Art News & Views

Manjit Bawa

Creative Impulse

by Vinod Bhardwaj

This interview was carried out at different stages at the artist's studio and originally published in the Hindi Daily JANSATTA, 1999, translated into English by Brij Sharma.

In the world of modern Indian painting, in the wake of the progressive initiative of Husain, Souza and Raza, artists such as Padamsee, Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Swaminathan and K. C. S. Panikkar have tended to define their struggles in the realm of art in their own inimitable manner. After these artists it is the generation of A. Ramachandran, Ganesh Pyne, Manjit Bawa and Arpita Singh which endows the contemporary Indian art with its most reassuring identity. Manjit Bawa considers himself a 'disciple' of the late Jagdish Swaminathan. In the 1980s he was active on many fronts in the world of art. He gave a new vocabulary to painting; was active in many cultural arenas (theatre, music, film, poster-making etc.) and was even quite candid about speaking of his political commitments when the need arose. Whether it was the 1984 riots or the charge against Husain of painting the image of goddess Saraswati in the nude, Manjit Bawa played his role as an alert art-citizen, too, quite skillfully.

In the course of this conversation Manjit confesses that he has indulged in enough of art politics. And he is well aware of that. But quite like his guru Swaminathan, he has shown both commitment and maturity in his politics. Manjit has deep faith in the 'sentiment of service' and he assumes this sentiment is like a spiritual experience. 'Sycophancy' is a distorted dimension of this 'sentiment of service' for which Manjit has an innate abhorrence. At the age of four, during the festival of Guruparva, Manjit learnt to 'count' as the devout left their footwear in his care. He considers this 'sentiment of service' as something 'hereditary' and this has a close relationship with the basic nature of his art.

Manjit's earliest memories are of Delhi where he had arrived when he was around five. He was born in the township of Dhuri in Punjab on 28 July 1941, the day of the festival of Teej, literally in a cowhouse. His love for animals is evident in Manjit's art as well. There is an interesting story behind this birth in a cowhouse. Manjit's father was a timber merchant in those days. Not a successful one though, and ultimately the business failed. His father had this fascination with playing the flute. It was generally believed that a flute was something which brought bad luck so he would go to the outskirts of the village to play it. He was also a keen animal lover and had a fascination for horse-riding. It was considered difficult to persuade cows to take a dose of medicine since they often turned hostile. But Manjit's father had this knack of giving them medicines quite easily. He would recite some mantra and the cow would readily consume. When people realised his powers they advised him to set up house in the cowhouse itself. That's how Manjit Bawa was born in those unusual surroundings. He was the youngest among five brothers. And there were three sisters, too, two of them elder to him.

Manjit's childhood memories relate to Delhi, where his father had moved after the failure of his timber business. The building activity was at its peak in the Delhi of those days. So his father entered the brick kiln business. But somewhere inside him he nursed an artist, too. So he would play a variety of roles in the street theatre such as that of Dashrath, Sultana Daku or Amarsingh Rathore. He would also play the flute and was drawn to the world of saints and mendicants. In his childhood Manjit seemed to remember virtually every tree of Delhi. It was a world of just before the Partition. He still ruminates about Shahjahan's canal along the Motiya Bagh and Kade Khan's Bagh. And his forays to steal fruit from sundry gardens. And the joy of plucking and gorging on berries in summer afternoons. Indeed oftentimes fruit alone sufficed for lunch.

