Guru Nanak is not a prophet from ancient times.
He is someone whose impact on world history is recent and whose message is fresh and contemporary.
His contemporaries—such as Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” the Americas; Martin Luther, the Christian German reformist; Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who found the sea route to India; Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian political author—are today all well-known and remembered names.
Today, 550 years after the birth of Guru Nanak, we sadly find that the Guru has become largely associated with Sikhs and their faith, to the extent that we somehow think Sikhs have an exclusive right on him. This unfortunate development has, perhaps inadvertently, pushed away many others who were drawn to his writings either for their literary and philosophical excellence or for the rich spirituality of his message and teachings.
I recently visited Pakistan and was humbled to witness for myself the deep devotion that the Nanakpanthi (the Nanak Nam Leva community) has for Baba Nanak (“Baba” is a term used for older men). Its members constitute a large part of the Hindu community throughout Pakistan. It is they who have done years of seva (voluntary service) at the scores of gurudwaras (temples) left abandoned after the departure of the Khalsa Sikhs in 1947 when India and Pakistan were brutally sundered. And they continue to do this work even today.
The Guru’s legacy also continues to live on in Muslim musicians who are the 17th-generation descendants of Bhai Mardana, a lifelong companion of Guru Nanak. These musicians still today sing his devotional verses in the gurudwaras.
Guru Nanak’s many writings are infused with the essence of his belief in the oneness of the human race. He is that unique individual: one who is not exclusive to any faith, but is for all humanity.
We can gain an even deeper understanding of the beauty of his legacy when we examine the paintings and other visual references that we have inherited of him from the past four centuries.
We do not know exactly what Guru Nanak, the man, looked like—was he tall or short, dark or fair, frail or stout? We will probably never know the answer because, unfortunately, we have not even a single portrait made during his lifetime.
Fig. 1. B-40 Janamsakhi ca. 1733 British Library, Oriental and India Office Collection
The earliest references that we have of him are from texts called the Janamsakhis: classical hand written manuscripts containing stories and episodes from his life. The B40 Janamsakhi manuscript from ca. 1733 is considered to be one of the best surviving manuscripts of this period. It is recorded as having been written by a scribe called Daia Ram Abrol and is illustrated with 57 paintings by the artist Alam Chand Raj. One of the folios (Fig. 1) shows a painting of Guru Nanak and his lifelong friend the Muslim rabab player Bhai Mardana while they are in Kashmir.
Fig. 2: Guru Nanak visiting Bibi Nanki Janamsakhi Punjab Ca.1800-1900 Opaque watercolor on paper 20.3×17.5cm Asian Art Museum San Francisco, Gift of Kapany Collection
Many of the Janamsakhis available today were produced in the late 18th and 19th centuries, periods when wealthy families would commission artists. It was during this period that the ancestors of Dr. Narinder S. Kapany commissioned one illustrated Janamsakhi that today is in the permanent collections of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
One of my favorite paintings from this Janamsakhi (Fig. 2) is a vibrant painting of Guru Nanak visiting his older sister Bibi Nanaki, who is bowing to him as in a gesture of touching his feet, as one would of a wise or holy man. We see that the Guru has his arms extended as though trying to stop her from doing so, reminding us of the Guru’s strong belief in gender equality. In his writings, he boldly criticizes the prevalent customs of 16th-century society that accorded women an inferior status.
Fig.3: Guru Nanak Lucknow or Faizabad, c. 1770, pigment on paper, 41.5 x 33.5 cm Kapany Collection
One of the oldest portraits that we have of Guru Nanak is an 18th century watercolor (Fig. 3). It shows an elderly man with a gray beard reading from a small red book. Judging by his headgear and dress, we might say that this is a painting of a Muslim pir, or spiritual guide. It is only after reading the Persian inscription above the painting—“Tasvir Dervish Nanak Shahi”—that we realize that this is actually a portrait of Guru Nanak himself. We also know that this painting comes from the Lucknow region of Uttar Pradesh, India, leading us to believe that perhaps it was painted by a Muslim artist who depicted the Guru in his personal vision of such a holy man.
