The illustrations begin with a classroom scene: a seven-year-old Nanak escorted by his father is making his entry to meet with his teacher. This is his first day at school. That we do not get to see him as a baby or as a little boy growing up in his home showered with the love of his mother Tripta, father Kalu, and sister Nanaki is in keeping with the text. Its succinct opening offers biographical facts: born in Talvandi in the house of Kalu Khatri of the Bedi caste, “in the dark age Baba Nanak delivered the Name (kalijug vici baba nanak nao dharaia)“; “He established his community (apna panth calaia).” The year recorded is Samvat 1526, which corresponds to AD 1468–69. “Baba” literally, a wise old man, is an endearing honorific for Nanak.

This brief account is immediately followed by fabulous details of Baba Nanak’s birth at timeless dawn on the third day of Vaisakh, the inaugural month of the lunar year. As the unstruck sacred word plays in the moonlit night, millions of gods and countless heroes and heroines pay homage to the newly born. Along with holy men, 64 yoginis are specifically mentioned. These advanced practitioners of yoga are highly respected female spiritual teachers in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India, Nepal, and, Tibet. The galactic backdrop is replete with figures from diverse traditions and regions.

The newborn’s growing-up years playing with friends are quickly recounted. Even so, his outlook is distinguished (avar disat): “He practiced the formless One within (atame abhias nrinkar ka kare).” At the age of five, he started to speak of things beyond that made “Hindus say an incarnation of god is born (Hindu kahide ju koi devta sarup paida hoa hai)”; “Muslims say a friend of Allah’s is born (Musalman kahide hai ju koi khudai da sadik paida hoa hai).” The text celebrates Guru Nanak’s birth and childhood upon a vast and vibrant multireligious and multicultural canvas with people of different persuasions appropriating him as their own.

The dramatic scene in which millions of gods, heroes, and heroines are paying homage to the newly born is lavishly illustrated by Sir Sobha Singh, the prominent 20 th-century artist. We see baby Nanak in the lap of mother Tripta, surrounded by his sister Nanaki and other female relatives. Like the cherubs in medieval Christian art, Hindu gods and goddesses in Sobha Singh’s painting appear in the skies above showering flowers on the newborn. The Bagharian collection pictures baby Nanak tenderly wrapped in a blanket in the arms of his father with mother Tripta beside him; the proud parents are introducing their newborn to Pandit Hardyal.

A painting depicting Guru Nanak's first day at school by Alam Chand Raj. | Picture courtesy: Roli Books.

Alam Chand does not depict this drama or intimacy; instead, he begins his set with a little Nanak on his first day at school. He wears a yellow full-sleeved robe coming down to his ankles with an elegant reddish sash neatly tied around his waist, and a matching turban over his head. The chooridar (literally “bracelet forming”) tight trousers peep out from below his robe, as do his curly locks from the turban on either side of his face. It is a most endearing portrait. Nanak’s formal dress and upright demeanour are markedly different from the rest of the children, some of whom are meagerly dressed and most of whom are romping around. His uniqueness (avar disat) is visually sketched out. Amongst the 12 or more pupils, one is better dressed, poised, and seated on the left of the composition. He is attentively looking at the newcomer; it is as though Nanak has already garnered a follower.

The turban customarily donned by Mughal princes, Sufi saints, and Rajput nobility imparts young Nanak a maturity beyond his years. He confidently greets his moustached teacher dressed in the typical upper-caste Brahmin outfit of a pleated dhoti tucked around his waist with one end draping from his right shoulder down his bare chest. Caught at the liminal threshold between “home” and “society” – with his father standing behind him and his teacher seated on a pedestal across from him, with food and books – little Nanak displays profound dignity.

Alam Chand’s introductory scene brilliantly introduces the Sikh religion. Derived from Sanskirt shisya, Pali sekka, the word sikh refers to a learner, a seeker. A dignified young Nanak enters a school – a space designed for writing, questioning, interpreting, reflecting – clutching a wooden board of the sort (takhti or pati) used by children for writing till recent times. Coated with clay, the takhtis would be refreshed daily. Nanak is reverently but tightly holding his wooden board with both hands at a 45-degree angle, towards his own body.

His grip of the writing board foreshadows the Gurmukhi script he started and in which the entire Guru Granth Sahib is written as are the janamsakhis. Parallel to the Arabic script for the holy Quran and Sanskrit for the sacred Vedas, Gurmukhi would be the script for writing his new revelation. His acrostic Pati Likhi recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib underscores the oneness of the Creator. Most of its 35 stanzas begin with a letter of the Gurmukhi alphabet, in the very form that they are in use today. The wooden pati is a metonymic marker that its holder would write up a new religiosity.

