Sohan Qadri. Copenhagen. April 1991. Portrait by Amarjit Chandan
Punjabi artist and poet Sohan Qadri (real name Sohan Singh Barhing), who has died aged 78 in Toronto after a prolonged illness, leaves a rich legacy of pure poetry and art deeply immersed in Indian tradition. He is one of a few Punjabi painters who have made a mark on the international art scene.
Qadri was immersed in painting and meditation for decades. His dye-suffused paintings on meticulously serrated paper reflect his Vajrayana Tantric Buddhist philosophical beliefs. Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Eastern religions at Columbia University and director of Tibet House, says: “If words were colours, Qadri’s art would not be as essentially necessary as it is.”
Qadri lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, for three decades but his career took him across Asia, Africa and North America. He was born in the Punjab, in the village of Chachoki near Jalandhar. At the young age he was initiated into yogic practice first by Bikham Giri, a Bengali Tantric Vajrayana yogi, and few years later he became close to a Sufi figure, Ahmed Ali Shah Qadri, whose last name he adopted. From them he imbibed an ecumenical and a deep spiritual yearning.
He joined the Simla College of Art, in Shimla in 1957, against the wishes of his parents, and after graduating he taught art for four years at Ramgarhia College Phagwara. Soon after he became part of the circuit of the Indian modernists that included M.F. Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Ara, Ram Kumar, and Sailoz Mookherjee. Mulk Raj Anand, was the first to recognise Qadri’s talent and organised his first exhibition in Le Corbusier’s brand new architectural complex in Chandigarh. He was the mentor friend of Shiv Kumar the poet and in 1964 formed the Loose Group a circle of artists and poets in Kapurthala including Hardev, Shiv Singh, SS Misha, Ajaib Kamal and Ravinder Ravi.
Soon after, Qadri departed for Nairobi, Kenya in 1966, where under the patronage of the African cultural figure Elimo Njau, he had a successful exhibition at Paa-yaa-paa, a non-profit art gallery. At the time, the gravitational pull for artists was Paris, where Qadri lived for a few years before settling in Copenhagen, where he was invited by the Danish Ministry of Culture. In the 1970s, he, along with a group of artists and counter-culture figures, illegally occupied an old gun factory, which eventually became the famous free city Christianna.
At an early age, Qadri abandoned representation in a search for transcendence. He wrote: “When I start on a painting, first I empty my mind of all images. They dissolve into primordial space. Only emptiness, I feel, should communicate with emptiness of the canvas.” Despite the fact that he lived in Northern Europe, his work is distinctly Punjabi/Indian. His colours are luminous—Sindhoori reds, peacock blues, intense oranges, along with blacks and grays. A rigorous Scandinavian aesthetic distills these Punjabi colours. The luminous monochrome surfaces of his paintings are repeatedly incised and punctured in an orderly manner, which creates a strict structure. The art critic Donald Kuspit has said: “Using abstraction to convey transcendence, Qadri is the pre-eminent aesthetic mystic of modernism.”
Qadri was friends with a wide array of cultural figures over his long career, including the Surrealist master Renee Magritte and Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, who became one of his important proponents. Böll said: “Sohan Qadri with his painting liberates the word meditation from its fashionable taste and brings it back to its proper origin.” Qadri had more than 70 exhibitions across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Qadri’s unique collections of poems written in classical Punjabi idiom include Mitti Mitti, Navyug New Delhi (1987); Boond Samunder, Lok Sahit (1990); Antar Joti, Navyug (1995). Amarjit Chandan’s long conversations with Qadri in Punjabi were published in Hun-khin (The Now Moment) Navyug, 2000.
Such widely respected poet scholars as Harbhajan Singh and Jaswant Singh Neki greatly admired Qadri’s ‘poetry’ (which Qadri called ‘the other poetry’). Sati Kumar wrote:
Neki approaches Qadri’s creative process from the point of view of the bãni utterances of the Sufis and Nanak. One can surely try to understand Qadri’s poetic accessories from the viewpoint of Indian thought, but to me it seems that this ‘other poetry’ is a specimen of another – a kind of inverted – lore. Only those who know the other lore can read this poetry. It can cause a headache to linguists for its grammar that is not to be found elsewhere and its word-formation that is also rare. Kabir’s language was described as sadhukkarhi – the language of sadhus. Qadri’s language, too, is of his own making. There is no doubt that Qadri has walked into Punjabi poetry like a not so polite sãdh mendicant and there is no match for his crisp and ringing language that sounds like a sãdh‘s chimta tongs. After a very long time an original poet appeared in Punjabi poetry.
Harbhajan Singh wrote on conversations Hun-khin The Now Moment:
The knower of the mystery Kabir had said, jo ghar jare apna chalé hamaré sãth – let him join me who is ready to set his house on fire. To set one’s house on fire means to get rid of one’s words, their meanings, one’s senses, habits and beliefs. It means to come out of the boundaries drawn by them. Only when one renounces one’s parents, neighbours, ancestral heritage, the legacy of untold centuries crystallised in the discriminating sense that judges between good and bad does one the earth as mother, truth as father and the parrot as teacher. The Now Moment provokes one to face such challenges. That is why Qadri does not share anything with the tradition of Punjabi poetry. Even in Urdu poetry, Ghalib is the only one who abides in Qadri’s circle. …
These conversations cannot be understood if we remain confined to our education. If we wish to understand them, we must first break free of our limitations.
(This and Sati Kumar’s quote translated from Punjabi by Rajesh Sharma)
Qadri’s poetry in translation is published under the titles The Dot & the Dots, Poems & Paintings, Stockholm (1978); The Dot & the Dots, revised edition, Writers Workshop, Calcutta (1988); Aforismer, Danish translation, Oslashmens Forlag Copenhagen (1995) and The Seer, Art Konsult, New Delhi (1999).
Qadri was generous in designing book covers for his writer friends – Surjit Hans, Sati Kumar, Ravinder Ravi, Jagjit Chhabra, Amarjit Chandan and others.
He family life was unconventional. His two daughters and a son survive him. His Swedish partner Anna Maria bore him son Soham and younger daughter Pooja. His daughter Purvi, now aged 50, is from his Punjabi wife Daisy Rumalshah who predeceased him in 1980.
Sohan Qadri – real name Sohan Singh Barhing – Punjabi painter and poet born 2 November 1932 Chachoki Punjab; died 1 March 2011 Toronto