The Story of Indian Art #12: Manjit Bawa

A look at the life and work of artist Manjit Bawa who was known for his striking and colourful portrayal of spirituality and nature through his paintings.

“The colour and the simplicity of people I met fascinated me.” – Manjit Bawa

Manjit Bawa was known for his striking and colourful portrayal of spirituality and nature through his paintings. He was born in 1941 in a small town of Dhuri in Punjab. He passed away on 29th December 2008 at his house in New Delhi, after sinking into a coma in 2005 (the result of a stroke). Let’s meet him.

Manjit Bawa [1941 – 2008]

Bawa studied fine arts at the College of Art, New Delhi between 1958 and 1963, where his professors included Somnath Hore, Rakesh Mehra, Dhanaraj Bhagat and B.C. Sanyal. But it was under Abani Sen that Manjit gained a distinct identity and sharpened his skills as a painter.

“Abani Sen would ask me to do 50 sketches every day, only to reject most of them. As a result I inculcated the habit of working continuously. He taught me to revere the figurative at a time when the entire scene was leaning in favour of the abstract. Without that initial training I could never have been able to distort forms and create the stylization you see in my work,” said Bawa.

Drawing was his first love. “I enjoy doing it, for it isn’t decorative and loud. One can use minimum essentials to extract the maximum effect,” says the artist. “I was inspired to return to drawing after seeing Michelangelo’s sketches and drawings at an exhibition in Amsterdam, where I had gone for one of my shows. The idea stuck in my mind. I don’t work on demand, but follow my heart and mind, for I feel everything has a time and a place.”

The Art of Bawa

Bawa never worked on demand. He always followed his heart and mind, for he felt that everything has a time and place. He believed that by using the minimum essentials, he could extract the maximum effect out of his work.

Govardhan [1992] by Manjit Bawa

Between 1964 and 1971, Bawa worked as a silkscreen printer in Britain, where he also studied art. “On my return I faced a crisis. I asked myself, ‘What shall I paint?’ I couldn’t be just another derivative of European style of painting.” Instead, he found Indian mythology and Sufi (school of Islam) poetry. “I had been brought up on stories from the Mahabharat, the Ramayan, and the Puranas (Hindu mythological and sociological texts), on the poetry of Waris Shah and readings from the Guru Granth Sahib,” he said.

Bawa’s canvases are distinguishable in their colours; the ochre of sunflowers, the green of the paddy fields, the red of the sun, the blue of the mountain sky. He was one of the first painters to break out of the dominant greys and browns and opted for more traditionally Indian colours like pinks, reds and violet.

Heer [1993] by Manjit Bawa

His painting exudes a sense of calm and peace in its composition. He has depicted the relation of man, nature and animal in a very subtle, meditative and self-reflective way. Figures like Bulleh Shah and Ranjha from popular Sufi legends also populate his works.

Birds and animals make a constant appearance in his paintings, either alone or in human company. By restricting his subjects to a single figure or group, painted on flat psychedelic surfaces he was able to give a narrative appeal to the subject.

One image the artist identified with is that of Krishna; the romantic, playful, human and divine. For him, Krishna embodied multiple dualities. He pared down the icon to its essence, which is his coloured body and flute, aiming to create a sense of pure aesthetics so simple that even a child can respond to the image. The painting Purple Piper (1978), his first painting of Krishna, is in intense shades of purple and yellows.

Painting of Lord Krishna by Manjit Singh

Besides these, figures of Kali and Shiva dominate Bawa’s canvases; “they are the icons of my country,” he said.

Bawa at a glance

2002: ‘Meeting Manjit’, film on Manjit Bawa directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta won the National Award for Best Documentary
1986: 1st Bharat Bhawan Biennale, Bhopal
1980: National Award, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi
1963: Sailoz Prize, New Delhi

Read more on Manjit Bawa here.

To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    rpm4rent May 05, 2017

    Manjit Bawa’s canvases are distinguishable in their colors – the ochre of sunflowers, the green of the paddy fields, the red of the sun, the blue of the mountain sky.

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    4apshop.com June 13, 2017

    He was one of the first painters to break out of the dominant grays and browns and opted for more traditionally Indian colors like pinks, reds and violet.

    Reply

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