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Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art / Manjit Bawa (Indian, 1941-2008) Untitled (Goat and Squirrel)
£70,000 - £90,000
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Sotheby's, Indian Art, New York, 19th September 2006, lot 142.
Pundole's, The Fine Art Sale, Mumbai, 29th August 2019, lot 69;
Acquired by the vendor from the above.
Tales of the Goat by Ina Puri
Manjit Bawa was fond of sharing stories of his childhood with those who would care to listen and spoke of the 'Panchatantra' in particular in reference to his lifelong affinity with animals. While pan-Indian mythology often became a subject that he painted, there was a parallel series of works devoted to animals and birds, often attributing qualities that were almost human in their expression. This work, of the goat, for instance, is a case in point. Unusually for the artist who was known for his penchant to use bright colours, the background in this painting is a luminous lilac. During one of our early conversations when the painter was reminiscing about his formative years as an artist, still training with his Master-moshai Abani Sen, he recollected an instance when the trees around the parks and streets of Delhi were bright with the mauve and lilac blossoms of Jacaranda. The paths were strewn with petals and flowers that had fallen from the trees and made an impact on his visual memory that remained. He became determined to use the same shade of lavender lilac in his compositions. This painting reminded me of his words, the challenge of using the gentle shade of violet as his background, which works so beautifully for the composition.
Having grown up amidst the rural landscape of Punjab, Manjit recollected his fondness for animals and anyone who has had the privilege of knowing him will vouch for the fact that he had a way with farm animals, even the most ill tempered ones. It is therefore no surprise that animals made their way often into his compositions, initially as studies and later in more stylized forms. Abani Sen's lessons on anatomy emphasized the importance of limbs and as his student Manjit learnt early to focus on the muscles and strength of the legs of a figure, beast or man. When we were working on his drawing show, Prabhakar Kolte had written: 'Manjit is passionately accustomed with the linear identity of his beloveds, both domestic and wild. While rendering them he takes for granted that their skeletons are made of spiritual breaths, which he can modify in order to free them from their conditional behavior, and when he succeeds, the forms overcome their given function and enter into their pictorial reality which stands poised in between the real and the unreal.'(Linear Geography of Man-Animal Relationship, Manjit Bawa Travelling Exhibition, 2001, Sakshi Gallery & Sa'ma).
The composition of the goat and squirrel is interesting because it dates back to the years Manjit was exploring the forms, still on the threshold of his later iconography when pneumatically stylized figurations emerged in the compositions against flat backgrounds. In 1990, the artist had moved away from the abstract phase and this work straddles the different periods delightfully. The image of the goat is almost startlingly realistic, its body marked with a smattering of brown. What makes the composition whimsical is the presence of the squirrel (similar colouring) jumping upwards, as if to greet the goat. While other works have similar pairings of animals (lions and lambs, lions and goats, bulls and tigers etc.) this one especially impacted me because in his exhibition in 2004 (curated by me and presented by Sakshi Gallery and Sa'ma) there was a beautiful painting of a goat with squirrels, albeit in a very different style, mood and palette. Beginning from the early times, compositions with the goat and squirrel pairing appear to be a favourite subject in Bawa's paintings, continuing till the last years.
The other element that strikes the viewer is the artist's dexterity when it comes to scale, especially in the case of the squirrel, which is perfectly detailed despite it's size. One must remember that Manjit was already painting his miniatures by then, therefore his ability to compose a diminutive creature (such as the squirrel) in great detail was to be expected. What makes it easy to relate to his work is the idealism and hopefulness with which it is composed. The fundamental attitude is one of celebration, of the co-existence of diverse pluralities that makes his artistic world a place, which is serene and tranquil. A deep believer of the Sufi philosophy, Manjit abhorred violence and this was reflected in his art, where it was forever, the hour of poetry and music, which was his alternate universe. The lens through which the artist would have composed this work may be his boyhood memories of Panchatantra where animals enacted in Moral Play scenarios and left the young reader with messages on how to conduct oneself responsibly, to treat lesser creatures with kindness. It might also transpire that the artist was revisiting his youth when he trekked long distances on foot to discover monuments and ancient sites, or forests where he would stop at intervals to sketch animals and birds before picking up his rucksack and walking on again. Manjit was an intrepid traveller and before he used the camera, it was his sketchpad that documented his journeys. Perhaps, it was the memory of one such image that inspired him to make a painting many years after he had actually sketched the creatures? What is remembered is saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been rejected. The act of retaining this image and painting it for posterity gives the work its true worth.
To quote the renowned film- maker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, whose documentary 'Meeting Manjit' had won the National Award in 2003: ' As a film-maker, I believe in infusing my art with the illusory, in taking elements of dream and magic from the world of reality. Manjit does the same. He plucks reality from his environment and the transforms it with the use of abstract figuration, boneless and pneumatic. Reality thus becomes in essence unreal and the unreal, real. Thus, in his abstractions, the painter never veers too far from the real; there is always a semblance of logic in his abstractions. Dreams and magic make Manjit's art stand apart, projecting his own narrative and making him one of the few completely original artists of our times.'