Bhai Gian Singh Fresco-Painter, Article 1

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Bhai Gian Singh (1883 to 1953), naqqdsh or frescopainter, was born in the city of Amritsar in 1883. His father, Taba Singh, a combmaker by profession, supplemented his meagre income by dispensing dyurvedic medicines in his spare time. At the age of five, Gian Singh was sent to school run by Giani Thakur Singh, who later rose into prominence as a Sikh missionary and scholar. Giani Thakur Singh's influence on him was everlasting. After he had passed his primary school, Gian Singh was apprenticed to Nihal Singh Naqqash, a third generation descendant of Bhai Kchar Singh Naqqash, who enjoyed court patronage under Maharaja Ranjil Singh. Gian Singh served his apprenticeship for 14 long years until the death of his mentor in 1905. He brought to his passion for drawing unusual powers of observation and concentration. He made rapid progress in his art and soon began to collaborate with Jawahar Singh Naqqash, a brother of his erstwhile teacher, in working on ornamental designs in the Golden Temple. Gian Singh's fame will rest principally on his frescopainting on the walls of the Golden Temple. The art of frescopainting consists in transferring the outline (Jihdka) of a design on wet plaster and then filling the outline with appropriate colours before the plaster dries up. The basic colours thus established are worked with requisite details and light and shade achieved with dots and streaks. The colours used are indigenously prepared: red ochre from hirmachi, yellow ochre from gulzard, emerald green from sangesabz, lamp black from burnt coconut, ultra marine from Idjvard and white from burnt marble. While much of Gian Singh's work on the outer walls of the domed structure, on the topmost storey, stands partially erased by wind and rain, that on its inner walls yet survives in its original freshness. One dehin executed by him in the sanctum on the first floor, just above Har ki Pauri, bears testimony to his inimitable workmanship. Dehin, the most fascinating item of frescopainting was Gian Singh's forte. It is an imaginative ensemble of forms taken by the artist from animal or vegetable life, so curiously intertwined as to present a composite and organized whole. Structurally, dehin has three parts a pedestal, a vase poised on the pedestal and a bouquet of flowers or a floral bush called jhdr. On the pedestal are depicted birds or animals in various dramatic postures in erotic clasp, in combat or one chasing the other. These figures are often intertwined with creepers. The other items of note in frescopainting are floral "square" (murrabd) and "rectangle" (tilli). These are used in wall, floor or ceiling decoration. The square usually consists of a fine setting of flowers, leaves, creepers or bushes within a flowery border with handsomely patterned corners. A typical example of a square done by Gian Singh is the one called Acquatic Harmony. It takes for its motif a number of fish encircling a tortoise, with others frolicking around the first set in a circular rhythm. Gian Singh introduced a number of innovations in the art of frescopainting. His predecessors in the Sikh school of art depicted gods and goddesses in the body of the pedestal in the manner of their Persian or Mughal forerunners. But Gian Singh replaced these motifswth those of "grapples" (pakrdn) of animals, birds, flowers, creepers, etc. He also painted historical Sikh shrines on the body of the vase formerly left blank. In addition to this, he brought shade work to a high standard of perfection and gave a poetic touch to his compositions by making them rhythmically balanced and elegant. The colours he used were always bright and attractive. Apart from frescopainting Gian Singh tried his hand at several allied arts such as (gach) stucco work, (jaratkdn) mosaic work and {tukn) cutglass work. He was an expert in gach work which consists in carving embossed designs on partially wet layers of plaster of Paris and afterwards, when completely dry, covering it with gold leaves with an undercoat of varnish. Verses from the Japu(jt) have been rendered in this style under the arches leading to the sanctum in the Golden Temple. Another type of work popularly known as tukn work, much in vogue in Mughal days, consists in setting pieces of glass, gold leaves or precious stones in gach work in artistic patterns. The tukn work on the inside of the dome in the central sanctum of the Golden Temple executed in its entirety by Gian Singh, bears witness to his sense of design and his patience and assiduity. Gian Singh not only prepared designs forJaratkari (mosaic) work in marble to be executed by craftsmen from Delhi and Rajasthan, but also selected stones of appropriate colour and grain to be laid in the marble. The mosaic designs were based on colourful representations of flora and fauna or on themes picked from Hindu mythology. Gian Singh was a master of freehand drawing. His pencil kept pace with the abundance of designs and ideas which flowed from his fertile mind as some of his published works like Nikdshi Darpan, Vishkarmd Darpan, Nikdshi Art Sikhyd and TdjeZargaii, indicate. In the Nikdshi Darpan (1924), he has drawn stylized forms of various flowers side by side with their natural forms, showing how the latter could be improved upon for the purpose of adjustment in a design. It also contains line work studies of birds and animals, different limbs and organs of the human body, border designs in rectangular, square, half patterns, allover patterns and vase stands composed of rhythmically intertwined animal, bird and plant forms. The Vishkarmd Darpan (1926) is a profusely illustrated manual of decorative, architectural and furniture designs. The TdjeZargari (Vol. I, 1920, and Vol II, 1930) contains 1539 designs of Indian ornaments. The Nikdshi Art Sikhyd (1942) contains scores of sketches designed to initiate a beginner into the intricacies of drawing. While toiling at larger works, Gian Singh found time for painting easel pictures in which he could freely indulge his humour. Some of his canvases are notable for their originality of conception and workmanship. His painting Types oflrreligion, which illustrates a wellknown couplet of Kabir, is a biting satire on charlatans who dupe the naive and the gullible in the name of religion. The Eternal Strife, based on a mythological theme, represents the forces of Good (suras) locked in mortal combat with those of Evil (asuras). The Elephant Fight allegorizes Maya and its victims. It depicts two male elephants (victims) contending fiercely for the prize Maya in the form of a female elephant who, standing at a distance, contemplates the fight with sadistic mirth. In appreciation of Gian Singh's exquisite work in the Golden Temple, he was presented, in 1949, with a robe of honour by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. During his apprenticeship, Gian Singh had prepared a set of paintings on the Ten Gurus of Sikhism which was printed in Germany. It became very popular. Gian Singh died in 1953. Another famous Amritsar artist, G.S.Sohan Singh, was his son. His eldest son, Sundar Singh, was killed in theJaIliarivala Bagh firing.


