Thursday, 25 August 2011

Manjit Bawa - Readings, edited by Ina Puri [Book Review]

Book Title:      ‘Readings’ Manjit Bawa                  
Edited and
compiled by:       Ina Puri
Published by:      Lalit Kala Akademi,
                               New Delhi ,2010
Size                           18 x23.75 cms
Full Colour
ISBN: 81-87507-42-X 
Price:                    Rupees 1,000/-


Manjit Bawa was an individualist; an artist and human being who lived life on his own terms. Through his art, he brought into play modern modes of expression in painting, while also referencing the Indian aesthetic. “Being a turbaned 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”[i].But he did venture out; creating a new figure, a new landscape and spoke in a new voice.
Art in its essence is an experience; a silent communion between a viewer and an artist’s canvas. Its understanding matures as we do. The simplicity of this communion has become compounded in the crowding of urban life, where time is at a premium and such contemplation a luxury. Today, for most people, art is either a commodity to invest in or too challenging an intellectual activity to participate in. For some, art has been reduced to being just a piece of decoration.

Each artist however, spends a life-time devising an iconography that speaks most evocatively of their thoughts and feelings. This complex language that encompasses all dimensions of their being is not easy to decipher. In Manjit Bawa’s own words[ii] his work was “a continuous process that takes up almost all my waking hours. Even when I sleep, I have experienced visions in my dreams that are related to my painting activities….. I wanted to create my own style….to find a new idiom and a new language. In every sense, this was a stumbling block that needed to be tackled with immense patience and fortitude[iii]”.
Many books about artists become technical and theoretically complex, excluding rather than including the lay viewer. ‘Readings, Manjit Bawa’ compiled and edited by Ina Puri, published by Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, reaches out to us through essays, interviews, conversations and reminisces by Manjit Bawa himself and other artists, providing a unique insight into the artist and his oeuvre. It is not didactic, but eclectic; each reader is thus able to formulate their own ideas, to look at the artist’s canvas through these perceptions. The text is bi-lingual. There are writings in both Hindi and English. Ina Puri’s close association with Bawa’s art reveals itself through this selection, providing insight into the man, his persona and what made his art; the people that influenced him and how childhood memories led to the cow and goat becoming leitmotifs.  Prayag Shukla [in Hindi], sums up that the animals and birds and all the different emotions and feelings that Bawa brought to life on his canvasses that had not been seen before in Indian Art and “in par ab Manjit ki ek vishisht chaap hai” that the seasons and their colours have“apne he vishisht aakaron aur rangon mein kramash dhaal liya.”

Informative and refreshing to read, the book is illustrated with over forty full colour plates, photographs of the artist and some of his drawings. A full list of collectors is appended at the back of the book, but regrettably none of the works are dated. It would also have been useful to include a small biographical note on each of the authors published in this compilation. A comprehensive biography of Bawa tells us about his numerous exhibitions and art camps he attended. We also learn that Bawa curated shows of Indian Art in Syria, Egypt and Australia, was a founder member on the Committee for Communal Harmony, organized peace marches during the anti-Sikh riots and more.
Essays by Ranjit Hoskote, Ashok Vajpeyi, Gayatri Sinha, Richard Bartholomew, Ina Puri, Geeti Sen, S. Kalidas and Madan Gopal Singh bring some in-depth analysis and critical insights, while painter Krishen Khanna, a friend through the decades, reminisces of his early encounters with Bawa. J Swaminathan, friend and fellow painter, does a quick summary of the evolution of the modern Indian art movement from Amrita Sher-Gil to Tyeb Mehta, stating that “Manjit’s figure is at once an assertion of a tradition and its negation” owing hardly anything to the realism of the West, suggesting instead a linkage with the Pahari Miniature tradition.
 A year before the riots in Ayodhya, Bawa wrote an article for the Times of India which provides a glimpse of the artist’s unusual perception of things. He also brought attention to the fact that most people agitating in the name of Ram were quite ignorant about the Ramayana. They were mostly “sons of shopkeepers and petty merchants…. seething with frustration”. He arrived at this conclusion, not through some obscure intellectual analysis, but by engaging with people on the ground: one human being to another.          

The book has diverse material on Bawa’s evolution as an artist, his engagement with the world, involvement with communal issues, work as a curator and artist and also how he encouraged younger, aspiring artists.  His preoccupation with various dimensions of being, both physical and spiritual, all find place in these readings. In a talk given to art students at Shantiniketan he ends, with accrediting Ina Puri for motivating him to think anew and sums up with a Sufi saying: “simply trust…… do not the petals flutter just like that? Trust life….” He was well versed in the Hindu epics and could challenge the young protestors outside the Babri Masjid on the Ramayan just as easily as he could quote from the Gita, even though he “found it difficult to subscribe to many of these values.” An independent thinker, he questioned things. This is brought to life in this book, as in his art.
The interpretations of Manjit Bawa’s art are many and all equally illuminating.  Hoskote finds a “jagged edge of eroticism and risk in an intimate battle of beak and dagger, the swelling tongue of the bull, the tumescence of the goat” adding that “Bawa is more significantly preoccupied with the sheerness of pleasure at the edge of language.” While Kamala Kapoor sites that “Bawa’s images…. appear to reflect his desire to intervene in a world burdened with over-rationality, as he draws forms in the air that undulate and reform into pliable boneless shapes.”In a small note of personal appreciation, the author David Davidar makes an interesting observation about Bawa’s use of colour, where “artwork so vibrantly alive in hues of yellow, red, carmine, electric blue, green and gold was tamed, cooled and recombined through some strange alchemy such that a flaming red soothed the eyes, a glaring yellow could alleviate a migraine headache and the startling blues suggested a cool draught of water.”
The book may not represent an exhaustive research and analysis of the artist’s work, but it is the kind of book that makes Manjit Bawa and his art accessible to a large section of people. We become acquainted with the man behind the images on his canvas, from whom readers will draw hope, solace and inspiration at many levels.  The mix of analytical essays with reminisces, interviews, exhibition reviews and writings by the artist himself, give this book a unique place:  useful to the student of art, to artists, to the lay public and also the scholar. It is the first book in the series called ‘Readings’ of writings on artists and sculptors introduced by Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi.

[i] Manjit Bawa Pg 65
[ii] Shantiniketan 1998
[iii] Manjit Bawa Pg 95