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Manjit Bawa

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1941, Dhuri, Punjab, India
Died 2008
Lived and worked between Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh and New Delhi, India

A new form of contemporary art, yet Indian in every way, late artist Manjit Bawa left his unique art to mesmerise the coming generations. His signature mark was the portrayal of simplicity and spirituality, combined together in a highly skilful manner. He had an affinity for drawing, and harboured a keen interest in mythology. Bawa created significant yet subtle works which set him apart from his contemporaries.



School of Art, Delhi Polytechnic, New Delhi

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Manjit Bawa's affinity for scriptures and Sufi poetry is apparent in his art

Manjit Bawa was fortunate to have been trained under great artists such as Somnath Hore, Rakesh Mehra and Dhananjay Bhagat at the beginning of his career. His works are easily distinguished by the vivid application of colours, elements of Pahari style, and are deeply symbolic of Indian mythology.He says, "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)."

His paintings are aesthetically pleasing, displaying a sense of calm and peace even 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.

Manjit Bawa, Ranjha-1 and Ranjha-2.

Flora and fauna: its importance in Bawa's works

Birds and animals make a constant appearance in his paintings, either alone or in human company. His choice of using subtle vibrant colours picked from nature is to give a more traditional appeal. The artist remarks that "the colour and the simplicity of people I met fascinated me," He tried to bring about an indigenous quality to his paintings. 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.

His study of animals, when transposed onto the canvas and supplied with colour, appears somewhat unreal. His softly shaded paintings of isolated animals developed in multi-layered compositions, combines creatures of contrary dispositions in the same frame.

Manjit Bawa, Untitled, late 1960s, water colour on paper, 14.5 x 21.5”.

Krishna a lifelong muse for Bawa

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 colored 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. Bawa is also the first in his oeuvre to consider the human form. Bold juxtaposition and soft modelled human figures almost come to defy anatomical structure. Through Krishna the artist asserts his political and philosophical concerns. He not only ropes in Krishna in his paintings, his love for spirituality is also reflected in other deities like Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva.

Here we see two different renderings of Lord Krishna, one in a completely stylised depiction where a purple figure is wrestling with a massive multiple-headed snake and in the other, a portrait of a pot-bellied Krishna caressing a parrot.

Manjit Bawa, Untitled, 1987, oil on canvas. From The Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection. (Krishna and Snake).

Manjit Bawa, Krishna, late 1990s, oil on canvas, 7 x 5.5”.

Bawa used vibrant colours to illuminate his simple compositions

Since he was fascinated with Indian mythology, and used many references from there, the element of storytelling in his work keeps most viewers interested in his art. After his training in Britain, he was faced with the dilemma of painting in the European style. He instead created his own aesthetic inspired from his childhood stories from Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Puranas.

To depict these weaving tales, he was the first artist to use Indian pinks, reds and browns. His canvases can be distinguished for their ochres, bright greens, blues and reds. He was the first artist to break out of the mould of using grays and browns dominantly.

For instance in Bull, Bawa brings out the pearly white of the cow by juxtaposing it with a refreshing blue. "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." According to him, Indians are more familiar with bright colors, and so would identify with his paintings more.

Amrita Jhaveri, A Guide to 101 Modern & Contemporary Indian Artists (Saffron Art Price Reference Guides).

Manjit Bawa, Bull, oil on canvas, 53.9 x 67.7”.

Bawa always persevered to bring newness to his art

The artist’s creations are based on mythological references and he has successfully created his own language of iconography. Critically acclaimed in the art world for his unique style, Bawa’s brand of art was refreshingly distinct as compared to his contemporaries. There is no trace of any western influence. The sensuality in his work is reflected in the postures, glances, and fall of the draperies. In this Untitled work, Bawa paints the famous heroine Sohni, from the legend of Sohni and Mahwal in Punjab’s folklore. His interpretation shows Sohni, the potter’s daughter in a pensive mood, clutching a pot under her right arm. Her body seems to be floating like a celestial goddess and even her draperies have soft flowing lines which indicate that she is possibly mid-air.

Bawa experimented with tantric art forms and Pahari miniature paintings. Use of strong textures and motifs slowly developed into an abstract style, in which later, he even experimented with torn and twisted limbs forming imaginable shapes. He attempted to paint both man and nature in harmony, forming a trance, focusing on the interlocking of bodies. In the 1980’s, Bawa showed a keen interest in warriors and acrobats. They were elastic and boneless; from there he eventually developed his signature style.

Manjit Bawa, Untitled, oil on canvas, 47 x 69”.