But the mainstream classroom instruction is soon reversed. As the sakhi goes on to recount, the next day when his new student does not show interest in his studies, the teacher confronts Nanak. Fed up with the customary instructions and pedagogies, the youngster recites his composition. Stanza by stanza, the student ends up teaching his teacher, offering an illuminating analysis of the scriptural verse:

 Burn all lust, grind it into ink,
burnish the mind into smooth paper,
with love as pen, awareness the scribe,
question the guru and write down the answer.
Write the name, write songs of praise,
keep on writing about the endless One.  

Discarding traditional epistemes, the pupil proposes a pen of love, and a smooth mind to write upon – so smooth that it has no prejudiced scratches. Then the pen of love is held in the hand, dipped into ink of pulverised egoistic lust, and awareness as the agent takes up the writing.

Alam Chand’s singular scene captures the lengthy literary narrative as it showcases the foundational principles of the “Sikh” religion introduced by young Nanak: 1) writing, 2) questioning, and 3) praising. The wooden board in the painting evokes Guru Nanak’s philosophy: “You are the writing board, You are the pen, You are the writing on the board.” The writing board is as an expression for the infinite One, the all-embracing ontological and existential principle. This vast and vibrant creation is its penstroke, which simultaneously is engaged in the act of writing. Beings are free to write their future: their actions – speaking, walking, eating, working, sleeping, socialising, questioning – they are the writing. Therefore, emotional, psychological, and mental refinement must be practiced as people go about their normal routine. Writing as he describes is total awareness which begins by holding on to love (pen) devoid of selfish egoistic motives (ink) on a pure mind (paper). The divine and humans are both engaged in the process of “writing.” No wonder Guru Nanak developed Gurmukhi, his unique script, wrote his verse, and passed it on to his successor – ultimately the Guru Granth Sahib, the philosophical and ethical timeless guru of the Sikhs worldwide.

With his writing board in hand, the youngster mandates an interrogative technique: “ask the guru (guru puchh)’ – an order which is scribed in the sakhi. The guru is the medium of awakening the consciousness, and the class room environment is conducive to intellectual inquiry.

On Alam Chand’s canvas, Nanak enters the classroom from the right to raise questions for his teacher. Rather than accept or parrot past instruction coming down the generations, the newcomer enters the school to think anew, to consider alternatives, challenge, and overturn conventional habits and attitudes. His puchh is a quest for the meaning and purpose of things – the why, what, and how – a genuine wrestling; a catalyst to bring about change. The interrogative technique would become the heart of Guru Nanak’s teaching.

Inspiring freedom and creativity in the minds of his readers and listeners, his questions lyrically raised across the Guru Granth Sahib stretch the imagination, and open up emotional, spiritual, and intellectual faculties.

With the writing board in hand and questions in mind, the youngster exhorts: “Write the Name, write songs of praise, keep on writing about the endless One.” Children learn by writing on their writing boards, for writing is an intriguing multifaceted process. Words cannot be merely copied down. Thought precedes the writing. When we write, we voice the subject from our own perspective, so writing the divine Name resonates with each individual personally. A writer has to make sense of their subject with their own sensibilities. Thus his Sikhs, the members of his new community, would relate with the infinite One in a direct and immediate way. Writing helps to remember better, and so the process serves as a valuable mnemonic device as well.

While Kalu’s hands beckon his son forward, the teacher’s open right hand welcomes the new pupil. Alam Chand’s iconotexts seamlessly reveal the raison e’etre of Guru Nanak’s entry on the North Indian medieval landscape. He established a community of Sikhs – seekers/students who would write with the pen of love, question about the way things are, and write the glory of the infinite One by forging intimate relationships with that One. As noted, the word sikh derives from the Sanskrit shishya meaning “student.” The sakhi’s verbal opening, “He established his community (apna panth calaia)’ is flashed on Alam Chand’s screen. For an introduction of Guru Nanak, the public space of the classroom is most relevant. His own poetic oeuvre delineates the image of a modern instructor. As we will see for ourselves in the ensuing narratives, he gives no doctrinal or epistemic system to follow; instead, he discourses with people in various regions. Everywhere, he motivates people to search for themselves, think about the choices they make, and perform actions mindfully. By choosing to begin with Nanak’s first day at school, the artist highlights the intrinsic character of Nanak, he unfolds the very origins of the Sikh religion, and he sets the tone for the numerous discussions depicted in his pictorial collection. As the attractive youngster holding his writing board makes his entry on Alam Chand’s canvas, he inspires viewers to write the unwritten, think of the unthinkable, imagine the unimaginable, and intuit the unintuitable One.

Excerpted with permission from Janamsakhi: Paintings of Guru Nanak in Early Sikh Art, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Roli Books.