(b 1941)




Artist Profile

"There has to be a certain freshness and newness in one's art, otherwise it's pointless to pursue it. To be different means doing something you have never done before." Born in a small Punjabi town of Dhuri in 1941, Manjit Bawa wasn't exactly encouraged to be an artist. "My mother would try to dissuade me, saying art was not a means of livelihood. But my spiritual leanings dispelled my fears. I had no qualms. I believed God would provide me with food and I would earn the rest," he says. It was Bawa's older brothers who backed him up. He studied fine arts at the School of Art, New Delhi between 1958 and 1963, where his professors included Somnath Hore, Rakesh Mehra, Dhanaraj Bhagat and B.C. Sanyal. "But I gained an identity under Abani Sen. 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 favor 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 today," recalls 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 (a Punjabi poet) and readings from the Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs)," he says. 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. 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. "We have been bought up on a staple of ochres, grays and browns in art, thanks to the British. That's why when I began using bright colors the reaction was negative," points out Manjit, "but I persisted. I have been criticized for my 'ice cream' colors for years, but they come out of the same Winsor and Newton tubes that other painters use. Bright colors are closer to the heart of most Indians, familiar as they are with these shades. " Nature also plays inspiration here. When young, he would travel widely either on foot, by bicycle or simply, by hitchhiking. "I have been almost everywhere - Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat. I would spread a sheet of paper on the ground and draw the countryside. The colors and the simplicity of people I met fascinated me." Birds and animals make a constant appearance in his paintings, either alone or in human company.

Besides nature, the flute is a recurring motif in his works. Bawa learnt to play the flute from maestro Pannalal Ghosh. He has painted Ranjha, the cowherd from the tragic love ballad Heer Ranjha, playing the flute. He has painted Krishna with a flute, surrounded by dogs and not by cows as mythological paintings depict him. Besides these, figures of Kali and Shiva dominate Bawa's canvases; "they are the icons of my country," he feels. If Bawa is known for his vibrant paintings, he is also known for his love of spirituality, and particularly of Sufi philosophy. "I find a wealth of wisdom in the scriptures. Sufi philosophy has taught me that man and man, man and animals, can co-exist," he says. The painter has been surrounded by controversies in his life as an artist, the most recent one being accused of forgery by his assistant. Bawa dismisses this one with a mythological story:

"There is a tale about a saint being stung by a scorpion he had saved from drowning. Neither diverted from his original character. Neither can take on the other's role." For Bawa, drawing is 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." Manjit Bawa lives and works out of Dalhouise, Himachal Pradesh, where his studio is, and Delhi, where his family lives.