Well into his eighties, artist Serbjeet Singh continues to transmute paints into a transcendental presentation as is evident in his recent Himalayan canvases, says noted travel writer and author.
The secret of Serbjeet’s Singh’s ongoing excellence as a painter (he is now in his eighties) lies in the embracing of the four-letter word “life” (or perhaps more accurately “larger than life”!). When he recently p icked me up to see his latest Himalayan canvases, I reluctantly climbed into the back seat of his car seeking to withdraw from the horrific snarl ups that characterise Delhi traffic. Serbjeet, meanwhile, sat in front alongside his young chauffeur thoroughly enjoying the stimulus of being driven by a potential Formula One race driver.
Serbjeet had immediately endeared himself by turning up in paint-spattered clothes to declare his calling as the complete artist, ageless in talent and very much his own law maker. I call him Dr. Johnson because his opinions are forthright and telling (if not always printable). He refers to me as Boswell because I enjoy recording the adventurous life of this one-off characterTotally dedicated to his craft from the tender age of 10 — when he sold his first painting to an Angrez memsahib for Rs. 25 in Dalhousie — now, at 82, his book of sketches done during the Indo-Pak war is priced on the international market for Rs. 25,00,000. The same mastery of line and colour are evident in both and it is this unfailing talent to transmute artist’s materials into the golden realm of deathless art that makes any visit to his Gulmohur Park home so energising.
Open to new ideas
Discussing Serbjeet’s latest offerings (remarkable for the artist’s willingness to try out new acrylic paint and Japanese pen brushes) I was able to probe into his passion for painting. He was excited by the breakthrough in paint technology. Unlike the fugitive palettes that have plagued works of art in the past, the new metallic colours stay true for two millennia. It is refreshing to find someone in their eighties, not just open to new ideas but willing to dabble for example with the latest Paris hair dyes to discover their artistic potential (if any!).
The current crop of Himalayan profiles is distinguished by feelings for the animate soul in any given mountain mass. The Dhaula Dhar above Palampur is enlivened by a sprinkling of copper hues of human habitation that cling to the steep fall of rock, conveying the reality that life in these overwhelmingly harsh but sublime surroundings does seem to hang on by a thread. Changing gear to the Great Himalaya, a large five by four foot canvas reveals an unusually detailed face of Dhaulagiri, most people’s idea of the archetypal snow peak, both innocent and deadly and in whose sight the Buddha was born.
The immensity of the mountain’s face is lightened by touches of light blue and pink tones giving an almost silky texture to offset the bronze and brown of weather-beaten rock which in turn is climaxed by the deep blue of frozen ice. Dhaulagiri in reality is an extraordinary mass of living matter and here the colour, form and texture are explored in an attempt to convey its aliveness, or (to use the artist’s own words) “to lay bare the body of the mountain.”
I ask him why this huge close-up image should appear now and he shrugs, accepting the randomness of the human psyche to store and restore its cherished moments. He recalled how, 40 years earlier on a visit to Pokhara, this vision had smitten him. How long did it take him to paint it? One week working four hours each morning and with very special helpers. These turn out to be three smiling young maids from a village background who show great flair as studio assistants.
In contrast to the large canvasses I am shown some early sketches, which seem thrown off almost casually but display the same sure touch of inborn mastery. Inspired by a military artist who did watercolours in Dalhousie, the young Serbjeet excelled in this medium. Several early Serbjeet watercolours done in Dalhousie and sold to the British military remnant for a song have found their way to London galleries where their status has now been inflated from painting to investment.
One watercolour he was able to rescue from Lahore at the time of Partition is a small framed wedding procession in the Kulu Valley crossing a bridge in the midst of a forest of tall thin tree trunks. Noticeably absent from his later larger canvasses the presence of human figures is vibrantly colourful and energetic, an authentic recreation of a Pahari barat.. Nevertheless, it is the natural elegance of the trees that lingers in the mind. There is the hint of a Kangra miniature in this composition and the artist agrees that the magical world created by Pahari miniatures had an influence on his own style.
Many equate Serbjeet with the austere beauty of the Ladakh landscape for, once seen, it is hard not to get hooked to its bewitching aura. Like Dhaulagiri, these barren but ravishing high altitude slopes haunt the artist’s deeper layers of sensibility and are a theme he constantly returns to. Serbjeet’s faithful portrayal of this mind-blowing scenery infuses a mood of meditation into his canvases and wherever one sees his depiction of the turquoise lakes of Pangon Tso and Tso Moriri the mind is immediately stilled by the confluence of Nature’s and human art.
This ability to turn the water of the outward eye into the wine of ennobled recollection is the secret of Serbjeet’s appeal. It is not the largeness of his canvas but his enlarged inner vision that stops viewers in their tracks. The Himalayan peaks, if you sweat to get close up as Serbjeet has, speak of something ineffable hidden from our normal consciousness. To express this dimension is Serbjeet’s special alchemical gift: transmuting the base contents of the artist’s tube of paints into a transcendental presentation: the still turquoise waters displayed as a manifestation of the divine.
A form of devotion
The fact is his painting is a form of sadhana; for 60 years he has devoted at least three days in the week to his easel — working also as a film director – as well as champion the cause of the arts in general. Like the alchemists of old Serbjeet has ploughed his own furrow seeking the source of harmony in nature through a dedicated study of the Himalaya in whose lap he grew up. Whether close up as in the portait of Dhaulagiri’s massive face or in cartographic bird’s eye views of sections of the Great Himalaya, his brush is a visionary tool reminding his viewers of an inspiration that rootless modern existence is so badly in need of revisiting. There is a practical aspect to these therapeutic exercises and a recent overview of the layout of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border ranges (viewed from an imaginary height 150,000 metres above Bhuj) is a valuable contribution towards sub-continental and indeed world security.
As I was preparing to leave, Serbjeet’s wife (journalist and dance critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh) arrived and summed up what I had been trying to elicit from the artist. Why do his paintings alone convey the profound inner impact the Himalaya has on me? She answered the puzzle: “Serbjeet creates his own reality.” Shanta then asked if I’d noticed anything different about her husband’s style of painting and I confessed I hadn’t. I was momentarily flabbergasted when she told me a recent accident had forced him to paint using only his left hand. Serbjeet smiled when he confirmed the handicap. Then I realised to a master artist this is but one more challenge. Or as the eternally optimistic Punjabi would say: “Ki farak peinda?”