Bawa`s canvases reflect colours of violence: Book

New Delhi: He dabbled in rounded figures of men, animals and fairies floating in psychedelic orange and mauve, but late artist Manjit Bawa`s canvases often reflected the colours of global violence, says "Readings" - a biographical series of books published by Lalit Kala Akademi.
"Readings" introduces a series of writings on artists and sculptors beginning with Bawa, who died Dec 29, 2008. It is a collation of reviews, articles and excerpts from Bawa`s memoirs, chronicling his life from the early 1960s.

The compilation looks at the artist`s work and the philosophy and politics driving his art at a time when the art scene in the capital was beginning to flex its muscle with artists like M.F. Husain, Swaminathan and Ram Kumar.

"When you make a statement, you don`t wait for the paint to dry. The last two decades have been particularly violent, leaving a trail of blood," ruminates Bawa, one of the foremost among contemporary Indian artists, in "Readings: Manjit Bawa" compiled by Ina Puri.

"Museums have been ransacked, hospitals attacked and ordinary people targeted. I have articulated my disillusionment with what I see around me in my `Mapping the Conscience, 1984-2004 set of Paintings`," he adds.

"Mapping the Conscience 1984: 2004" was an exhibition curated by Ina Puri to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

"The works (in the Mapping the Conscience) seek to reflect the moments of anguish drawn from real life, but seldom seen. The allegories have their own tales to tell and mythological figures like the Narasimha and Prahlad are used - like an elderly father-figure calmly stabbing an innocent child in its lap," Bawa said.

Bawa, who described himself as a Sufi poet, musician and an artist, was born in 1941 at Dhuri, Punjab. He was encouraged to pursue art by his older brothers and studied fine arts at the College of Art in Delhi.

In 1964, Bawa went to work as a silkscreen painter in Britain, where he studied art and made studio sets to earn a living. He died prematurely in 2008.

The artist "did not want to be strictly Indian". And neither did he want to be global. "I think about it differently. Think of Carnatic sangeet or Bharatanatyam. Do you call them global or local? Anything in art, if you can accept it, becomes global at a particular point.

"Think of all the Sufi poets, or even Guru Nanak. None of them travelled much, yet their songs went all over the world...You have to master your own thing and then perform," Bawa said.

There were four people who shaped Bawa`s life.

"One was my elder brother who worked as a designer in the American embassy. Artist Abani Sen, who was my `master babu`. He didn`t just teach me to draw, he showed me that art was an attitude. `Do 50 drawings every day. Show me,` he would say.

"When I joined the art school in Delhi, there was Jagdish Mehra on the faculty. For over 15 years, I had close contact with J. Swaminathan - I worshipped him like my guru," Bawa said.

For Bawa, his work "was a continuous process that took up almost all the waking hours".

"Even when I sleep, I have experienced visions that were related to my painting activity," he said.

He wanted to create his own style, he had the urge to "find a new idiom and a new language".

"Manjit Bawa was deeply interested in legends," Lalit Kala Akademi chairperson Ashok Vajpeyi told reporters. The artist had been brought up on Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Puranas, the poetry of Waris S. Shah and readings from the Granth Sahib.

"Entrenched as he was in the Punjabi folk epics, he played around with legendary realities rather than engaging with historical facts," Vajpeyi said about Bawa`s art.

"A crow sitting on the shoulder of a orange goat standing in the unique combination of her limbs, a near violet tiger about to pounce on a half moon - the works do not have an essence that can be verbally extracted or described as such. They resist confinement within a single meaning," Vajpeyi said.

Bawa`s icons, which usually laughed and swam in happy abandon, became sightless, cruel and bitter when he reflected upon the state of the violent world beset by parochial walls, hatred and jealousies - and above all terror.