November 1984 will remain one of the darkest chapters in the history of free India. More than 3,000 innocent Sikhs were murdered on the streets of Delhi and several hundred more across India. Rampaging mobs, often instigated by political ringleaders, pulled Sikh men by their long hair out of their homes, garlanded them with burning tyres, chopped off ears and noses and clapped in glee. Homes, taxi stands, shops went up in smoke spirals that rose high into the winter sky to the accompaniment of ghoulish howls. The state machinery stood silently by: two Sikh guards had assassinated then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for desecrating the hallowed Golden Temple by sending in army tanks; the carnage in Delhi was seen as a vicious act of revenge, the anger was to be allowed to spend itself.
In that dark first week of November, the trauma of Punjab’s partition was played out in all its horror again. Only this time it was in the heart of Delhi. There was no new nation being born, no new destination to run to. This was death in your own country. Sikhs hid in cupboards and lofts, under their neighbour’s beds, even in embassies. Many chopped off their long hair to hide their identity. Some took out rusty kirpans and service revolvers to prepare for a final stand. But for the 3,000 there was no hiding, no fighting. Their hands clasped in pathetic appeal, their eyes white with fear, in sight of their wives and daughters and sisters, they died meaningless, violent deaths.
Time heals wounds it is said, and that may well be true. It is also true that such traumas exact a high price from a human soul, even more so when the soul belongs to an artist, writer or poet. The sight of a man being burnt alive, the pile of human bodies being unloaded from a truck, the rising scream in the dark night do not go away; they haunt and they torment. The world is fortunate when this anguish transforms itself into an artistic masterpiece. Such is the case of Manjit Bawa’s 1984, a dramatic charcoal on canvas which will be on public exhibition for the first time from January 12 at Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, Bawa — himself a Sikh — walked through the smouldering remains of Sikh homes in north and western Delhi. When he knocked on doors, he made a bizarre offer: May I help you cremate a body? In house after house, the survivors sat with the charred or stabbed bodies of husbands and sons, too shocked and too frightened to go out to even perform the last rites. To them, Bawa and his companions would have appeared like angels.
Bawa lived with what he had seen for a decade before he picked up his charcoal and produced 1984. Departing from his preference for the abstract, he has put the horror squarely on canvas. He himself lies among the victims, being ripped apart. His daughter Bhavna is peering at the killings through her hands, his son Ravi has armed himself with a dagger. Monstrous heads stare out above spilling entrails. His dead wife Sharda can be seen sitting far away, unaffected and detached, playing a flute like Krishna. In 1994, Bawa handed over the canvas to his close friends Bobby Bedi, the well-known filmmaker, and his wife Varsha.
He installed it on their stairwell wall and later painted six glass panels on the ceiling, showing birds and animals and people, symbols of a world that had simply watched as the innocent were massacred. For a quarter of a century, this canvas has not left the Bedi home; now it is time for us to once again face those horrible memories through Bawa’s eyes. Forgetting may be convenient but remembering is essential.
Navtej Sarna is an author and former ambassador of India to the US