The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 14, 2001

Mystery of the fake Bawa
By Dinesh Rathod

THE case of the Manjit Bawa painting, which was withdrawn from a Christie’s sale, is getting curiouser and curiouser. Four weeks after the controversy broke out, nobody can be sure if it was really a fake — except the painter. And Bawa isn’t talking.

Manjit Bawa: Centre of a controversyA Delhi art gallery put up the signed miniature in December for bidding at Christie’s, when Bawa informed the London-based auction house that he had nothing to do with the painting and that his signature appearing at the right-hand bottom corner was forged.

Bidding, which opened at Rs 139,000, had touched Rs 189,000 when the painting was withdrawn. The gallery cried foul, accusing Bawa of drawing the art world in a needless crossfire between him and his apprentice, Mahinder Soni, with whom he had fallen out.

Said Payal Kapoor, a director of the gallery: "If this miniature is a fake, then all the works sold by Bawa are fakes. Everybody knows that the painting bearing his signature are actually joint efforts with his apprentice."


Confirmed Soni: "People have paid millions for my works, imagining they are Manjit Bawa’s. And they are not just miniatures, but also big paintings. Bawa might claim they were his concepts, but the truth is that they are all joint efforts."

He, however, added that he was not complaining as this was an established practice among some of the most reputed names in the Indian art circles. "For 11 years I worked for Bawa, like any faithful attendant who dedicates time and energy to a guru," he said.

What has taken the art circuit by surprise is that this is the first time that a master artist has disowned a work done by his student. Since the times of Raja Ravi Varma and Jamini Roy, differences between guru and shishya have developed, but they are always kept under wraps.

"It is the reputation of the artist at stake," explains Aditi Jain, a well-known critic. "If an artist disowns a painting done by his student, his market value crashes. Now anybody wanting to acquire a Manjit Bawa would do a rethink. In any case, nobody would pay him his price."

A collector, choosing to be unnamed, said that if anybody has gained from the controversy, it is Soni. "We know of dozens of unemployed art graduates who have fallen out with the likes of Anjolie Ela Menon and M.F. Hussain. They are spoken of in whispers, but never made public."

Bawa couldn’t care though."It was Soni who wanted to work with me. Then he started copying my style. When I tried to stop him, he said he would change with time. I wrote to Christie’s after a friend informed me about this work being put up for bids."

He maintained that the signature on it was not his and the work was a fake: "The original full-size painting is at my house.... You can see it for yourself. I had done it about a decade ago and in spite of some very lucrative offers, have not parted with it. "

Soni does not dispute this fact as he cites examples of how Bawa has been repeating himself over the years. In what he describes as "assembly-line production", he pointed out that many world-famous artists in the West have been making copies of their own works.

There is another story doing the rounds on why the two split. While Bawa says that he had sacked Soni for copying him two years ago, the latter claims that relations between them soured when the former refused to pay him his dues.

"I needed the money to treat my son who had developed a blood clot in the brain," Soni narrates. "Bawa had promised me Rs 35,000 for every painting I did for him. I had done about 50 miniatures since we started working together in 1991."

The money, he says, was in "safe trust" with Bawa on the assurance that Soni could collect it whenever he wanted. Little did he anticipate that when he needed it most for his son’s treatment, Bawa would be busy buying property in Delhi.

These allegations and counter-allegations do not however, answer some crucial questions: Was the miniature withdrawn by Christie’s fake? How could Soni stand to benefit, assuming he had actually forged Bawa’s signature? Or is there more to all this than meets the eye?

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