Fig.4: Guru Nanak, ink and color on paper, 19th century Khanuja Family Collection of Sikh Art
The first half of the 19th century was a period of rare stability and peace throughout the Punjab. Patronage by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and other noble families helped Sikh art flourish. A good example of this period is a miniature painting (Fig. 4) in which Guru Nanak is centrally placed, sitting on a raised stool and reading or perhaps singing from a red book held high in his left hand with the arm resting on a sadhu’s staff. Alongside him, his companion Bhai Mardana plays the rabab and a devotee reverently waves a peacock-feather whisk. This time the Guru appears as a saint, or sadhu, from the Hindu tradition, as indicated by the tilak (sacred markings) on his forehead, the sadhus staff under his arm, the yellow robes, and a mala (prayer beads) around his neck.
Fig.5: Guru Nanak, 19th century Chandigarh Art Gallery & Museum
Another beautiful 19 century miniature painting (Fig. 5) is representative of most early portraits of the Guru, showing him wearing some form of a cap, or topi, instead of the traditional turban. This painting, done in a classic contemplative pose and style, shows Guru Nanak with a silliee topi on his head and an embroidered shawl draped over his shoulders. It is his robe that catches our eye, because it is inscribed with Arabic verses from the Koran, while the sleeves and a part of its hem hold verses from the Japji Sahib. Perhaps the artist was inspired by a similarly inscribed robe that Guru Nanak is known to have received as a gift from the Caliph in Baghdad during his 4th Udasis period (1517–22). This actual robe is preserved at Dera Baba Nanak in Charda (East) Punjab.
Fig.6: Detail of Rumaala, Embroidery on Silk, 19th century, China, Bhalla Family Collection
This rich tradition of portraiture is not limited to painting but also includes textiles, some of which were created far from Punjab. A silk rumaala (a cloth covering for the sacred Sikh scriptures), which shows a classic conclave of the ten Sikh Gurus along with Bhai Mardana and another companion (Fig. 6), was crafted by Chinese artists in China. Sikh soldiers commissioned it in the late 1800s, at a time when they were stationed in China during British colonial rule of India. While the earlier paintings contained elements from different traditions, here it is the features of the Gurus, unique to the artists’ imagination, that look naturally very Chinese. Another interesting aspect of this textile artwork is a centrally placed motif, next to the trays of Karah Parshad (a type of food distributed during religious ceremonies), which is believed to be sacred in the Chinese tradition.
Fig.7: Guru Nanak , Sobha Singh,1969,Oil on canvas, 56x71cm Gifted by Dr. R.K Janmeja Singh to Kapany Collection
It is mostly in 20th century paintings, though, that we start seeing Guru Nanak as a Sikh spiritual guide who is reflective of today’s world. The popular Sikh artist Sardar Sobha Singh, for one, believed that the purpose of his art is to inspire the viewer to follow in the footsteps of the Guru.
In one of the portraits (Fig. 7), Guru Nanak is painted as a manifestation of his devotion and meditation. The Guru now looks somewhat like a grandfatherly Sikh of our own times, apart from the halo, which signifies his divinity.
Fig.8: Guru Nanak, Arpana Caur, 2019 Oil on canvas, 91x60cm Surinder Kaur Dhami Family Collection
A significant development in the 20th century is in the artists themselves. Not only are we now seeing the distinctive work of named artists but we are seeing more through the eyes of the women.
By the 1980’s Arpana Caur is making her mark on the Indian contemporary art scene. Through abstract figures she interprets the stories from the Janamsakhis , Punjabi folk lore and also comments on society and its ills. One of her recent paintings of Guru Nanak (Fig.8), is in her expressionist style. Here the elderly Guru is wearing his classic sillli topi, dressed in blue robes, and holding a mala in his hand with eyes closed, deep in meditation.
Summarizing the portraits of Guru Nanak from four centuries, we find that there is no one way to depict the Guru. It is clear to us viewers today that portraits such as these are not representations of the historic Nanak, but rather of a man of that time and society, painted by different artists from varying backgrounds, faiths, and geographical regions—just as they envisioned him to be.
An artist who is a Hindu might imagine him as a sadhu from the Hindu tradition, while a Muslim artist might imagine him like a pir. In some paintings, there is a mix of elements from both Hindu and Muslim traditions. This is appropriate for Guru Nanak, who is known to have dressed in both styles, since he did not wish to be identified strictly with any one sect. Above all, he was a prophet for all humanity.
For me, this is the timeless beauty and aesthetic of all visual representations of Guru Nanak—that he is precisely as you imagine him to be.
Nanak Shah Fakir
Hindu ka Guru the
Mussalman ka Pir
This is how the world loves and experiences Guru Nanak.