At 90, Satish Gujral fondly recalls the young boy of nine, who first picked colours to doodle on paper. Art was his outlet, the voice he had found after an accident near Pahalgam in Kashmir, which rendered him deaf. It was the language through which he was to tell stories — of the traumatic Partition, eternal relationship between man, animal and technology, and abstractionist mythological themes interspersed with the use of the Devanagari script.
Years later, all of it is under one roof in a retrospective in Delhi. On a wheelchair, accompanied by wife Kiran, as Gujral moves from one room to another, the works of art, he says, are pages from his life. “That young boy would have never imagined this day,” he says, with a smile. Vivid memories are associated with several works, others are more vague. “Many of them, I haven’t seen for years. The works have their own life, they travel, move hands,” says the artist, who also moved rather swiftly from one medium to another, playing with paint, bronze, clay, blowtorch, paper collage, ceramics and architecture among others. “When I felt I had said what I wanted through one medium and was losing excitement, I shifted to another. Material is the language of the idea. If you change the idea, the idea will find its own material,” says Gujral.
Born in Jhelum, Pakistan, in 1925, Gujral recalls that his earliest lessons in art came not from the medium itself but through the words penned by poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ghalib and Iqbal. As a young boy, he accompanied his elder brother Inder, then a student of Lahore College, to gatherings and poetry reading sessions. “He asked Ali Sardar Jafri (Urdu writer and poet) to advice me on poetry, listening to the very first verse penned by me he advised me not to write poems and I followed his advice,” says Gujral.
The most compelling and poignant learnings were yet to come though. His training as an artist at the The Mayo School of Art in Lahore had equipped Gujral to draw together the three arts of painting, sculpture and architectural drawing but it could not have prepared him for the cathartic partition. Young Gujral accompanied his father in helping Hindus relocate to India, witnessing the bloodshed and scathing anger. Those scenes were to be translated into paintings in strong expressionist brushwork with anguished victims and bleak horizon. The emotional outburst resulted in some of his best works — Mourning, Days of Glory and Christ in Wilderness, among several others.
In the following years, he crossed several more borders, each journey leaving an imprint on his art. In 1952, an apprenticeship with Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros and exposure to the grand works of late José Orozco turned him to create murals in terracotta and ceramics. Local metal-smithy techniques used to make cattle bells became the base material for sculptures during a brief period of tantric preoccupation after an extensive tour through Scandinavia and South America while travelling to Lima for the World Crafts Meet in 1958.
While critics hailed him, acclaimed art critic Charles Fabri declaring that his Partition series signified the advent of “a genius”, in the art fraternity, Gujral remained a recluse. He could not relate with the Western Cubist and post-impressionist ideology of the then-prominent Progressive Artists Group and his differences with Husain have been legendary. In his autobiography, A Brush with Life, he wrote about Husain: “Only a very perceptive mind could detect that behind the facade of unassuming reticence was an extremely calculating mind.”
The two crossed paths numerous times, most famously when Husain dabbled with architecture with the Modi house in Delhi the same time when Gujral was designing the iconic Belgian embassy in Delhi (1980-83). His murals were already on the walls of Delhi High Court, Shastri Bhavan and the Gandhi Bhawan in Chandigarh, but now he was designing houses, including the summer palace in Riyadh.
“Painting, sculpture and architecture are the equal manifestation of a single aesthetic,” he says.
He feared neither isolation nor flak. So when his commissioned portrait of Lala Lajpat Rai for the Parliament in the early ’50s was rejected for not following the “Amrita Shergill style”, he put it for public viewing. His portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru (1957) was rather pensive but that of his daughter Indira was a more “ruthless” depiction. Today, he feels, he said through colour what he did not otherwise. Each hue and brushstroke was an emotion. He looks at the years past and himself — the younger and more vulnerable Gujral in a 1954 self-portrait where he surrounded himself with the abstract whirls, ready to take on the world.