His simple life and dedication to his
work can be seen in most temples, mosques and Gurudwaras in East
Africa and some in U.K. AMID the helter-skelter of the kiosks,
retail market and country bus stops in Eastland's a turbaned, white
bearded man quietly works. Oblivious to the pandemonium about him,
he chisels, sculpts, plasters and points on an ornate structure.
While he creates, his face, paradoxically, reveals both a deep
tranquility and a keen intensity.
Such profound concentration is the trademark of the work of
Hari Singh Bansal, Kenya's most versatile Asian craftsman.
Architect-mason-carpenter-sculptor-painter all rolled into
one, he is currently working at Landhies Mosque (below) across
from the retail market; he is designing the bora bhari, the
front entrance to the mosque, where worshippers remove their
shoes before entering.
But Hari Singh doesn't just work for
Muslims. Sikhs, Hindus and Gujaratis also have often called on
him. To mention a few of his creations: the Landhies Mosque
itself, the Pangani Mosque, the art work at the Ram Mandir in
Eastleigh, the Makindu Sikh Temple, the Kahawa Mosque and a
series, of life-size religious statues at the Ramgharia
"Working for religions other than my own doesn't bother me,"
says Hari, pausing from dressing up a minaret. "In essence all
religions are the same, in that God is one. So I'll do work
for anybody with the same heart."
For most buildings on which he works, Hari Singh designs the
architectural plans as well as doing all the artwork. He also
directs labourers in construction.
The 78year-old Sikh has no plans to slow down either. After
finishing at the mosque, he plans to construct some statues
and fountains et a private home and later on another mosque,
in Makindu. Hari refuses to haggle over charges for his services, but
will take whatever his employer will give him. "I love my
work," he says. "When I'm working for religion, I know that
God is near me and is pleased. This makes me forget about the
world and I become lost in my work."
"My work keeps my life going. If I quit, I know that my body
and mind will deteriorate and I will die."
Whether true or not, Hari Singh is certainly in excellent
shape; his square shoulders, thick wrists and sturdy hands
belie his age. "I'm suffering from nothing," he says, "except
I did have to get some false teeth."
Hari Singh was born in the little village of Jullunder, India,
in 1899. He started learning his craft at 20, when he became
an apprentice to his father, a designer also of mosques and
temples. It was 10 year before Hari was sent out on his own.
He then trekked about India and Pakistan, painting and
In 1950 Hari came to Kenya to visit friends and decided to
stay. "With all the poverty in India, I found Kenya to be a
gold mine," he recalls. "Also, I saw my skill was needed here,
and I liked the country's cool weather." -
One of Hari's first painting of Guru Nanak, a Sikh leader was
so popular that there were soon other requests for painting.
But to ensure a more regular income, Hari joined a Nairobi
Painting firm and started doing the art work for signboards,
many of which still front dukas in town. But with his reputation spreading, Hari soon found that he
was spending more time designing places of worship than in
doing signboards for fish-and-chips establishments or chemist
The soft-spoken Sikh now works on his own. Married, he has two
sons, one a carpenter, the other an accountant. If he has any
spare time, Hari prays, meditates, feels his 100 beads, or
reads the Granth Sahib, the Sikh 'Bible'.
Some of the greatest praise for his works, says Hari, comes
from Africans, who probably do not fully understand the
religious significance of his art. Hari himself strongly
appreciates African Art. "African artists are very good at
depicting natural landscapes and their people's daily life,"
he says. Besides earning a living, what is the main purpose of his
"To bring happiness to people, he answers. Also, when I'm
gone, my buildings will serve to remind my friends of me."
Hari surprisingly plays down the aesthetic aspects of his
skill. "A fellow interested in doing my work must first
believe in God," he declares. "Second, he must be willing to
turn away from the modern world, to be able to keep only one
thing in mind: that he's working for God." Hari's only real worry, he says, is that no one in Kenya is
learning Hari's trade. "I am willing to teach anybody who is
willing to learn," he says, stroking the two long strands of
his snowy beard. "It would greatly help me, for working alone
takes a lot of time and keeps me from starting other works. If
I can teach somebody my art before I pass away, my mind and
heart would be relieved."
For Hari Singh's ways to pass away would indeed be a big
loss to the richness and diversity of art in Kenya. It is indeed a great loss to the art world as a successor
to this great artist has not been found since his death in the
UK, a few years after the above article was written.