Bhai Giaan Singh jee was a naam-loving Gursikh and a very big lover of keertan. He was born in village Joieeaa(n) in Sargodha (now Pakistan). He was born in 1885. The area he was born in was on the banks of the Jehlum. He was the middle child of four boys and one girl. The children were quite young when his mother passed away.

Bhai Giaan Singh received bhagtee almost like an inheritance from his father Bhai Amar Singh. Bhai Giaan Singh used to take everything as God's will and remained satisfied in it. It was his nature not to slander anyone or speak badly about anyone nor have enmity. At the same time, he was also not close with any worldly friends. He would spend his time in satsangat with the other Gursikhs. If someone came to him and started to gossip he would simply say, "Everything is in his will. Whatever he does, he does it for our own good."

Once Bhai Sahib's son became ill with typhoid and his fever was over 105 degrees. The doctors said that the child could only survive if his kesh were cut. Bhai Giaan Singh answered that this could not be done. He said, "this is God's gift and he can take it back when he wishes. But will we be able to get the Guru's blessings by making him a patit?" It turned out that the child recovered by himself. Sachay Paatshah tests our faith and this was such an occasion. Many other tests came in his life and he passed them with steadfast courage.

Tests of Faith

Bhai Giaan Singh was an A-Class Guard on the NorthWestern Railway. He was posted on the Frontier Mail train. This train used to run from Peshawar to Bombay. Bhai Sahib stayed at Rawalpindi at this time. One day, a jealous co-worker betrayed him very badly. He gave a bribe to a railway worker and had him detach the last compartment from the rest of the train. The Guard waved his flag and the train set off. At the next station, Bhai Sahib was informed that one compartment had been left behind. For a normal, worldly person, such an incident would have been very worrisome but Bhai Sahib remained calm in the divine-will. This was a very serious incident and he could have been fired from his job, but he did not waver. He was suspended pending an inquiry but did not feel sad and said, "We'll work for the true "sarkaar" (Vahiguru) now" and spent his days in naam simran and keertan. When the inquiry was completed, the guilty parties were punished and Bhai Sahib was exonerated completely and even given a promotion. "Pooraa niaao(n) karai kartaar. Apunay daas ko raakhanhaar.1.Rahaao" (199).

Another time Bhai Sahib was in a difficult situation was when the topmost officer of the NorthWestern Railway came to Rawalpindi Station. When the train stopped at the station, Bhai Sahib was lost in simran. He exchanged some important papers with the Stationmaster and returned to his personal compartment for rest. When the whistle blew to move the train, he waved the flag and was again lost in simran. The British officer of the NorthWestern Railway was standing in the veranda watching Bhai Sahib and when Bhai Sahib walked by him, he did not salute. The Officer took this as an insult and asked his assistant to note down Bhai Sahib's name and information so that he could be reprimanded when they returned to headquarters.

