inscribed ÅÆ . In the story of Malik Bhago and Bhai Lalo, Guru Nanak is depicted sitting in front of them, squeezing the bread with both hands, from which blood and milk are flowing.
There is a lot of material in the Janam Sakhis which is inspired by the mythological or Semitic tradition, such as the transformation of a Mardana into a lamb by the women of Kauru and the re-emergence of a human being with the miraculous power of Guru Nanak, Kalyug’s visit to Guru Sahib, mention of Kal and Narad etc. In this way Janam Sakhi paintings depict many contexts related to other miracles, these important events include grazing buffalo fields, stabilizing the shade of a tree in the forest under which Guru Sahib was sleeping, shadowing the snake with fun, converting the Sajjan Thug into a gentleman, cooling down the hot pot of Kauda Rakhsh etc. made Guru Sahib such a Dib-Purash, in whose favor not only the anti-male forces but also the anti-enemy forces work in his favor. Seeing the miracles in this type of religion based painting, the viewer feels himself wandering in the cosmic realms.
Creating the cosmic and transcendental world in Janam Sakhi paintings, the painter, while being unrealistic, reaffirms the spiritual omnipotence of Guru Sahib. If on the one hand Guru Nanak is omnipotent but on the other hand Father Mehta Kalu under a worldly thinking sends Nanak to make a deal in trade (Sacha Sauda). Working in the Modikhana at Sultanpur was also to make Nanak realize the responsibilities of worldly affairs. All these deeds symbolize the omnipotence of Guru Sahib. Almost in all the paintings, Mardana is playing the Rebab. Guru Sahib would reach the state of amazement by mingling with the music played by Mardana and in these divine moments he would begin to recite the Bani. The radiance created around Guruji’s head in the paintings not only distinguishes him from the other characters in the paintings but also testifies to his spirituality. His beard is black in the anecdotes of Guru Sahib’s youth but there is a picture of a white beard which show his spiritual maturity. The paintings depict flying birds, mountains, trees, blue sky, creating a natural environment. Paintings depict a lush green tree laden with flowers /fruits behind the back of Guru Sahib, which seems to be an umbrella over his head to symbolize his spiritual richness.
Janam Sakhi paintings give a good insight into the religious, political, social and public thinking of that time, how the people were caught up in superstitions and miraculous controversies. Out of such conflicts, the entire humanity was liberated from this false darkness of ignorance. One can realize the essence of the miracles in the Sakhi and feel himself wandering in the spiritual realms. Painters have portrayed historical and mythological figures and events in such a way that all the characters seem to be alive and well. Mardana has been more prominent in paintings, who has been a companion of Guru Sahib during all the Udasis.
Throughout the Janam Sakhis, Guru Sahib is in direct harmony with the traditions of Hindu and Turkish society. That is why in almost all Sakhis there is an effect of Lehindi (Now Pakistani Punjabi) vocabulary with a slight difference. Though Janam Sakhis are not historical documents of Guru Nanak’s life, but from the literary point of view, their prose is formal, which is of the highest order. It satisfies the soul and leads it to a state of amazement. Both the prose and the imagery of Janam Sakhis are excellent examples of art.
After studying the Janam Sakhis, the same picture emerges that throughout his life, Guru Nanak Dev Ji was aware of the prevailing superstitions, Brahmanical rituals, social norms, caste system, inequality and discrimination in the society and culture of that time. They also deal a severe blow to the Indian socio-cultural traditions of that time. Janam Sakhis have proved to be able to change the mindset of the society. Not only this, the Janam Sakhis and the paintings in them have played an important role in conveying the Guru’s life, his prophetic message to the masses and in the propagation of Gurmat.