The resurgence of artist Manjit Bawa : The Tribune India

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The resurgence of artist Manjit Bawa

The resurgence of artist Manjit Bawa

Photo: Nemai Ghosh

Sarika Sharma

Manjit Bawa’s first-ever painting sold for Rs 50. Over the last one year, his artworks have been auctioned for as high as Rs 25 crore, making and breaking records. Bawa, born in the small town of Dhuri in Punjab, was one of India’s leading figurative artists, with a career spanning more than four decades until a stroke rendered him unable to paint, pushing him into coma, and ultimately leading to his death at 67 years of age in 2008.

The ball was set rolling with the Christie’s auction last year in March, where his untitled Durga sold for Rs 15 crore. Nishad Avari, head of the Department of Indian Art at Christie’s, calls it a watershed moment for the artist in the market. However, there were signs that it would come. “In March 2022, we offered the collection of Mahinder Tak at an auction in New York. Tak was one of Manjit Bawa’s strongest supporters outside of India, and held several of his best works. We offered a few pieces by Bawa from her collection at this auction and not only established a new record for a work on paper by the artist at $113,400 (Rs 94 lakh), but also sold a canvas for $1,108,000 (Rs 9.23 crore), the first work by the artist to cross a million dollars at an international auction. Since then, most of his large-format works have achieved similar results,” says Avari.

The works that featured at Christie’s March 2022 auction.

Photo courtesy: Christie’s

At a Sotheby’s auction in October 2023, his artwork depicting Shiva (1995) fetched Rs 20 crore. Barely two months on, surpassing expectations and estimated values, his untitled Krishna (1992) raked in a staggering Rs 25 crore at AstaGuru’s online auction. Sneha Gautam, senior vice president (client relations), at the auction house, says they were optimistic but surprised when the work achieved over four times the estimated value of Rs 6-8 crore, setting a new record for Bawa.

The works that featured at Christie’s March 2022 auction. Photo courtesy: Christie’s

Gautam attributes the popularity of this artwork to several reasons, the first being the subject — Krishna. “Manjit Bawa was known to be immensely inspired by mythological characters as well as religious iconography to arise from India’s varied cultures. This large-scale oil painting showcases that fascination and his preoccupation with free-floating forms poised against a solid vibrant background. His distinct signature style lends a fresh perspective to the iconic imagery of Krishna. Among other reasons is his usage of vibrant colours, his signature style and the scale of the work.”

In Bawa’s biography, ‘In Black and White’ (Penguin Random House), curator Ina Puri paints a vivid picture of his artistic universe — “orange-russet skies, the green paddy fields, the blue-grey smudges of the distant horizon”. If his canvases were a splash of vibrant hues mirroring Punjab’s landscapes, his oeuvre was splattered with Indian mythological and religious iconography. Symbols like the cow, goat, moon, Shiva, and Krishna were intrinsic to his iconography, the roundedness of form defining his figures. His art delved into Sufi thought, echoing the verses of Bulleh Shah and Sheikh Farid. Bawa studied fine arts at the College of Art, Delhi, and silkscreen painting at the London College of Communication from 1964-71. Around this time, he began experimenting with human-animal interaction, a theme that would recur in his work.

Surpassing expectations, Bawa’s untitled Krishna (1992) raked in a staggering Rs 25 crore at AstaGuru’s online auction. PHOTO COURTESY: ASTAGURU

Bawa’s friend, artist Ranbir Kaleka says that what carries value is the originality and uniqueness of his language. “Also, his scenes are easily accessible. They are not obtuse; they don’t carry the complexity in multiple ways. Even the complexity of his language has an attractiveness.”

Avari says a few factors have come together to shape interest in Bawa. “Firstly, it is getting harder and harder to find great works by the artist that have strong provenance, exhibition history and have been published in important catalogues or books.” When a painting that ticks all these boxes comes to the market, people, who have been waiting for an opportunity to acquire a piece by Bawa, will compete to acquire it. “Secondly, there are quite a few new collectors who’ve entered the market, driving up demand. Finally, Bawa’s unique aesthetic appeals to a wide range of collectors.”

Fifteen years after his death, the resurgence has been exponential, but not surprising. Puri says that in his lifetime, too, Bawa’s canvases always fetched a high price (according to experts, at the height of his career, his works would sell for Rs 5-10 lakh), primarily because he did not produce many works and the exhibitions he participated in were few and far between. She writes in the biography that in the decade that followed his death, “Manjit’s stature as an artist grew globally, and he came to be regarded as one of the greatest Indian painters of our times. Museums and collectors vied to outbid each other at auctions to acquire a canvas or a drawing for their collections.” Since 2008, AstaGuru alone has sold around 40 works by the artist.

Musician Madan Gopal Singh and Bawa would often collaborate for performances. While they would practice sitting under his huge canvases, what price they were fetching was never a topic of discussion. But Madan vividly recalls Bawa telling him one day that things had changed. “He said his work was worth Rs 75,000 every day. He was making anything between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 30 lakh every month. And I wondered, ‘Why do I have to pressure him to sing? He loses so much money.’ Once we returned from a concert and he saw my Maruti 800 car. He told me to come to his room, I followed. He opened his almirah and wads of currency notes fell down. He wanted me to take Rs 15 lakh and buy myself the most expensive car in town those days. I had a hard time wriggling out of that situation.” A lot of work around this time was commissioned by the rich, Madan recalls, and Bawa would finish it in two days’ time, too.

But did all that money make him uncomfortable? Kaleka says he wanted it for his family. “His older son (born with congenital defects) needs care and he knew that, at some point, his daughter would also need money to take care of her brother.” He says that Bawa left them a huge collection of his works — spanning his entire career — so that these can be sold if need be.

Puri says that if he believed in a cause or a project, he would be happy to participate even if it was a non-commercial show. “In 1998, I curated an exhibition in Santiniketan with his miniatures and drawings, which were just for viewing, without any commercial angle.” Madan recalls Bawa created artwork to be auctioned to generate funds for a democratic front in the run-up to the Babri demolition.

During his student days in London, Bawa worked as a flautist at restaurants, did odd jobs, painted skyscrapers. All this while, he was creating art too, but never bothered about selling it. “I just wanted to paint. I wanted to gain more on painting. Today, too, that is what I aspire,” he would say. And this is why, despite all that money, he lived like a fakir.

Flood of fakes

Manjit Bawa’s friend, musician Madan Gopal Singh, says there would be more fake Bawas than originals in the market at present. While fakes were around when Bawa was alive, too, in 2016, a painting was removed from an AstaGuru auction over allegations of being fake; the auction house had called the action “a matter of abundant caution”. Last year, an investment banker was sold a fake Bawa painting, ‘Krishna with Cows’, for Rs 6.75 crore. Those interested in getting the provenance checked often find themselves at the doorsteps of Ranbir Kaleka, a prominent artist himself and a close friend of Bawa. “Unsurprisingly, most are fakes,” Kaleka laughs. So, is Bawa easy to fake? “Seemingly easy,” he says. The giveaway? “Initially, it is about the feel of the work. And then one sees how Bawa used to deal with the negative space and the positive space; and how there were finer points in the shading of the work; and the gentleness of the eyes, the lips, the face, and of musicality in the work,” Kaleka elaborates.

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