Manjit Bawa: the lyrical painter

Once upon a time, a dreamer derived his painterly language from Indian mythological tales, legends, and fables rich in moral and spiritual lessons. Manjit Bawa (b. 1941) introduced fragments of his thoughts, ideas, and poetry into the rational world throughout his artistic oeuvre. Born in Dhuri, Punjab, Bawa's childlike fascination with music, spirituality, and philosophy breathed heavily on his canvas. Manjit Bawa's artworks are mystical musicals that strike a chord and capture a dream.

"Going back to my earliest memories – I recollect listening to stories of Mahabharata, Ramayan, Purana from as far back as I can remember. Religious scriptures, the Holy Granth were so much a part of my formative years." [1]

 As a teenager, Manjit would sketch, scribble and draw without any method. " At that time, my driving need was to bring out all those ideas I had within me, anyhow," recalls Manjit. After seeing his obsessive interest in art, his brother took him to Abani Sen, regarded as one of the old masters of modern Indian painting. Master babu, as Manjit would fondly call him, influenced Bawa's distinct style and urged him to embrace figurative art when abstraction reigned supreme in India. In one of his interviews, Bawa recalls Sen's constant emphasis on the significance of space at all times.  "His strident query still rings in my ears, why can’t I see the space behind the model?" This also formed the foundation for Bawa's distinctive use of colour and space. 

In 1958, Bawa studied Fine Arts at the School of Art, Delhi Polytechnic, Delhi, and received his diploma in 1963. Here, he quickly realized that abstraction was the newest art trend while figurative art "a poor second, barely tolerated by the self-styled art gurus." This, however, did not deter Bawa to pursue his convictions and create his painterly language. He moved towards creating his own forms - drawing from his thought process.

"I feel it is essential for a painter to draw from imagination… not photographs or books because somehow this feels borrowed and contrived. Or the work becomes hard and loses its poetry and softness." [2]

Bawa moved to England in 1964, where he worked as a silkscreen printmaker while studying art at the London School of Painting. The budding artist spent eight years in England before returning to India in 1972. Here, he further explored his fascination with Indian mythology, folktales, and love legends as themes. He steered away from European art conventionalities and delved into Sufi poetry, spirituality, music, and philosophy. His artistic inspiration, firmly ingrained in the fabric of Indian sensibilities and culture. His paintings free-floating verses of poetry in colour - setting the stage for his subjects to break into a performance. Bawa drew these subjects from Hindu mythology and Puranic origins that formed the spiritual soul of his work. 

"Personally, my day-to-day life revolves around these allusions. To label is to limit. They remain to me, basically mythical icons – as Durga, Kali, Shiva, Krishna or even Heer – Ranjha, Mirza – Sahiba or Sohni – Mahiwal. In my world of imagination, they are very real. I have known them from childhood tales and fables narrated to me by my father. As I grew up, I met them again in literature, music, poetry, and art. What else can I draw?" [3]

The Indian art world in the 1970s was small - to the extent that only a few chose to be professional artists. Art materials were insufficient, with close to little or no market, and it was a challenge to find a space to create. Sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri got the Lalit Kala Akademi to start the Garhi Studios - a state-created facility for painting, sculpting, graphics, and ceramics. Garhi was a hub for artists like Krishen Khanna, Paramjit Singh, Ghulam Rasool Santosh, Sankho Chaudhuriand others who were rented out large studios and workspaces. The Garhi Studios appointed Manjit Bawa as a specialist in the serigraphy studio for his expertise in printmaking. He collaborated with J. Swaminathan to make serigraph prints in 1979 and then in 1986. 

Manjit Bawa was amongst the very few to redeem the figure against the background after M.F. Husain, Francis Newton Souza, and Tyeb Mehta. Most urban artists grew in the myopia of the art schools set up by the former colonial rulers. Some painters practiced English academic realism while others dabbled in expressionistic figuration after the opening of the European scene. The Bengal School breathed its last after spreading like a wildfire. The figure still needed to slip into a form. It was only with Tyeb that the figure came into its own again. Tyeb too took to flat areas of colour and an austere staccato line: the figure got congealed into a state of puppet-like inscrutability. It is in this background that the emergence of Manjit is to be encountered." [4] 

"As far as the figures are concerned, they are figments and fragments of my dream world. The split figures that remain suspended in space may seem bizarre to the uninitiated but in my mind, they convey my innermost emotions. Our life is about being suspended in spatial areas – it’s about creatures split up. Life is like that to me." [5] 

Bawa's works remain to be all at once, an assertion and negation of tradition. He was the first artist in India to set his canvas ablaze with striking pinks, violets, and greens on large spaces. Having begun his career as a Silkscreen printer, he was not oblivious to the impact of strong and flat colours in the background. He was constantly inspired to look for fresh colours on his palette, bringing in pastel hues that were not commonly explored by Indian artists. His obsession with Sufi poetry and elements visible in signature rounded forms suspended against an endless sky of colours. His palette brimming with rich reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and blues- reminiscent of Indian elements. 

Lady with Bird, Manjit Bawa, Oil on Canvas, 1999

An artist of multiple shades, Bawa did not just use his long, bony fingers to paint but also play the tabla. He learned this musical instrument to give company to his wife Sharda and daughter Bhavna who would play the sitar. Soon enough, he collaborated with his dear friend Madan Gopal Singh and they became a much sought-after duo that performed Punjabi Sufi music. Bawa would animatedly play the dholki - its pulsating beats filled with passionate interventions of voice. He was also fond of singing and playing the flute. During Lohri, his soulful voice would waft in the air in his native village in Punjab. Both Sufi music and philosophy were essential elements of his artistic creations. And while Bawa's intense fascination with Sufism started at a young age, he found solace in the same when terrorism surfaced in Punjab.

"I remember the nightmare of the 84 riots and the brutal massacre of Sikhs – in those days, I was working at the Refugee Camps and often returned home weary to my bone in the wee hours of the morning. So deep was my anguish at the heart-wrenching scenes I witnessed that I took to reading and singing Sufi poetry especially Quadui and works of Bulle Shah and Sheikh Farid." [6]

Gradually, these Sufi stories seeped into his art - his dream of peace, harmony, and coexistence between all living forms manifesting in his paintings. Bawa always said that he was a painter first, and not an activist. This is why he believed in portraying his innermost beliefs through his art. "I do not feel I have to portray social issues – that is the role of journalists. Films and photographs would capture images far more effectively and authentically."

Today, Manjit Bawa's art gives us an intimate experience of the artist's world. A world of deep, meditative, and playful charm - where kindness exists in abundance. His magical play with colours- afloat in silence seeking peace and harmony. An ethereal domain of soft nudges, endearments, capricious graces, introspective pauses, and rests. His artworks, a vivid documentation of his best qualities as a storyteller. 


[1], [5] and [6] Frames of eternity, Manjit Bawa in conversation with Ina Puri

[2] and [3] Let's paint the sky red, I cannot live by your memories, Vadehra Art Gallery 

[4] Let's paint the sky red, Dogs too keep night watch, J. Swaminathan, Vadehra Art Gallery

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