When they returned to headquarters, the assistant gave Bhai Sahib's information to the Officer along with his personal file. The next day, the file was returned without any reprimand written on it. The file was sent a second time and it again returned unchanged. The third time, he personally brought the file to the Officer and reminded him that Giaan Singh did not salute and was to be reprimanded. The Officer laughed and said, "Whenever I try to write something on his file, I get dizzy and feel afraid. For God's sake, just close that file and find out who this person is."

The assistant collected full information about Bhai Sahib from Rawalpindi station and told his British Officer about him. The Officer was very surprised to hear about everything and was thankful that he had not done anything against him. "Jeh jeh kaaj kirat saevak kee, tahaa(n) tahaa(n) outh dhaavai.1. Saevak ko nikTee hoi dikhaavai. Jo jo kahai thakur peh saevak tatkaal hoi aavai.2.rahaao." (403).

Personal Life

Bhai Atma Singh of Patiala and Dr. Harbans Singh tell us that Bhia Giaan Singh jee was a very big lover of naam and baaNee. His head would sway in ecstasy and his lips would always be moving with "Guru Guru". Those who heard him doing nitnem can attest that he would recite it very slowly and in bairaag, taking a full two hours to do so. When he would take a Vaak from Guru Maharaj, his eyes would be teary and he would read each line many many times like he was personally conversing with Guru Sahib.

A Gursikh is of course ordered to give dasvandh, but Bhai Giaan Singh was so genours that he would give half his income to the Guru's cause. Bhai Sahib loved listening to keertan and whenever a Singh or Singhnee did keertan, he would become very excited. Sometimes while listening to keertan, he would even become late for his train. Someone would remind him about the train and only then would he get ready and go to the station. Whenever this happened though, the train itself was late and so he was never in any trouble.

Meeting Bhai Sahib Randheer Singh jee

How could such a person like Bhai Giaan Singh not meet Bhai Sahib Randheer Singh then? Whenever the Jatha would have a smaagam at Rawalpindi at the home of Dr. Pargat Singh and Bibi Indar Kaur, Bhai Giaan Singh would certainly come and enjoy the keertan. He retired from his job in 1940 and after that he moved to Sree Amritsar Sahib. When Bhai Sahib Randheer Singh jee would come to Sree Amritsar Sahib and do smaagams, Bhai Giaan Singh would always attend.

Once it was at Gurdwara LohgaR Sahib that the Jatha was having a keertan. Bhai Sahib was doing keertan and Bhai Giaan Singh arrived in the divvan, matha tekked and then went to the back of the hall. Who knows when Bhai Sahib saw him, but while doing keertan, he sent a Singh to Bhai Giaan Singh and asked him to come sit at the front. At the conclusion of keertan, Bhai Sahib met Bhai Giaan Singh and said, "Piarayo, when you come, come sit in front of us. Seeing you brings us into chaRdee kalaa." A divinely inspired soul can always recognise another.

Keertan Today vs. Keertan Before

There is something that all of Bhai Sahib's companions know that is that at Jatha Smaagams, the front lines were always filled with Gursikhs. Many would be gathered around Bhai Sahib and lost in divine colours. It was a sight to be seen. They would be facing Guru Sahib and singing to them, "Too(n) Satguru choho jugee, aap aapay parmayshar" (1406).

Today, we are happy to do keertan in a big crowd but don't feel excited to do so in a small gathering. Those Sachkhandee Souls were singing keertan for Satguru jee. In those days, the way Singhs and Singhnees did keertan was totally different. Whoever sat and did keertan or listened, it was as if they were sitting before Satguru jee and addressing him face to face. Now we don’t do keertan for Satguru jee, we address the Sangat instead and give parmaaNs (examples) to explain to them. This custom was started by Bh. Mohinder Singh SDO in 1958-59 and has continued until today.

There are many examples from Bhai Giaan Singh jee's life that should Guru Sahib was always with him. After retiring, he made a Gurdwara Sahib in his native village. He also brought many people to the path of Gursikhi. On May 22, 1951 the divine call came and he left for the Guru's feet. Bhai Sahib's son lives in Ranjit Nagar Amritsar.


1. Ai-shi, P.S., Sikh Architecture. Delhi, 1986

2. Madanjil Kaur, The Golden Temple: Past. and Present. Amritsar, 1983