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Traditional, Modern & Contemporary Indian Art Traditional, Modern & Contemporary Indian Art MANJIT BAWA (1941 - 2008)
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Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai
Important Private Collection, south-India
"The Kalighat patuas.....would naturally possess a particular interest and if they would be hung up in any place amongst ....other pictures, they would outshine the others not only for their different characterization but for their wonderful colour-effects and contours as well"
- W.G. Archer (Kalighat Paintings, Pg 31, Victoria & Albert Museum).
This work, like many in his oeuvre, draws richly from the visual language of the Kalighat Pata paintings from the Bengal region. Painted in oil on canvas and dated 1998, the background of pure ochre seems to yawn into the distance which only serves to highlight his subjects more. The result is surreal, a luminous halo like effect almost enveloping the figures. Here, the brilliant green parrot with its flaming red beak perches on a woman's shoulder, bending to drink from a proffered bowl, the very picture of symbiosis and coexistence; this is a silent communion of man and beast, a nearly lost universal language. The draping of her headscarf is represented in sweeps of bold hue and while her arms and torso are rendered in a similar way, the rest of the figure seems swallowed by the vibrant expanse they are foregrounded in.
Bawa's works in this vein also tell of his deep fascination with the common man, which stayed alive alongside his affinity for epic mythological figures. The influence of the Kalighat tradition becomes apparent in these elements. One is overcome with the feeling of solitude that pervades the work; which is what makes this trademark piece stand apart as an oasis of stillness in an era of hustle bustle and noise.
"I think everyone's life is beautiful;
I think there's a story in the lives of each one of us"
- Manjit Bawa (Ina Puri, In Black & White: The Authorized Biography of Manjit Bawa, Penguin Random House, 2017).
Manjit Bawa's life and works were soaked in Sufi poetry, folktales, vibrant flora and fauna drawn from his love of the natural world and the gods and goddesses from Indian mythology. Popular figures from the Hindu pantheon dance across his canvas from Kali to Shiva and Krishna. However, he does not eschew the common man, who also features alongside myriad birds and animals.
Renowned for his exceptional figurative works in an era that was characterized by an abundance of abstraction, he was also known for his miniatures and his drawings.
From Dhuri, Punjab, the land of his birth, he went on to gain an education in the arts at the Delhi College of Art which he joined in 1958. Here, he had the great fortune to learn from masters such as Bengali greats Somnath Hore and Abani Sen. The latter was instrumental in ushering him into the world of figurative art and also perhaps into a more Indo-centric painterly language. Bawa had studied Silk Screen printing in Essex and it could perhaps be conjectured that his fixation with Indian subjects was formed due to his proximity to Sen's nationalist ideals.
Subsequent to earning his Diploma in Silk Screen printing, Bawa lived and worked in the British capital until the beginning of the seventies. On returning to India, Bawa continued painting and establishing a reputation as a legendary artist. In the 1970s, he would then return to his alma mater, the College of Art in Delhi, this time as part of the visiting faculty; another homecoming for the artist whose life came full circle from being a student to becoming a teacher.
"It is not about colour, size or even lines. The distinct painterly language grabs your attention from the moment you set your eyes on the canvas. At once, you are drawn in, losing sense of time, place and other trivia"
- Ina Puri (In Black & White: The Authorized Biography of Manjit Bawa, Penguin Random House, 2017).
Bawa's works offer a sense of space, which is enhanced by his flat use of colour. However, the figures portray movement and size, in the way they are positioned and juxtaposed at various distances. His tendency towards bright colours is a stark contrast for the times, when drab greys and browns were the norm, influenced by the British.
He had a shrewd understanding of how colours would affect Indian sensibilities saying, "We have been brought up on a staple of ochres, greys and browns in art, thanks to the British. That's why when I began using bright colours the reaction was negative but I persisted.. Bright colours are closer to the heart of most Indians, familiar as they are with these shades"
- Manjit Bawa (Rakesh Kumar, Encyclopaedia of Indian paintings, Pg 204, Anmol Publications, 2007)
In 2008, Manjit Bawa left the world rather before his time, at the age of 67.