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Award-winning painter Ram Singh Bawa will showcase work at Beaverton Night Market



TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Artist Ram Singh Bawa sits in his living room with a painting that will be featured at the Beaverton Night Market this month.Ram Singh Bawa’s house overflows with his art.

Framed paintings grace the orange and green walls, but canvases also live along hallways, perch behind doors and hide under tables stored in the attic.

Bawa, who is 83 years old, has spent a lifetime immersed in color and brushstrokes. Over the course of 50 years, he’s held more than a hundred exhibitions in India and the United States.

He’s crossed oceans, escaped political violence, and overcome displacement and financial struggles with a single purpose: to never give up on making art.

“Art is like food to me now,” said Bawa in measured English, his voice mingling with the sounds of wind chimes from his front porch. Five years ago, he moved to the United States from India to live with his son’s family in Beaverton.

In that time, he has exhibited his work at the Beaverton City Library, Beaverton City Hall, and at venues including hospitals, banks and cafes. His son has worked with the Beaverton Arts Commission to find venues that showcase his father’s art.

In recent years, Bawa has been producing about 10 paintings a month.

Next week, Bawa will showcase and sell his work at the Beaverton Night Market, along with vendors from around the world. And while he hails from India, Bawa’s work transcends borders of nation and genre.

Beaverton Night Market

What: Art, goods, food, and performances

When: Saturday, July 23 and Aug. 13

6 to 10 p.m.

Where: The Beaverton Round, 12725 S.W. Millikan Wy.

“It comes from inside of my own mind,” he said.

Bawa likes to work in solitude. Every morning, he rises with the sun. He starts his day with a cup of chai tea. Then, he goes on a walk around his neighborhood, sometimes joined by his wife. Around 9 or 10 in the morning, he begins painting.

“When everything is quiet, I get a lot of energy from that,” said Bawa.

In his youth, he’d wander alone through the mountains and hill stations of India by day, and through thick forests at night. Now, in Beaverton, if the weather is mild, Bawa paints sitting on his front porch, enveloped by a garden of flowers.

“Every time I start painting, I close my eyes,” said Bawa. “You have to watch what is inside. Inside you is feeling.”

From supernatural sunsets to surreal human figures floating in planes of color and emotion, Bawa’s work in acrylic, oil, watercolor and ink searches for spiritual meaning in outer and inner worlds alike.

Bawa, who describes his work as “semi-abstract,” uses light and shade to evoke the space between visible reality and the abysses of the mind.

“These are planets,” said Bawa, pointing to a series of three paintings depicting spheres floating dreamlike in a multicolored realm. Bawa said these paintings represent the cosmos and its bounty. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Artist Ram Singh Bawa's studio is on the front porch of his home where he draws inspiration from the garden that surrounds him.

Many of his works visualize his experience of Sikh spirituality and cosmology, he said. As he paints, he meditates on verses from Sikh scripture.

He shares one verse, which translates this way:

“There are nether worlds beneath nether worlds, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly worlds above.”

“See how many things are moving here?” said Bawa, moving his finger along the different configurations, constellations of planets he has painted.

But Bawa said his primary inspiration comes from the universe within, where he channels the elements of inner life: loneliness, frustration, reflection, meditation and hope.

Bawa has accumulated a wealth of emotional experience throughout a life that spans monumental moments in history.

“My father’s been through a lot of struggle,” said Mandeep Bawa, Ram Singh’s son.

Ram Singh Bawa was born in 1933, when India was still under British rule. As a child, Bawa would draw any face that caught his eye: a film star, a Hindu goddess statue, a passerby.

When the country was partitioned in 1947 and his hometown of Lahore became a part of newly formed Pakistan, his family was uprooted and never returned again.

As he was displaced, Bawa heard of violence and felt the weight of upheaval in his village as partition tore apart communities at their seams. But he kept his pain to himself.

“It was mentally very disturbing, and I wasn’t finding a way to express (through art),” said Bawa.

At that time, it didn’t occur to him to pursue art professionally. For nine years, Bawa served in the Indian Air Force. As he completed his duties, he’d paint whenever he found time.

Ultimately, he decided that he needed to make art the primary focus of his life, and that he needed training to establish him on that path.

“He didn’t want to compromise on his identity as an artist,” said Mandeep Bawa.

Ram Singh Bawa started taking evening painting classes in 1953. Shortly after, he enrolled in a fine arts diploma program at the Delhi School of Art.

“Ultimately, we were taught, you do whatever you feel. Don’t go by any eminent artists; don’t copy,” said Bawa. “You go with your heart.”

Bawa held his first exhibition in 1962 at the All India Fine Arts Society in New Delhi. Just three years later, he won a national arts award.

“I could not believe it,” said Bawa. “I had only been a few years in this line.”

In the decades that followed, Bawa supported his family by teaching art classes at various private institutes. Painting itself was never financially profitable for him. He said that people are often reluctant to spend money on art. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Artist Ram Singh Bawa's art will be featured at the Beaverton Night Market this month.

“It is very difficult to survive on art. This line is a life of struggle,” Bawa said.

Bawa was uprooted once again in 1984 when anti-Sikh massacres rocked New Delhi, where he lived. He watched as his neighborhood Sikh temple, where he was an active member, was desecrated and set on fire.

He remained in hiding for days as thousands of Sikhs, identified by voter rolls and their turbans, were killed in mob violence. Later, he learned that his son-in-law’s brother was among the dead.

After the massacres, his family relocated to another city in India, Anandpur Sahib. With fewer employment opportunities available, Bawa had to take early retirement from his teaching post. Bawa’s grief took time to fester and ferment before finding release in artistic expression. Certain emotions remain lodged inside of him, he said.

He looks at a print, drawn in ink. The figure in the print, neither animal nor fully human, is crouched in a fetal position. Bawa said it is meant to evoke the emotion of looking inward.

“Look how much sadness; look how much disappointment,” said Bawa. “You are actually weeping inside.”

Bawa says nearly all his works delve into difficult emotions, such as despair and yearning.

But they also contain a spirit of strength in the face of hopelessness. In one painting, a woman escapes as a sea behind her rises dangerously.

In another, a shepherd woman commands a swarm of goats around her. They are in swift movement and have a fantastical quality to them.

Bawa remembers seeing such a woman during a tour of Rajasthan, India. He was taken by her spirit, her power.

“I must have made about 100 paintings of this woman with her goats,” Bawa laughed. “I’m astonished at how it has pulled me. Why does it keep coming to me? I don’t understand.”

In the midst of wrestling with pain through art, his private joy is painting flowers.

“Flowers bring happiness. They don’t ask anything,” said Bawa, who added that no one ever asks him to paint flowers, nor do they really sell. Instead, he paints them for his own satisfaction.

“The man should be like a flower,” he adds.

Bawa’s artistic inclinations are trickling down the family tree, too. His son grew up winning art competitions and his daughter has exhibited her paintings in London.

And his 5-year-old grandson, Jugaad, likes to copy his grandfather and paint on his own easel.

Until recently, he assumed his daughter was self-taught.

“One day, she said, ‘Papa, all those years when you would paint, I would watch you from behind. I never told you, but I watched you.’”

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