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Portrait of an artist


Readings Manjit Bawa Compiled and edited by Ina Puri Lalit Kala Akademi 220 pages, Rs 1, 000 .

If it's a body you are drawing, start with the leg. " That was mastermoshai Abani Sen's advice to the 16-year-old Manjit Bawa.

Little perhaps did the guru know that his shishya's airy apparitions and "ice cream colours" would become his signature. Bawa, whose prices have been posthumously soaring in the auction market (a Sotheby's sale in March last year set a new record of Rs 4. 3 crore), is the first subject of a new series of books on artists and sculptors that the Lalit Kala Akademi is bringing out.

Not much has been written on Bawa, except an authorised biography by Ina Puri, who has also edited and compiled this volume.

So, this retrospective of recollections of the wild-haired painter from Punjab who died in 2008 comes at a time when there is a growing interest in his work. For so long, it's been the work of the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group that has defined modern art in India but an essay by J Swaminathan gives Bawa his place in the sun: "What is representational in Picasso becomes enigmatic, what is majestic in Husain becomes clownish (who but the jester may cock a snook at the mighty?), what is demonstrative in Souza becomes epileptic and what is petrified in Tyeb becomes liquid and sparkling in Manjit. "

Born in 1942 in a small town in Punjab, Bawa was a student of the Delhi College of Art before going to London to get a diploma in silk screening. He worked there for eight years, making quite a decent living by painting theatre sets. He returned to Delhi where success eluded him initially. By the late 70s, he was the toast of the art circuit. His luminous hues, mystical gods and menagerie of animals drew a bevy of collectors like Chester Herwitz, Madhu and Naresh Trehan and Nina and Kapil Sibal.

This volume, which includes writings of critics, journalists and colleagues, is not just about Bawa the artist. There is also Bawa the gourmand (David Davidar, who has contributed an essay, loved his nine-spice dal before he fell in love with his art), the actor, the musician (Bawa played the flute and the tabla) and the Sufi fakir. There's a passing mention of the husband who shut himself off in Dalhousie to flee his acrimonious marriage and then experimented furiously with his oeuvre. Stroky brushwork gave way to a silk-screen-like flat background, points out Puri. There is nothing too unflattering since Puri herself calls the book a tribute. But it does touch on an interesting facet - Bawa as the activist who took on the establishment during the 1984 Sikh riots and the Babri Masjid demolition.

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