Manjit Bawa’s Kaun Mara? (Who Died?)

Manjit Bawa, Kaun Mara? (Who Died?), Background painted by Paramjit Singh, December 10, 1992. Acrylic on canvas
Collection of Sahmat

Painted on the street during a protest organized by Sahmat just days after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Kaun Mara? (Who Died?) is a highly unusual work by the artist Manjit Bawa (1941–2008). As India reacted to the mosque’s destruction in increasingly disheartening and violent ways, the painting captured a grim and bloody scene.

The following text is written by enthusiastic AGM volunteer, Shri Prakash Agarwal. It presents his take on the painting and the Hindu myth which is its subject.

Kaun Mara? (Who Died?) by artist Manjit Bawa
Text by Shri Prakash Agarwal

This painting was created in the aftermath of the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Ayodhya is revered as the birth place of Lord Rama and this Masjid is believed to have been created in place of a temple which existed there as the birth place of Lord Rama.

In this painting, the artist has expressed his anguish at the demolition which he considers against the secular traditions of India. He asks the question written in the top left-hand corner of the painting, kaun mara? (who died?). Is it the demon or the devotee?

The painting can be better appreciated by the fact that Ram is a revered god in India and his name, when written in reverse order, becomes mara, which means Death.

The painter has referenced an Indian mythological story involving one of the ten avatars which God takes to save humanity from the demons. Here, God takes the form of Narasimha – half man, half lion. The story, in brief, is as follows:

There lived a king who obtained great powers by praying to Lord Shiva. Thus he could not be killed either by humans or by animals, also not by any weapons, not on the earth or in the sky. With such invincible powers, the king asked his subject to worship him as God. But his own son was a great devotee of God. The king was furious and demanded him to show his God. The son replied that he is everywhere. At this the king hit a pillar in anger. God, in the form of Narasimha, appeared. This form was neither man nor animal. Narasimha killed the king on his lap using his nails.  His lap is neither on earth nor in sky and his nails were not weapons.

The painter expresses his anguish at the demolition of Babri Masjid by showing this mythological episode in the reverse. Here, the Demon is shown killing the devotee, the son of the king, rather than the king. The evil of the demon is displayed by the word, Mara, which is written on his forehead. This word depicts his evil nature in opposition to the righteous values of God, Ram.



Thank you, Shri, for sharing your response to Manjit Bawa’s work with us!

Are you familiar with the story Shri relates? What do you see when you look at this painting?


The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 is on at the AGM until October 19.

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