Punjab: Rahi Mohinder Singh, the first Punjabi artist to do an official portrait of the President, breathes life into his subjects and unfailingly manages to bring out their most distinguishing characteristics
The more the world of art changes and finds a new vocabulary, the more he sticks to his guns. Rahi Mohinder Singh, a gifted artist, steadfastly refuses to be swept away by fads and isms. Yet the votary of realistic art finds his place under the sun. The artist, who recently had the privilege of painting the official portrait of none other than the former President of India, Pratibha Patil, has every reason to preen. Even as his works have become part of history and find a pride of place in Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan, he says candidly, even if a trifle irreverently. “For me, all subjects are equally important.”
Sure, the brush with the former first lady has bequeathed him a bagful of cherished memories. He recalls his first meeting with her, her dignified demeanour and easy manners. The singular feature he remembers is how her smile reaches her eyes, a sure indicator of a good human being. Yet he also shares how the high and mighty around her wouldn’t let him convey his request that she must don a sari of a different colour that would do greater justice to her.
Today, the portrait not only bears a perfect resemblance to her persona but even adds to her stature. He recalls that he did take certain artistic liberties with the background. As people wonder about its sterling photographic quality, he asserts, “The beauty of a portrait does not lie in its likeness with the subject but how alive it is.”
According to Professor Raj Pal Singh, Director, Heritage, Punjab, “The singular defining quality of R. M. Singh is how he manages to get under the skin of his subjects and brings alive the most distinguishing traits of their personalities”.
In particular, he is fond of the way he made one of theatre titan Gursharan Singh combining his twin traits of sobriety with naughtiness. Be it the skin tones and textures or the hidden traits, he manages to imbue his subjects with a life few can emulate.
Of course, to make a portrait bear the stamp of the person is not a cakewalk. But R.M. Singh asserts that more than technique and felicity, all it takes is, “a keen observant eye.”
This is a lesson he has learnt from his guru, the legendary Sobha Singh. Interestingly, Sobha Singh didn’t teach him one-to-one, only allowed him to watch him paint, which R. M. Singh insists was a revelation in itself. Master of realism, Sobha Singh incidentally was always RM’s role model. Without him, he doubts, if ever he would have become an artist.
Right from his childhood years when he first read about Sobha Singh, RM found his mentor in the great artist whose images of Sikh gurus as well as Sohni Mahiwal are part of every household in Punjab. Over the years, RM’s portraits, too, have found ready acceptance as he has gone on to paint more than a thousand faces. Many of these are in the collection of the Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA and Sangeetshala of Punjab Kala Bhavan, Chandigarh. His favourite is undoubtedly the creator of the Rock Garden, Nek Chand, and one person he is dying to paint is tragedy king Dileep Kumar.
Among who’s who of the literary world he has painted include Kartar Singh Duggal and Amrita Pritam. Recently he made a portrait of Governor of Punjab, Shivraj Patil, from a photograph. He confesses that nothing can beat the thrill of painting a live model. Yet, while it’s a challenge to paint from a photograph, what if there’s no photograph? He recollects how he painted a man simply from the memory of his grandson. Talking of memories, one that is etched on his mind is when he drew the portraits of passengers en route his journey to school. He reminisces how they would pay him one rupee each… and made him a rich student!
Today art is more than his bread and butter. He is happy that his passion can earn him a livelihood. No, for Pratibha Patil’s portrait, he was not paid a king’s ransom, only a couple of lakhs. But the honour of being selected out of the very best in the country and of becoming the first Punjabi artist to do an official portrait of the President sure is a big adrenalin booster. However, the works of R.M. Singh, who has never held a solo exhibition, are a complete soldout has never cared to be part of the rat race.
The art world might frown at his chosen genre of realism but he is adamant, “Contemporary expression is nothing more than a simplified version of realism. I have nothing against it. However, unless one is grounded in realism, one can’t take a flight in the expanse of modern art.” He might soar in the realm of abstraction too in near future.
Right now, however, he will not make a clean departure from realistic art. Punjab’s rich culture and tradition, the dying folk forms is what he intends to explore next.
Having spent his formative years in village Bharoli Kalan, he not only carries his village with him but also possesses the uncanny knack of recreating ruralscapes with amazing dexterity. Replete with minute detailing, imbuing it with depth and vision, be it portraits or other slices of life, here is an artist who believes art lies in detail.
Source: The Tribune