I want to bring about a change in our iconography, says Manjit Bawa, a modern artist in search of a form that would emphasize his nationalist and yet incorporate international trends.

The traditional form weds the radical. The apparently religious joins hands with the frankly iconoclastic. Shades contour flat colours and forms typical of Indian folk art, creating them into striking op-art variants which could delight both Warhol and the Indian calendar artist. Traditional Indian myth is boldly transformed into a contemporary urban statement.

“I want to bring about a change in our state iconography to make it contemporary.” Comments 47-year old avant-garde artist Manjit Bawa on his oeuvre. This 21st century Indian pantheon of half-human divinities, half divine humans and animals. Bawa, as a modern artist, combines seeming contradictions with an ease that at first startles, then wins you over with its charm.

Bawa’s journey into his own image, the Bawain figure, has in itself the makings of an odyssey. From a prosperous Punjabi family, with artistic inclinations, he had a formal education in western art and studied serigraphy (colour silk-screen technology) at the London School of Printing. His subsequent works followed western formalistic patterns: three-dimensional figure studies in charcoal, representational landscapes in oil. Somewhere along the line in his late 20’s, he felt he was missing out on something.

Raja Ravi Varma and Amrita Sher-Gil had combined the east-west mix half a century ago. Towards the end, Sher-Gil had transcended the norms of western formal application, moving towards the flat colours of Indian cave paintings and miniatures, neutralising her palette with the quiet of earth tones. With Jamini Roy’s bold return to folk art forms and Tagore’s highly individualistic exploration into the symbolic images of an Indian poet’s mind, the stage has been set for a truly modern Indian idiom in 20th century art. With precedents like these, Bawa felt confident that there was no longer any need to depend upon western formalistic patterns and trends in order to convince an international public that he was a ‘modern’ artist.

While affectionately acknowledging Husain as a “pioneer to modern art in India, the grandfather of us all, “Bawa also points out Husain’s French-Cubist derivation revealed itself too obviously at times. Other venerable leaders of the contemporary art scene such as Souza, Subramanyan, Raza and Swaminathan had created similarly striking contemporary hybrids with an emphasis on Indian symbolism, clearing the path towards a recognition of the Indian modern idiom. Bawa was in search of his own such form: one that would emphasise, even declare, his nationality, while at the same time incorporate international trends.

The creation of such a many-sided composite form would be no small achievement. The result of Bawa’s labour is a strangely elastic, acrobatic, human, semi-human and animal image.

The artist’s travels in Indian villages and his observations of street life find a vivid reflection in these images: circus performers, street artistes, inscrutable women watched by docile parrots, regal, assertive Durgas, surreal goats, all form a part of his extended family. It is often difficult to find the dividing line between fact and fantasy. In this lies his tribune to the vibrant folk-art tradition, where reality is a myth and and myth is a reality, as seen in the patachitra scroll documentaries of our villages, which chronicle the past and present and conjure-up the future effortlessly.

Manjit’s light-hearted edge, combined with a vibrant, at times psychedelic palette could be misinterpreted as trivial by the urban Indian viewer, who is delightfully ignorant of the scope and depth of basic folk traditions in the visual arts. Here, simplicity and candour reveal the highest sophistication; wisdom is worn very lightly. Manjit clings to his ‘naïve’ vision without any apologies: “I don’t like to intellectualise my work. What disturbs me are the mosquitos and the dust. While working, I prefer very flat surfaces for aesthetic reasons: I don’t want to explain why.”

Then he goes so far as to declare his freedom from any overt ideology: “I used to believe that there would be a revolution and people would then become nice, but I have now realized that they are already quite nice.” Manjit is a stubborn humanist: “I don’t use bows and arrows anymore in my paintings because I don’t think I would like to see people killing each other or animals or birds.” Socio-political happenings find a reflection in Manjit’s canvases, not overtly, but at subtler levels of colour and mood.

Manjit has been through a variety of phases, the most significant and striking were his purple and blue ‘Krishna’ phases evoking a ‘purple piper’ as well as panthers and peacocks burning bright in night forests, and his large remarkably muted, beige and lavender toned portraits of beautiful women. At present, Bawa is attracted to the colour red (“I saw a field full of red poppies at Sona-even the sky was red,”) and to yellow. His most recent painting, ‘Krishna and the Demon Bull’ represented in the Timeless Art exhibition, was completed this year. It forms part of his larger Krishna series and is very representative of his idiom.

Published in The Times of India, Thursday, March 16, 1989
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