Nowadays Manjit Bawa is the media's favourite artist. After Husain he is perhaps the only artist who in some way can be called the 'darling' of the media. These days Manjit has no problem finding buyers for his works. Indeed a painting by him gets sold even before it's been painted. But his saleability is not really the reason why he is all over the media. There was a time when works by Husain and B. Prabha sold at more or less the same rate. But B. Prabha never meant anything to the media. Obviously the media too have their own politics and strategies. Manjit had to struggle a lot before he found success. And today the situation is that while the Rabindra Bhavan gallery in Delhi is holding his largest one-man show ever, he has no time to speak either to his buyers or to the cultural correspondents who write for the colour supplements of newspapers which in turn tend to take their cues from the telly. One observes this peculiar phenomenon in the contemporary Indian art mart that once an artist hits the road to success, innumerable upper-class women materialize out of nowhere and take over all his responsibilities. After the inauguration of his latest exhibition 'Bhav, Bhaav, Bhaavya' in Mumbai and Kolkata Manjit had to suddenly leave town because of an important commitment. On return, he declared: “I have to leave for Dalhousie at four in the morning and have to also take the car to the mechanic.” Manjit loves to drive fast. Once, when a bandh had been declared Rajasthan, Manjit was on his way to Jaipur to inaugurate an art camp. This correspondent was with him on the trip. Taking advantage of the traffic-free highways, Manjit managed to make it to Jaipur at breakneck speed. This conversation, too, took place no less speedily, sitting in a gallery corner. Only once were we interrupted by a cellpone-flaunting buyer keen on somehow acquiring one painting by Manjit. “But I'd be able to pay only in instalments.” Manjit couldn't help laughing: “Then why don't you start paying the instalments right away. The painting will then be ready by the time they are over.”


Vinod Bhardwaj: Who would you consider the most important among all the Progressive Artists Group painters?

Manjit Bawa: Husain is definitely the most important. He has kept his feet firmly on the ground. Souza is important too, but all the cacophony about his art is that - it was inspired by painters such as Picasso. At one time his work was also the focus of debates in Britain, and he found fame as well. But Husain has assimilated Indian sculpture and mythology quite creatively into his art. In any case even Raza's role in that group is not to be taken lightly.

VB: How do you look at the intensity of infatuation a great artist like Husain displays towards Madhuri Dixit? Is it acceptable to portray Madhuri as an 'icon'?

MB: It's a matter of the heart. If Husain finds pleasure in it, good luck to him. He found Madhuri beautiful. Fine. He has even turned the horse into an 'icon' whereas I settled for the goat and the bull. One can 'push' any object. I feel, though, that this kind of infatuation for Madhuri could have been better displayed by some young artist. But maybe none dared to. Speaking about my personal favourite, among the actresses Madhubala is my 'icon'. But I chose never to paint her.

VB: In the context of contemporary art, nowhere in the world does one find as many woman painters as in India. What do you think are the reasons for this?

MB: There never was any 'male domination' in Indian art. Moreover, here painters tend to come to the support of other painters. When Paramjit Singh sold well and there were no takers for the paintings of his wife Arpita Singh, all artists would still go to see the latter's work. In one Dhoomimal show not a single Arpita Singh painting sold but all art lovers liked the show. Indeed Arpita is unique among all woman painters. No one can claim to have as much mastery over drawing nor her kind of grasp and understanding of colours and texture. She is also quite aware as an artist, with an unmatched sense of fantasy in her work. She paints from the heart, not to please anyone. Among the new generation of woman artists I like the work of Jayshree Chakravarty. Also the dreamscapes of Anju Dodiya.

VB: How do you feel about having simultaneously exhibited your work across so many cities?

MB: This show has my works created over the last two years. There were a total of 27 paintings in the Mumbai show. Here, in Delhi, there are 23. I have been a little lax about my one-man shows. Kolkata doesn't have much of an art market. But I quite enjoyed the visit there. It was heart-warming to see 1,200 to 1,300 people assembled on the inaugural evening. People there have this desire to 'see' and lots of them turned up every day. In Mumbai it's not only art lovers but buyers too who make it a point to visit an exhibition. Also, the Delhi papers are tardy. They don't seem to publish anything serious on art, showing an interest only in sensational issues. One might occasionally glean some light-hearted comment. There was a time when Charles Fabri, Richard Bartholomew and KB. Goyal would write about art in newspapers.  I have preserved my collection of clippings from Dinaman to this day. What the Press tends to carry these days are not reviews of paintings themselves but of the parties thrown to launch them, descriptive of half-naked women under the spell of tranquilizing drugs.

