The Legend of Sohni, Retold

By Ina Puri

The depth of the blue resonates, denoting an endless void, a ‘shunya’ against which the luminous limbs of the woman flail and thresh about, almost like beating wings. In the distance, bobbing away is an object, the clay pot that she had been holding on to as she bravely navigated the swirling waters of the river, since she knew not how to swim. Transposed against the intense space of blue, the figure of the girl is suspended, a floating form, who intimately engages the viewer’s attention as she struggles to stay afloat. We are involuntarily involved and yet distanced from the image.

Manjit Bawa, Untitled (Sohni), 1992

Deeply influenced by the epics as much as by folklore, the legend of Sohni-Mahiwal was one of the poet-musician-artist’s favourite stories, one that he often sang of in his impromptu concerts. The plight of Sohni sacrificing her life to meet her lover who awaits her on the other shore is legendary but when Manjit sang or recited from the early Punjab medieval poets Baba Farid or Bulle Shah, it was as if he brought those last minutes of Sohni’s struggle alive. Bawa liked to say that the advantage of mythology is that you don’t have to complete the details; the viewer knows how it will pan out; so you can focus on the form instead, as well as the space, colour and composition. The subject of Sohni inspired several compositions but there were stylistic changes that made the paintings very different from the earlier abstraction to a later stage where the figuration was more defined.

An inexplicable resilience characterises the protagonist in this work, as though Sohni is defiant of both her impending death and the betrayal that led to the circumstances. While the painter’s creative vision drew inspiration from pan-Indic myths, when it came to his artistic œuvre, he created a narrative that had its own logic, arriving at the form of the split figure that had neither bones nor a skeletal structure. Sohni’s flailing limbs in this evocative composition appears to be almost choreographed, graceful and poised. Death is sometimes a silent presence in Bawa’s works, in the confrontation between man and beast or more forcefully in a work like Death of Krishna, however, in the Sohni compositions despite the acceptance of death; there is faith and hopefulness present that liberates the moment. It was perhaps his deep belief in the Sufi philosophy that simply made him accept the way the universe worked.

Manjit Bawa with Ina Puri in front of his painting of Sohni in Puri’s collection
Image credit: Nemai Ghosh

The painting of Sohni we are presently discussing was created in 1992 and it is interesting to see how stylistically he was still exploring the form, tentatively experimenting with the pale mauves and pinks that became more intensely radiant in the later years. The last time he painted the image of Sohni was in 2000 and the work is in my own collection. The only constant from the earlier to the later phase was the indigo depths of the river, the solid background that remained unchanged down the years.

Manjit’s mastery of silkscreen painting in his years in London had ensured that he would use his skills in his practice, which he did with brilliance when he returned to India and decided to become a full-time artist in the early 1970s. The period from the 1980s onwards was especially critical to the artist’s practice because he was transiting from a phase of earlier experimentations with abstract pneumatic-shaped formations towards the iconography that would make his work immediately recognisable. His already vibrant colours were now used with dramatic effect for the flat surfaces, which was the perfect foil for the delicately formed images caught in animated suspension.

Looking at Manjit Bawa’s art, you realise the astuteness of J Swaminathan’s observations. As he pointed out: ‘What makes Manjit’s work contemporary is its remoteness from the everyday present. His concern is not so much like that of the modernists with the fate of man in time as with the enigma of his very presence.’
- J. Swaminathan, 23 December 1992

(Manjit Bawa 1996 - ‘97, Sakshi Gallery, Bombay)

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