“Art of Punjab”: Sikh History and Spirituality by Canadian Painter Kanwar Singh

Having recently launched the first ever Sikh gallery in the UK in Slough (to the west of London), Canadian painter Kanwar Singh has been creating art dedicated to the history and culture of his religious community for the past ten years. Born in Amritsar, India (the site of the Golden Temple) and raised in Toronto, Kanwar was educated at York University and Sheridan College. Stylistically, he is influenced by a host of masters both Asian and European, including Sobha Singh, Amrita Sher-Gil, Caravaggio and John William Waterhouse.

Kanwar’s mesmerising paintings shimmer with gold, orange and royal blue. His subjects are the ten Gurus of Sikhism (Nanak Dev, Angad Dev, Amar Das, Ram Das, Arjun Dev, Hargobind, Har Rai, Har Krishan, Tegh Bahadur, Gobind Singh) as well as other great heroes and heroines of the Sikh tradition, for example, Mai Bhago (who led Sikh soldiers against the Mughals in 1705) and the human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra (1952–1995). Occasionally, the viewer finds portraits of Sikhs who have had prominent roles outside of India—like the Canadian soldier Buckham Singh (1893–1919) who fought in World War I as a member of the British Empire.

The artist’s aim is to envision and spread awareness of the grand historical narrative that offers daily inspiration to so many Sikhs both in India and around the world. He hopes that his work will motivate young Sikhs into the arts and make non-Sikhs appreciate Sikh culture. “Only by learning,” says Kanwar, “can we break down barriers.” On the practice of painting, he states: “Painting is a way to stop a moment in time and share it with generations to come. You look at a painting today as Sikhs years from now will but due to our shared heritage you feel the same thing and in that way you achieve a connection beyond time. That connection is the joy which moves me to create.”

Kanwar Singh

Kanwar had his first exhibition in 2007 at the Sikh Centennial Foundation Vaisakhi Gala in Toronto. A decade later, during the opening ceremony of Sikh Heritage Month, the honorable Linda Jeffery, Mayor of Brampton, unveiled his newest artwork to an audience of dignitaries at the Ontario Legislature. April has been proclaimed as Sikh Heritage Month as the Province of Ontario recognises the important contributions that Sikh Canadians have made to Ontario’s social, economic, political and cultural fabric. Kanwar’s newly launched gallery on the other side of the Atlantic is intended to be a tourist attraction and will operate under regular hours from 2018 onwards. This December it will be open on the 25th from 4-7 PM and on the 31st from 6-9 PM. You can learn more about the exhibition at withoutshapewithoutform.com.

A few paintings are featured below with descriptions. The entire collection can be viewed on artofpunjab.com/shop.

Links: Website (artofpunjab.com) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/ArtofpunjabKanwarSingh) | Instagram (instagram.com/artofpunjab) | Twitter (@Artofpunjab)

Images used with permission.


The Eternal Guru – Kanwar Singh’s most iconic painting. In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, having consciously witnessed the sacrifice of the lives of all his four sons, handed over the legacy of the Guruship to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. He understood that the age of lineage was over, and so he consciously left no heirs. The unique beauty of this is that the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, our present Guru, can neither be altered nor changed in any way. It is a touchstone for all humanity that exists beyond the limitations of time and space, now and in the future.


The Abode of Nanak – A very popular painting just released last year. The Siri Guru Granth Sahib is the embodiment of the spiritual revolution which was first ignited by Guru Nanak dev ji and the life breath of eight more Nanaks nurtured and fed this flame. Then in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh ji, the tenth Sikh Guru, transformed that flame into a wildfire of spiritual liberation through the creation of the Khalsa panth.


Stand on Guard for Thee – Kanwar Singh’s representation of a Sikh Canadian Solider who fought in WW1. To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Sikhs contribution to World War One, this painting represents a foray into the contemporary period of Sikh Military history. It deals with the role of Sikh men and women of various nationalities who lived through this epic confrontation of Nations. The title of the painting, taken from the Canadian National Anthem, reflects upon the willingness of Sikhs to fight against oppression throughout history. It is a testament to the spirit of Guru Gobind Singh, which forever emboldens the Khalsa to strive towards a greatness that surpasses humble beginnings.


Mittar Pyare Nu. Guru Gobind Singh ji finally rested in the Machhivara jungle after many days of battle at Chamkaur, in 1704. It looks as though Guru ji might be asleep with his eyes closed and his body in a state of deep repose, but all around him we see that the world is alive with flowing energy, with the play of light and shadow, trees moving in the wind and a storm moving by. The storm of battle is passing and the clouds are clearing. In this moment of rest and repose, Guru Ji is fully aware of and completely connected to his surroundings, and the viewer is transported into the swirling motion of nature, while at the “eye of the hurricane” the Master lies, in the deep peace that surpasses all understanding. He rests, not upon a rock, but in the comforting arms of the eternal, Waheguru.


Mai Bhago and the Chaali Muktey. Mai Bhag Kaur (Mai Bhago) was the inspiration behind the bravery of the martyrs known as the Chaali Muktey – the Liberated Forty – who died in the Battle of Muktsar (1705). She is best remembered as a valiant military commander and one of the elite warriors accompanying the Tenth Guru in battle.