VB: But even the Mumbai Press is no better.

MB: My experience there has been a little better. There you find some serious writing as well.

VB: Pritish Nandy created a false glamour around art journalism. You also did a show with him.

MB: Pritish Nandy 'glorified' the painter. He also promoted the cause of art, resulting in a rise in the sales of paintings. And people began to discuss art. Which other editor would you say 'promoted' art to such extent?

VB: How do you look at your identity as a Sikh in the middle of all these programmes focusing on the tercentenary of the Khalsa Panth?

MB: No modern artist would like to confine himself to one identity. Nor would I like to promote myself through it. Even so, perhaps the kind of courage and the kind of energy that drive me have their link with the fact of my being a Sikh as well.  The courage and determination with which Sikhs survived in jungles for a century and a half, their warrior spirit must have left an imprint on me too. Connoisseurs of art have spoken about the folk and tribal background of my work, the courageous display of colours in my paintings has been commented on, and the incorporeal aspect of my imagery has been dissected. I would like to believe that behind all this, a creative warrior's spirit must have been at work. How many artists today have succeeded in leaving a stamp of their own image on the figures in their works? Who is applying colours in this manner? I am the one who has fought his own battles.

VB: The violent riots of '84 affected both your life and your art. How come then that your art does not depict the violence, cruelty and ugliness prevalent in life?

MB: I believe that the spirit of violence can be quelled with love. The depiction of violence in art will only give rise to more violence in life. There is a Chinese proverb that when there is a storm in the sea refrain from throwing even a splinter in it since even that might further aggravate the storm.

VB: But works such as Picasso's Guernica stand as an artist's definitive statement against war. And today the central feature of even some of Husain's canvases is the narration of violence.

MB: I consider it bad form to practice journalism through painting. I have nothing against the artists who indulge in it but I can speak about my own nature and temperament. During my creative process I am drawn to the signs and intimations of music and poetry. A painting ought to end up as a painting not as an illustration.

VB: Swaminathan once told me that in today's art market an artist has to follow the strategy of a guerilla fighter.

MB: This was certainly true in his time. [Laughs] There was no market worth the name then. The art bazaar was quite small. Today you can generate fame for 10 to 15 minutes or five to ten years. But eventually Time will ensure you fade away. But if you choose to fight your battles at a slow pace, that has a more lasting effect. When I have to sell my paintings I phone no one, nor do I chalk out a strategy. I do send across cards to a couple of people but never phone them. I am against all that. It has also to do with one's dignity. [Laughs] One must have respect for one's beard too!

VB: Some people are of the opinion that your role in Maniratnam's film Dil Se does not go with your image.

MB: I have not been able to watch Dil Se. I once went to watch it but couldn't get the ticket. Maniratnam is a friend. We were together in Dalhousie for a week or so. We also visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar in connection with a project. When he asked me to play that role I agreed. Delhi is the largest 'gossip village'. You have an ice-cream at India Gate, release a balloon… even these become news items. I am into theatre, I make posters, I sing, I enjoy all these activities.

VB: Between music and poetry, which one do you find closer to your heart?

MB: Poetry, where even a short line might hide a big idea. Kabir, Bullay Shah, Harbhajan Singh, Puran Singh…God knows how many old and new poets have I imbibed. Bullaya main to vakh nahin / Teri dekhan wali akh nahin. Lines like this make me realise that if you do not have eyes which can 'see', you can do nothing.

VB: How do you look at the problem of repetitiveness in your art?

MB: The seven notes of music are being practiced for centuries. And they have countless permutations and combinations. An artist like Mondrian continued to cover more or less the same ground all his life. Yet he felt the difference even within that space! It is another matter if you feel otherwise.


2] Image Courtesy : Palette Art Gallery, from the show-Mapping the Conscience, Curated by Ina Puri
3] Image Courtsey : Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Noida
4] Image Courtesy : Emami Chisel Art, Kolkata



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