Manjit was an early morning person. He would begin his day working on miniature paintings as that is when his hand was the steadiest. Early mornings would often find him hunched over a miniature with a magnifying glass and a brush. Sometimes the brush would have a single hair.
He always had to have the best material to work with, be it canvas or oil paints, or anything else. I recall making these expeditions to north Kolkata with him in search of art supplies. He would also get them from overseas—New York and London. Because of his unassuming and unkempt appearance, shopkeepers tended to be a little dismissive until they realized that they had a discerning painter who thought little of money matters when he was buying materials (often in dozens and dozens of hues)!
Feline grace: (top) Manjit Bawa at work in his studio, and two untitled paintings by the artist. Photograph of Manjit Bawa Courtesy Art Alive Gallery; Paintings Courtesy Sakshi Gallery
I first met Manjit in 1998 and we immediately realized that we worked well together. He was a painter and that is what he focused on. I became his curator and took care of the cataloguing and documentation of his works. A show that stands out in my memory was Mapping of Conscience in 2004 on the 20th anniversary of the anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. He was in New Delhi at the time and had gone into hiding. After the riots, he had taken desperate measures such as shortening his hair and trimming his beard, as he drove around his scooter to distant locations in order to help fellow Sikhs in hiding, often driving them back with him to a safe shelter. You could tell from the works on display that the rancour and anguish is gone, only the sadness remains.
Manjit was very fond of travelling. He loved to drive and he would drive across the country. From Delhi he would suddenly decide to drive to Jaisalmer or to Dalhousie, which was his base and where he had a studio. Many of his large works happened in Dalhousie. As a traveller he would want to go to temples, shrines and mausoleums. If, for instance, we were at the Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal, he would want to see the prehistoric cave drawings at Bhimbetka. We were at Dunhuang in China in 2005 to see the Buddhist frescoes and he told me there that he would take me to Ajanta and Ellora. Fifteen days before he was hospitalized, we were there.
These travels, though, never seemed to inform his art. His paintings, strangely, had no landscape. His art was more related to his thought processes. He had worked as a printmaker for eight years, which is where the flat background of his paintings came from. He drew inspiration from animals, Puranic and Sufi tales and Punjabi myths. His paintings have a sensuousness and even eroticism, but there is no nudity in them, perhaps because of his orthodox upbringing. His father was a Sikh and his mother a Himachali Hindu.
Nature was a part of his work—memories of a forest aglow in the sunset; the green meadows of Dalhousie, the arching blue skies, these were reflected in the jewel-like reds, yellows, indigos he favoured for the background of his paintings. In the foreground, the dramatis personae often comprised gambolling lions or skittish goats, at other times, flute-playing figures of Ranjha or Krishna surrounded by a herd of mesmerized cows. He once told me how, when he was young, he had gone to Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi and gone off to sleep under a tree, waking up to see these purple jacaranda flowers amid the green. I remembered that, when I saw a painting of his with a purple goat against a green background.
He was a man of deep attachments. All kinds of people would land up at his studio in New Delhi’s Golf Links—intellectuals, poets, writers, collectors, gallerists, young artists, shawl-wallahs (he had an exquisite collection of shawls), even the odd film star. So many artists have told me that Manjit bought their first painting and he would always tell galleries to show works by new artists.
He was an outstanding cook, enjoying the role of a flamboyant host. And in inspired moments, he would love to play his flute or sing ballads of Bulle Shah. Despite his years, there was this endearing innocence about him. He would watch anything from serious films to rubbish Hindi movies; the television in his studio was always on. There would be a cricket match showing and he would be watching it all excited, till someone would come and tell him that they were showing a 10-year-old match! It was wonderful to have shared his world and been a part of his life.
As told to Himanshu Bhagat
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