Satish Gujral, the artist who followed his heart

Blessy Augustine | Updated on April 03, 2020

End of an era: Satish Gujral was among the rare painters and muralists who could also design buildings   -  RAJEEV BHATT

In his art, as in his life, painter, sculptor and architect Satish Gujral made tough choices to stay true to himself

When he was eight years old, artist and sculptor Satish Gujral fell into the Lidder river in Kashmir while trying to cross it over a footbridge. He hurt his leg and a series of medical complications and procedures robbed him of his hearing. Living in isolation and silence as a boy, Gujral — who died last week at the age of 94 — read voraciously and doodled vigorously. With encouragement from his father, he enrolled at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, where he learned painting, drawing, carpentry, clay moulding and wood carving — arts and crafts that would make him the polymath that he was. He made his first significant body of works after migrating to Delhi, following the Partition of India.

“He had experienced the violence and trauma of Partition first-hand and it was bound to feature in his art,” says Pramod Kumar KG, who curated Gujral’s last major retrospective, titled A Brush With Life, in 2016. “But it was after returning from Mexico that you see him come into his own,” says Kumar. Gujral spent two years (1952-54) studying mural paintings in Mexico, where he was deeply influenced by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo. The language of the suffering human body and psyche in Gujral’s Partition paintings owes much to works depicting the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21).

But it was his portraits that made him a known name in the political circles of Delhi. His expressionist painting of Lala Lajpat Rai endeared him to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and still hangs in Parliament House. He went on to create inimitable portraits of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and VK Krishna Menon. While these hang in private collections, they paved the way for Gujral’s most accessible works — murals. Between 1962 and 1980, Gujral created murals for the Punjab Agricultural University, Delhi High Court, Shastri Bhawan and even New York’s World Trade Center, among others. “He picked up much from the mural tradition in Mexico but he managed to develop his own symbolism, his own mechanism and even his own materials. He wouldn’t just go buy paint and tiles, he would make them himself, and that’s why his work has endured,” says artist and friend Krishen Khanna (95). Like Gujral, Khanna, too, was born in pre-Partition Punjab. “I don’t remember which year I met Satish first, but I remember that we became friends instantly.”

“I was always in awe of him, of how extremely talented he was. He wasn’t someone who, just because he found success doing one thing, stuck to it. He always pushed himself in a way that no one else did,” says Khanna. Gujral not only moved between media — from paintings and sculptures to paper collages — but also created unique works in entirely different fields such as architecture. One of Gujral’s most famous projects is the Belgian Embassy in Delhi, a landmark that led the Belgian government to honour him with the Order of the Crown. “I remember stepping into a private house Satish had designed in Delhi and being amazed by the kind of spaces he had managed to cull out. When I asked him how he managed to do this being a painter, he said, ‘It’s easy, you also should try it,’” Khanna says, and laughs as he recalls this exchange.

Kumar, who met Gujral in 2015, a year before the retrospective was presented in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, says that Gujral’s ease in experimenting with media came from the singularity of his vision. “He wasn’t ever bothered by trends or success. He was only concerned with channelling his own inner journey. For instance, when he wanted to express what he had seen during the killings of Sikhs in 1984, he didn’t go back to the style of his Partition paintings. He chose to make visceral, abstract sculptures out of burnt wood,” Kumar says. Khanna gives a more intimate and philosophical reasoning. “We don’t have the power to see everything, but we do have the power to see certain things. It’s like a little secret gift planted within us. You can use known methodologies and mechanics, but to get to what you have to show or say, you have to follow a very singular path,” says Khanna.

In 1998, at the age of 72, Gujral got a cochlear implant. It was an expensive and complicated procedure. “Before he flew to Australia for the operation, he told me that all he wanted to hear were his wife’s voice and the birds that sing outside his window,” Khanna says. “It was the gentlest aspiration I had ever heard.” But years later, Gujral had the procedure reversed. “He had lived in silence for more than 60 years, and when he got his hearing back, he couldn’t deal with the continuous onslaught of modern noise,” Kumar explains. In both his art and his life, Gujral made tough choices to stay true to himself. He leaves behind his wife, three children and their families, and a rich legacy of imbuing material — be it bronze, wood, ceramic or paint — with otherwise ephemeral emotions.

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi

Published on April 03, 2020

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