Manjit Bawa is on his way to becoming the new darling of the collecting circuit
Record price” — that’s a phrase collectors will increasingly have to get used to in conjunction with the posthumous works of Manjit Bawa. Like M F Husain, Bawa’s bearded persona was distinctive, and like him he drew from life all that it had to offer him. He enjoyed, even courted, the myths of rumour and salaciousness that surrounded him to the extent that it drowned out any serious discussion on his art. In paying court to society, he was subsumed by it and came unfortunately to be known as an interior designer’s artist because he did humour requests to paint certain colours to match his clients’ (it would be absurd to call them collectors) walls — and the serious side of this artist remained known to only a few people.
It is one of those who, next week, will launch the Readings series of books for the Lalit Kala Akademi with a volume on, appropriately, Bawa. But this is not just Bawa-the-artist but Bawa-the-thinker and Bawa-the-writer, whose views on the 1984 Sikh riots and on the Babri Masjid tragedy will hopefully add as much depth as the writings by scholars on his works that have begun to enjoy greater resonance ever since he slipped into coma in 2005 before eventually succumbing to it in 2008.
For those who came in late, Bawa was the Punjab-born artist who became a darling of Delhi’s party circuit with his maverick ways. He booked himself into the Ambassador Hotel in central Delhi and turned it into a studio-adda, sending a frisson of excitement, and gossip tinged with malice, through the capital’s strict protocol- and hierarchy-driven society. That he dared to do it as an artist who in a sense took on the modernist establishment, celebrating his Indian roots, was more provocative. He took stories from the Panchatantra and Mahabharata and used figures from the fables — men and women, gods and heroes, beasts and demons — to turn them into objects of fantasy. But the renditions were simple, his use of rich, flat fields of colour were initially disparagingly compared with popsicles, yet it was this figurative mythology that became his hallmark style and, for most, a discussion point.
Where Tyeb Mehta’s somewhat similar journey and equally mythologised use of a central, minimal figure was defined by pent-up strength and violence, Bawa’s exuded a serenity that arose from his own gentle personality. Where it is sometimes difficult to live with a work by F N Souza, Bawa’s is ideal to begin the day with. As the quintessential myth-maker, his canvases are storyboards that cut across generations in their appeal. And now biographer and author of the new book on Bawa lays in place a foundation of intellectualisation as well.
At a time when modern art in India was defined by the Progressives and the Bengal and Baroda schools, “Manjit came out as a force, introducing something so important that he simply stood out among the others”, Ina Puri says. This included his “unique iconography”, his “daring to introduce a burst of colours”, and his format that included “canvases 10-12 feet large, or miniatures no more than 5-6 inches, he had that kind of magic”. Therefore, it remains a surprise that though Bawa’s works spread themselves across several collecting homes, they did so thinly. He did not have any dedicated collectors who could push his market (but equally, there are very few of them returning his works to the secondary market).
At the point when he first slipped into coma, prices for his works had ranged from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 20 lakh. In the month of his death, in December 2008, he had fetched Rs 42 lakh at an auction — this is just when recession had hit and the market had begun its long descent. Bawa’s prices largely held their own through that difficult period and in December 2009, he fetched Rs 1.7 crore at a Saffronart auction. In April 2010, Sotheby’s New York scored Rs 4.3 crore for a canvas by Bawa. As that index begins to notch higher, the induction of Bawa into the Indian artists’ hall of fame has begun in serious earnest. Puri’s is but the first step in that direction.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.