SUNDAY MAGAZINE

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To Bawa, a painting should be made

To Bawa, a painting should be made "to live".  

INSIDE the cool, cavernous space in a converted mill that is the Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, Manjit Bawa's newest paintings hang on the walls — bright squares of colour with prancing, contemplative and happy figures inside them. A ringmaster holding up a whip to a leaping lion. A goat with a smile on its face. A cow looking thoughtful. A hand. That's right. A hand, in space. A face that looks ahead to its hand. A hand that is a shape, a form, and beautiful, like a petal.

Start with the face, the neck and shoulder, the arm, and see the air behind move and turn.

These paintings, large and small, are a selection from Bawa's latest work that was in Mumbai recently for a one-day viewing before being transported to Hong Kong for an exhibition there.

"It's a combination of my previous work. It grows. New images come, new colours ... . All art is a moving forward. A painting shouldn't be a dead area. It should be made to live." Bawa himself is thin and angular, all arms and legs in his long kurta. He smiles easily but speaks slowly and thoughtfully, between sips of the sweet, watery chai that has been placed before us. The chai is delicious, just the right thing for a leisurely early-evening conversation, and Bawa is in a mood to talk.

"The human tendency is to create something different from what is already there. And even the slightest difference is still a difference." Having lent his illustrations to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma's memoir, Journey with a Hundred Strings, Bawa is intensely passionate about music, finding in it, several parallels with painting: "It's like the sur. You have to take it forward, with riyaz. The same seven surs are available all over the world, but it can either be music, or it can be noise."

He looks at the painting on the wall. "It's all about forms in space. You see the hand in space. But it's still very much a part of the body. And that is the journey. It's a long journey to reach that destination." Today, that destination is a world peopled with clowns, gymnasts, panthers, snakes, men and women, young and old, in brilliant reds and greens and luminous yellows. A circus of animals and humans, in dialogue and at play, and with the animals within us. Arms, legs, turbans, all formed with rounded, swollen curves, like the lush folds of petals in a flower, and set against an uncluttered background; a rhythm of stillness and movement painted against a silky-smooth expanse.

Themes of faith, fantasy, and fun. This is the world of Manjit Bawa.

"The journey reveals all these forms one has not seen before — these animals, these humans. It's a strange paradox — that what one hasn't seen, one can't imagine. And to reach there, one can only proceed bit by bit."

What was his childhood like, I ask. Restless, he tells me. "I did a lot of boxing. I was restless within myself. I had too much energy. Where should I use it all? I would walk for miles, along the canal (now it's a nalla) the orchard, climb trees, steal fruits, keep on going higher up, climb to the higher branch and higher still. Roam around barefoot in summer."

Although his was not exactly a family of painters, there were artistic influences within the large family. "My brother used to paint. We were five brothers and three sisters, I was the youngest boy and there was one sister younger to me. My brother used me as a model. I used to draw a lot. And I loved nature. Everything became a subject. Even Durga Pooja. From the raw, rough clay, when you keep on building, it becomes an image. It was magical — something one can never imagine. That magic affected me."

The young Manjit would play with atta and clay, but it was when he was in standard eight that he decided he wanted to draw and paint for the rest of his life. "My brother was my guru. He would give me drawing and painting assignments for homework. My father was a contractor. My mother had many artistic interests. She would play the dhol and sing. She had many talents." Bawa's family is directly descended from the family of the third Sikh guru.

Is that where his abiding interest in spirituality derives from?

Bawa's journey reveals forms never seen before.

Bawa's journey reveals forms never seen before.  

"Partly, yes. But I've always read a lot, Zen and the Sufi mystics and mythological stories. The imagination goes so far if you read with care," says Bawa, who reads everything from bhakti, Kabir and Namdev to the Zen koans.

And perhaps it also has something to do with his love for the mountains. In the early 1960s, after completing college in Delhi, the young painter took off to the hills of Himachal Pradesh.

Armed with a sketchbook, sleeping bag and rucksack, he remained there for several months, walking in the green stillness of the mountains, even as the warm glow of autumn gave way to the austere cold of winter.

And it was after this walking tour that he decided he wanted to travel some more and see the world. And so he went to England by road.

"I wanted to see everything. I decided that I had to travel. Should I walk? Take a motorbike? My mother was worried. No motorbike, she said. Then I found this group of people travelling to London. And that's how I went, in a van, with eight others. I didn't get a visa for Pakistan, so I took a flight to Kabul, then set off from there. It took about two months."

In England he learned to work with his hands and do physical labour, painting signboards and doing assorted jobs. At the painting school, he decided to study a practical craft. He chose silk-screen printing, becoming one of its most celebrated exponents and promoting it in India. Apart from the huge commercial silk screen prints that he used to do, today the effect of the craft remains in the delicacy and subtlety with which the colours and tones in his paintings move from one to the other.

Tell me about your relationship with Swaminathan, I ask him.

The painter was Bawa's first mentor in India, persuading him to have his first major show after his return from England. "With Swaminathan, it took me some time. He had invited me to his house a few times. But at that point I wasn't painting, just thinking, sorting out my thoughts, and drawing. So I held back. Then, finally, after a long time, I started working. And one day when we met accidentally, he again said that he wanted to see my work."

And when the elder man saw the young Bawa's work, he was enthralled. You must show these, he convinced the young man — and that was how Bawa's major exhibition at Dhumimal, in 1979, was conceived.

From then on until today, Bawa's painting career has grown, taking him through temporary lulls into today's mature, and thoughtful, phase.

What is the process of painting like? "Very slow and steady. Dealing with painting can be very boring if one doesn't understand the detail. People sometimes put in colours and they don't work, because they haven't lived with those colours. They've never lived with them. Each colour, each form, has to be experienced first and not merely over-detailed. These are figures in my paintings, but they are also forms — arms, legs, then fingers, until they become almost abstract forms."

Bawa still spends much time in the hills. Tell me about your life in the mountains, I ask him. "I sleep early in the hills. I sleep at half-past nine, get up at 4:30, I dream, and I want the dream to remain, not get broken. I keep on scribbling. When I have something, I look for the right size for the painting. Smaller, bigger, I try them out. Then rough paper, final paper, then trace it on to the canvas. Sometimes a canvas takes several months to finish, and I work on several all at once."

He likes to drive. He has taken his Qualis to Kutch and H.P., going on long drives with the greens and browns of nature around him, as if in a dream.

"I'm still on a journey. This journey is a dream. I'm still in a dream. In a dream you don't know where it leads."

What's it like, being an artist in times when no one seems to have time for the calming presence of art?

"Yes, there's a lot of violence in India right now. But I believe in this saying — when there's a storm around you, don't throw even a straw. Violence has to be controlled. Controlled violence is play. And we all have our own violence inside us."

I think of the painting of the lion and the tamer, with its own rhythm, where the colours keep on moving with a strange music of their own.

I ask him about influence.

"Every painter is in your memory. How can I forget Mohenjadaro? Or everything that has come after, until today? One may eat something green. But the blood is red in colour. And yet it's unique. It's one's own blood. Take it and it becomes your own. If there had been no painter before me, I couldn't have made these paintings. Everything I've seen is already all in there." He waves his arm, in a jagged arc, at the paintings hanging on the walls. "And yet that is the paradox. I want to see more. I want to see paintings that I haven't seen."

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