Manjit Bawa, who died on Monday, will be remembered for his paintings of gamboling animals, mythic creatures and legendary characters in a pastoral set-up depicted against a single-colour field of satiny hues — red, green, yellow or mauve — straight out of Pahari and Rajput miniatures he loved so much.
Bawa may have thus become the darling of the smart set but that should not obscure the fact that he collaborated with Sufi musicians, eminent theatre directors and filmmakers as well, and was an outspoken critic of belligerent Ram bhakts. During the anti-Sikh riots, Bawa was no silent observer. He had worked in refugee camps.
Bawa was born in his family goshala at Dhuri in Punjab in 1941. His father was a timber merchant who cared for and treated sick cows and calves, and this must have left a deep impression on his young mind, for cows and cowherds in the avatar of Krishna and Ranjha of the popular romance from Punjab were recurrent icons in his canvases. He was brought up on the Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Panchatantra and the Puranas, the poetry of Waris Shah and readings from Granth Sahib.
His brother Manmohan Singh, a graphic artist, was another early influence on the artist, who was trained at the Delhi School of Art between 1958 and 1963. Among his teachers were Somnath Hore and B.C. Sanyal, but it was Abani Sen who gave him a sense of identity.
Bawa had learnt to play the flute from the maestro, Pannalal Ghosh. He went for long rides on his bicycle when he was physically seized by the vibrant colours of hillsides, paddy and mustard fields and violet jacaranda trees. He had motored down to Britain with friends, and this journey was an eye- opener as he was exposed to the flavours of Europe and diverse cultures. He lived in London for eight years, and after the first year he was trained in serigraphy (colour silk screen technology) at the London School of Printing.
After returning from the UK, he immersed himself in mythology and Sufi poetry. He tried to look back at myths through a contemporary consciousness, and although he went back to his favourite miniatures for inspiration, Bawas works were never cluttered with details.
Bawas figures had impossible bone structures which gave them their remarkable plasticity. He admitted that he tried to capture the magic of circus with all its risk, humour and colour.
A striking figure with a lean frame and a shock of hair and beard, he had acted in plays directed by Prasanna and M.K. Raina, made posters for the films of Mani Kaul and Sandeep Bedi, and sang with Allan Faqir, the celebrated Sufi singer from Sind.
He became director of Roopankar, the arts wing of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, in 1992 and remained so, though he had distanced himself from the institution after a BJP takeover.