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What Can a Sardar Paint?

What Can a Sardar Paint?

October 10, 2014

Manjit Bawa- His work was simple but not simplistic

“I am very much a Sikh. Not the militant Sikh but a believer in Sufi-Bhakti cult of Sikhism. I read Guru Granth Sahib but I am not a practicing Sikh, I have read great works of other religions like the Bhagavadagita, Shiv Purana, Ramayana etc and hated Manu Smriti. I admire the poetry of Waris S. Shah, and I love Punjab. I feel oneness with its soil. My language is Punjabi but the remark made to me in childhood stays in memory, “What can a Sardar paint”, the unassuming Sufi painter once declared to a Tribune reporter.

Manjit Bawa was rustic and rooted to the ground. His work was steeped in myth, folk lore, facts, epics, legends and mythology that made him one with his earthen bearings. Throughout his life and in his work, he remained a villager at heart, who enjoyed dancing the night and his blues (Did he have any?) away around a crackling bonfire, as he jived to Bhangara steps on Lohri (The harvest festival celebrated with a lot of gusto by Punjab’s farmers, when the season’s first crop comes home and there is money to be blown away or drunk away!

While Bawa was a simpleton at heart, his work was not simple, even though it was figurative and form-driven. Explaining that dichotomy, art critic S Kalidas once wrote about Bawa’s work, “Manjit turned to figuration when the whole Delhi art scene was leaning towards abstraction.” Bawa’s training in London in graphics perhaps gave him the technical nuance to apply flat color with no traces of brush strokes. The outcome was surreal, floating forms set against cool, placid background that make them visually very arresting!

Had Bawa not followed his passion and dabbled in color he wouldn’t have known what to do with himself for a living. He would perhaps have chosen a nomad’s life. “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 once said.

However destiny had a different life planned for him. His brothers supported his artistic persuasions and were willing to support him through his days of initial struggle that every artist, worth his salt, faces. His early years as an artist were spent recounting stories of his childhood, peopled with the same characters – peasant folk, livestock, men, women, children going about their daily chores and beasts of the jungle. A gentle soul that he was, even his jungle beasts ended up appearing mild and peace-loving, almost vegetarian! In his mythical world, fierce tigers co-existed happily with lame lambs.

There was a transcendental, free-floating, translucent quality to his characters (both human and animal) that made them appear as fragments of fleeting thoughts, lofty ideas, words of a lyrical poetry – but conjoined by rational thought.

Sometimes, he would weave in fascinating mythological tales into his paintings. An accomplished Sufi poet, a cook who loved to potter around in his Spartan kitchen to rustle up delicious food for his friends and family and an animal lover, he also played the flute with great élan. This lyrical quality shown through in all his subsequent work.

Born in Dhuri village of Punjab in 1941, he studied at the College of Art in New Delhi and went to the London School of Printing in Essex to learn silk-screen printing. There he labored from 1967 to 1971 and then returned to Delhi to establish a silk-screen workshop in Garhi village on the outskirts of the capital in 1977-78. A perfectionist to the core, he practiced hard as a draughtsman, and favored minimalism and purism to reflect in his work.

On the surface, his paintings reflected a meditative and reflective quality, but hidden beneath was a sense of sensuality and subtle eroticism. There was a curve, a grace in the soft drapes, in the pliable limbs and in the flourishing gestures of his characters that never came across as loud, ostentatious or garish.

His daughter recalls him as a magician-father. “Whenever I was upset or anxious, Bapu would say a prayer, blow air into my ears and keep his hand on my head. He would tell me not to worry and all my anxieties would disappear.”

At his core, he was unconventional but a champion of the figurative genre. He didn’t shun abstraction, but he stayed honest to his own leanings. In the end, he wanted to create his own grammar and “find a new idiom and a new language” for his work.

That’s the new language we discover in the legacy that he has left behind.

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