Guru Tegh Bahadur’s Time  – Kanwar’s Singh newest release. The Kashmiri Pandits, under the threat of forced religious conversion by the Mughal Empire, appealed for Guru Sahib’s help. The delegation told the Guru that they have been given an ultimatum by the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, to either convert to Islam willingly or face death. Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji travelled to Delhi himself to defend the rights of the Pandits. After refusing to submit to the demands of the Mughal regime to convert to Islam, Guru Tegh Bahadur was publically executed and attained martyrdom. Through this selfless act, Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji saved the entire Hindu faith from extinction and is subsequently referred to as “Hind Di Chaadar” (The Shield of India). Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji’s ultimate sacrifice gave rise to the next evolution of the Sikh faith.


Guru Nanak and His Companions (tonal). Guru Nanak Dev Ji founded the Sikh faith in rural Punjab during the mid 15th century. Discontent with the elusive values and hollow rituals of the Brahamanic Hindu tradition, he set forth on many journeys throughout his life to achieve a true union with God. His mission knew no boundaries or borders and he even completed the Muslim Hajj by traveling to Mecca.


Guru Hargobind – Lord of Miri Piri. Guru Hargobind became the Guru of the Sikhs at the age of eleven after his father Guru Arjan was martyred on the orders of the Mughal emperor. The Guru wore two swords representing Miri and Piri, to declare his temporal and spiritual authority. Guru Hargobind began construction of the Akal Takhat in 1663 with his own hands, and only Baba Buddha and Bhai Gurdas assisted him in this task. The Guru built the Akal Takhat to serve the panth for eternity and as the seat of the sovereignty of the Sikh nation it has withstood the assaults of many would-be rulers of the subcontinent who have come and gone.


Guru Har Rai Jyot, The Divine Light. A painting of Guru Har Rai ji which speaks to the divine connection to Waheguru which manifested itself in all ten Guru Sahibs.


Jaswant Singh Khalra. This painting chronicles the life’s work of human rights activist Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra and the events of the bloody decade (1984 -1995) in Punjab. It depicts how government forces operated with complete impunity to end the Khalistan movement, and in doing so, carried out the secret murders of thousands of its own citizens, many of them complete innocents. This portrait of Jaswant Singh Khalra and the state of Punjab speaks to the loss of humanity when power is asserted through terror and violence. In those desperate times, the Guru inspires great souls who act as our protectors, saving us from being engulfed by total darkness. In an inspirational speech, which was to be his last, Jaswant Singh Khalra declared: “I challenge the darkness, if nothing else, then at least around myself, I will not let it settle. Around myself I will establish light.” Jaswant Singh Khalra was murdered at the age of 42, giving his life to the preservation of human rights in Punjab.


Guru Gobind Singh, Master and Disciple. The first Vaisakhi (April 13, 1699) saw the initiation of the first five Khalsa. Following their investiture, Guru Gobind Rai knelt before the Five Beloved Ones and asked to be initiated in turn as the sixth ‘saint-soldier’. The Amrit ceremony marked his transformation into Gobind Singh. Thenceforth, he was hailed: “Behold the Man non-pareil! Himself the Teacher, Himself the Disciple!”.


Guru Arjan Dev Ji Birth of the Adi Granth. Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the fifth in the line of Guru Nanak, began the compilation of the Guru Granth Sahib, which he called the Adi Granth – the “primal knot” which would forever secure the sanctity of the Sikh faith. The Guru sent out a call to all Sikhs far and wide to bring forth the poetry composed by the four Gurus. When all the volumes had been collected, he sat down with his scribe Bhai Gurdas and carefully selected the genuine works into the Holy Granth. With the completion of this momentous work, the Guru gave the world a gift so pure and essential, that it could transcend the boundaries of time and religion and exist beyond personality and human form.


Bhai Bachittar Singh. Initiated into the Khalsa on the historic first Vaisakhi Day, Bachittar Singh fought alongside Guru Gobind Singh in a number of battles in defense of Anandpur. This scene shows him in the famous single-handed combat with the enraged elephant charging at the Sikh fort of Lohgarh by the joint enemy forces of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and the Hindu Hill Rajas.


Banda Singh Bahadur Sava Lakh Khalsa – Kanwar Singh first painting launched  in 2007. A hand-picked disciple of the Tenth Guru, Banda Singh was the first leader of the nascent Sikh nation after the Guru period. He proved an able military general, administrator and agrarian reformer, and died a martyr.


Baba Jujhar Singh. At the Battle of Chumkaur, Baba Jujhur Singh watched his brother Baba Ajit Singh attain Shaheedi. He desired to fight in the battlefield as well, though doing so meant certain death. He asked his father, Guru Gobind Singh, “Guru Sahib, permit me, dear father, to go where my brother has gone. Don’t say that I am too young. I am your son. I am a Singh, a Lion, of yours. I shall prove worthy of you. I shall die fighting, with my face towards the enemy, with the Naam on my lips and the Guru in my heart.”


Gobind Rai’s Legacy. Nine-year old Gobind Rai (1666-1708 )—later Guru Gobind Singh—having newly succeeded his father as the Tenth Master, embraces his responsibility of leading the community upon news of his father’s execution in Delhi.


Akali (red chalk). Akali is derived from the gurbani term Akaal Pururk “The Timeless One”, a term for God, thus an Akali is the “Servitor of the Timeless God”. This also reflects the idea of Akalis as the “Immortals” or the timeless warriors. The Akalis have historically been held in great affection and respect by Sikhs due the pivotal role they have played in Sikh military history in particular. The Nihang order is today mostly ceremonial, but in times of war, the Akalis have historically spear-headed the attack on enemies of the Sikh religion.