- Manjit Bawa
- Untitled (Figure with Bull)
- Signed in Devanagari and further signed and dated 'Manjit Bawa 97' on reverse
- Oil on canvas
Mumbai, Sakshi Gallery, 10 - 19 February 1999
Calcutta, Impresario, 16 - 24 March 1999
New Delhi, Lalit Kala Galleries, 12 - 26 April 1999
Manjit Bawa's luminous paintings are an exploration of form and space that draws the viewer into an intimate experience with the artist's imaginary world. With an emphasis on colouration, his blending and gradation of colours on his subjects has an element of post-Renaissance painting, yet flat backgrounds and dismissal of perspectival space prevails. Bawa has attributed his bright and flat color fields to his work as a silk screen painter at the London School of Printing, Essex, United Kingdom, during 1967-71. 'For a period, he earned his living in a silk-screening studio and later he taught this technique. But, his attachment was to painting. His mastery of serigraphy instilled an appreciation of the power of luminous pure color and sharply delineated forms. Nonetheless, it was not until 1973 that he began to use flat color in his painting.' (Geeti Sen, Image and Imagination: Five Contemporary Artists in India, Ahmedabad, Mapin Publishing, 1996, p. 79).
This feature seems to render his forms weightless and his humans and animals project a sense of vulnerability, seeming to appear like magic in the forefront, almost like an apparition. Bawa's figures emote a sense of solace. '...his protagonists do not emerge from an imagined background or prop themselves against the wide horizon of an opening world; rather, they manifest themselves suddenly, like apparitions, in a field that could well be an aura. This is why Bawa's figures, modeled in a surreal manner as they are, can safely be placed in a tradition of innovation and experiment that goes back through the prints and paintings of Kalighat and the Company School to the miniatures of the Mughal and Rajput ateliers.' (Ranjit Hoskote, Modern Miniatures, Recent Paintings, Bose Pacia Gallery Exhibition catalogue, 2000, unpaginated)
His use of background space as a unified whole, combined with very Indian colours such as mustard yellow, cerulean blue and chilli red are reminiscent of Pahari miniatures, yet Bawa imbues a sense of ethereality or other other-worldliness in his works that truly makes him unique. ‘Colour itself becomes a resonant variety of space: a luminous and neutral field, virtually unmarked by a specific sense of place, in which is isolated dream-figures can operate without labouring under the burden of allegiance to any single history.' (Ranjit Hoskote, 2000).
This canvas presents the distinctive human-animal dynamic so prevalent in Manjit Bawa's works. 'Often in Bawa's paintings, humans and animals engage in a wordless dialogue that throws its participants back onto an older, nearly forgotten language of instinct and intuition. [...] The mauve panther, the bull poised to charge, the circus artiste whirling a streamer as she balances on two spirited horses, the blue flautist- each form, animal and human, rejoices in its plasticity and libidinal energy, its gymnastic ability to defy the strictures of the anatomist.' (ibid.) Bawa himself has noted "to me peace, harmony and peaceful co-existence between man and man or man and animal, became all important." ('Manjit Bawa in Conversation with Ina Puri' in I. Puri et. al, 'Bhav, Bhaav, Bhavya': Frames of Eternity, Gallery Espace, New Delhi, 1999, illustrated p. 8)
Bawa’s figures possess a plasticity; sculptural in form yet suspended weightlessly in a space that is without time or context. ‘Bawa composed figures of biotic shapes forming oddly elongated limbs on softly rounded bodies. Creatures in unexpected bold hues emerge from the action of the brush with no nod to anatomical study.’ (Susan Bean, Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence, London, 2013, p.123).
In the present lot, Bawa portrays an unidentified sitter crouching next to a bull. He employs his distinctive colouring techniques to render the figure, combining the saturation of colour with gradual tonal variations. His focus is not with the narrative but with the spatial and chromatic relationship of the canvas. Like most of his work, he places his figures against a solid coloured background thus focusing the viewer’s attention solely on the subjects. Often inspired by icons and myths, his subjects represent the dual polarities of the human and animal world; although they share the same environment they occupy different universes.
Bawa fondly reminisces about his artistic choices and aptly says, 'Being a turbanned Sikh from an ordinary middle-class family was daunting enough but to strike out against the prevalent forces of Cubism and the iconic Klee was to really ask for big trouble and I was hauled up time and again with strict instructions to toe the line. But I remained true to my calling, naturally annoying authorities. Even then in those formative years I was haunted by the spectre of mediocrity. I was willing to accept any challenge, but on my own terms. I was obsessed with one driving need – to create my own painterly language.’ (M. Bawa, ‘I Cannot Live By Your Memories, Manjit Bawa in Conversation with Ina Puri’, Let’s Paint the Sky Red: Manjit Bawa, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, p. 47)
Although his subjects are recognisable from traditional lore, he manages to strip them of their historical and cultural baggage and arrives at an image that represents their true spiritual essence. Bawa's works contain a purity of form and colour that is both ancient and modern. His images are eternal, immediate and accessible. A dichotomy of dreams and magic, Bawa’s canvases are lustrous spaces of colour and volume. His paintings have a truly unique configuration that makes him one of India’s most original artists.
‘Manjit Bawa liked to experiment with several shades of colour and never used paint straight out of the tube. This work is not only important because it depicts one of his favourite subjects, humans with animals, but also because in these works, the people are mostly male and it is very rare for him to depict a woman. The way the figure is crouching is unusual as well. The circle is Bawa’s reference to the sun, a motif that first appeared in his early works. The interplay of red on red, stretching the boundaries of shade was a challenge that Bawa relished and here, he has managed to pull it off. This slight variation in hues is very difficult to achieve. This beautiful sun, the crouching woman who is not static but appears ready to move, all lends energy to this painting.’ Conversation with Ina Puri, September 2017