The India Office Library has a manuscript, accession number B-40. the Janamsakhi has been called after the number. It is the oldest extant manuscript of the Panjabi language. The year of its writing is 1733 A.D. Luckily the Janamsakhi 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 fulfil an ideological function so far.
Some of the eminent scholars have examine, translated and edited the B-40 Janamsakhi 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 Janamsakhi. There were two reasons which made their neglect obligatory. A formal, aesthetic understanding of the Janamsakhi 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 Janamsakhi and Gurbilas 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 organisational 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 Janamsakhi 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 into 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 Pathari 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) '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 word. 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 'spiritual 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 Rehman. 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 of nam in Sikh religion. It is commonly known that majith, 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 cap of Baba Nanak and the dress of Mardana stays deep red throughout the book. The colour 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 Rukn-ud-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 directly portrayed.
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