Organic nature of the vision of an artist
I first saw a replica of Sobha Singh’s iconic painting ‘Sohni Mahiwal’ at the age of ten at my uncle’s house. Every time I visited his house, I sat smitten by the painting’s beauty and the ethereal quality of the work always appealed to my mind. It has been years since I have been lured by its passionate depiction of the lovers: Sohni and Mahiwal. It is my favourite painting. It is also the most reproduced picture in India. Sohni Mahiwal is one of the four pillars of tragic romances from Punjab, others being Sassi Punnu, Mirza Sahiba and Heer Ranjha. As the folktale goes, unhappily married Sohni swam every night across the river using an earthenware pot to keep afloat in the water to meet her lover Mahiwal, one night her wicked sister-in-law replaced the pot with another unbaked one, which dissolved in water resulting in Sohni’s death from drowning.
I happened to visit Sobha Singh Art Gallery at Andretta in Kangra, where he lived for most of his life and painted his masterpieces. The gallery houses ‘Sohni Mahiwal’ that he painted not once but many times. As I stood in awe looking at my favourite painting I was yet again fascinated. Apart from its colours and artistic unity, there is one more thing that I have always found intriguing: from a distance, the two lovers appear to be conjoined like Siamese twins. Sohni’s semi-clad body dominates the canvas and Mahiwal is hidden behind her. Two heads appear to sprout out from the same body. Looking at the painting from a distance, I always thought Mahiwal’s extended elbow to be that of Sohni’s. Even the similarity in the facial features is hard to miss. Mahiwal appears to be a moustached version of Sohni herself. Isn’t the union of two bodies and soul what constitutes love? And how well did Sobha Singh read the passion and depicted the same by merging the selves of the lovers.
Every true artist is aware of this quality of love and passion, i.e., the interchangeability of the selves. In the 2007 popular coming of age novel Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, that was also adapted into a movie by Luca Guadagnino, we see a similar notion of love. It’s about love, of not two men but two individuals, one is 17-year-old boy Elio and the other one is 24-year-old Oliver. Even though the painting and the novel are two different art forms inviting different yardsticks to measure their features, they speak of the same passions. Both are magical mediums. One of the major thrusts of the novel is Elio’s and Oliver’s desire to become each other. Elio is attracted to Oliver’s maturity, good looks and charms. Oliver is attracted to Elio’s assurance, knowledge, confidence and courage. They come up with a unique way to translate their mutual desire to become one another: they call each other by their own names. Elio calls Oliver as Elio; Oliver calls Elio as Oliver.
Like the immortal tale of Sohni and Mahiwal’s love, this work is also a heart-breaking expression of love and its irreversible loss conjoined with a desire to achieve similitude and amalgamation of the selves. Art is a very affecting agent. The organic nature of an artist’s vision can probe deep into the depths of emotions. As Sobha Sigh said, “Art is the language of the heart.”