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The wound that never healed

An artist painted happy and colourful images all his life, with one exception. Which work was it, and why did he create it?

Untitled (2000), graphite and charcoal on paper by Manjit Bawa. Photo: Shantanu Prakash
Untitled (2000), graphite and charcoal on paper by Manjit Bawa. Photo: Shantanu Prakash

Manjit Bawa was born in 1941 in a remote village in Punjab. He was inclined to pursue the arts as his calling, but was actively dissuaded by his parents, who felt art could not be a means of livelihood. He went on to study painting at the School of Art in Delhi in 1958 and found his voice in Indian mythological stories from the Puranas, the Granth Sahib, and Sufi poems.

Bawa is known to be a colourist. His paintings use bright tones and flat renditioning that is saturated and lacks visual depth. He discarded the British influence of the dominance of black, browns and greys, embracing vibrant Indian colours.

Documentarian and author Ina Puri worked closely with Bawa for projects, including his biography. She observed that he never spoke of the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi, and didn’t use the theme in his work. “The riots left him so deeply wounded that he never really recovered from the incident," says Puri. He personally rescued many people and stayed awake, night after night, unable to paint for several months afterwards.

Sixteen years later, he did what may have seemed impossible. He created a work from his memories of the barbaric brutality. A large graphite and charcoal on paper, in which a father is killing his son. The body of the son lies motionless in the lap of the father, a self-portrait of Bawa himself. Bawa left the work untitled but one can draw parallels with the mythical story of Narasimha killing Hiranyakashyap. The drawing, part of Ina Puri’s collection, is the only known work of Bawa’s that is dark and painful.

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