Art is a passion that 93-year-old Satish Gujral has been pursuing since the age of nine, a year after he lost his hearing in an accident. Almost two years after his retrospective at the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts in Delhi, Gujral is exhibiting a 8.5-ft tall sculpture on the lawns of Bikaner House in Delhi for three months. Cast in bronze, Trinity brings together the pantheon of Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
With Trinity, you have once again turned to Indian mythology, which has been a recurring theme in your work.
This work brings together Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Good art does not begin with an idea, it is driven by a creative force. Every artist gives a new form to mythology. There is no need to intellectualise art.
How important is it to take art to the people through public works?
I have always been an ardent proponent of public art. A painting can only reach an individual, it cannot reach the public at large. Earlier, we had art in temples and people had access to it but times have changed, art has become a gallery business. I played a role in persuading Jawaharlal Nehru to make a rule that two per cent of the cost incurred towards making a public building should be allotted for art. That rule is still there, but I don’t know if it is followed.
I believe it was public art being produced in Mexico that also influenced your decision to apply for a scholarship to study art in the country (in 1952).
I was in Shimla when a friend told me that I should go to Mexico, where people were painting the misery of the revolution. Around that time, the Mexican embassy announced a scholarship. I did not even know where Mexico was then. When I told my brother Inder (IK Gujral) that I wanted to apply, he said ‘I was living in a fool’s paradise’. He said everything that was required, I did not have — I could not hear, did not speak fluent English. But after a few days, he said there was no harm applying. During the interview, he asked me to talk only to the Mexican cultural attache and ignore the others, and that’s what I did. In Mexico, I apprenticed with artists such as Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, and was friends with Frida Kahlo.
You also fell in love on the ship to Mexico.
Two days before I was leaving for Mexico, Inder typed out four pages of dos and don’ts. When I fell in love on the ship, I wrote a letter to Inder saying I wanted to marry the girl. He wrote back saying romances that develop on a ship don’t last the voyage. He was correct.
You have also designed buildings, including the Belgian embassy in Delhi and Goa University. Do you think architecture too is public art?
When I felt I had said what I wanted to through one medium, I shifted to another. With architecture, I followed my own style. Many people thought I was foolish to drop a successful career in painting and go for architecture. Diplomats from Belgium had come to India and wanted me to design their embassy in a way that it represented Indian tradition but was also modern. I designed it in 1984. After that, I designed various other buildings, including the summer palace in Riyadh and the UNESCO building in Delhi.
What do you think about the recent demolition of Hall of Nations, designed by architect Raj Rewal, who also designed your house in Delhi?
Public art is always in danger of getting destroyed with the change in geography. I had done my best mural for The Oberoi hotel, when it was built, but later the hotel changed and the mural was removed. I am very sorry for Raj. It was unfair to have done this to a building.
You are also interested in music and Urdu poetry. How has that influenced your art?
As a young boy, I remember accompanying my brother (Inder) for a poetry reading session where he asked Ali Sardar Jafri (Urdu writer and poet) to advise me on poetry. Listening to the first verse I had penned, he advised me not to write poems and I followed his advice. But poetry has not just influenced my art, it has been an integral part of my life. I lost my hearing when I was eight. I was bedridden and Urdu was the only language I had learnt to read till then, so my father got me every possibly Urdu book to read. At eight, I had read Ghalib, Iqbal, writings meant for 20 year olds. Poetry became for me what is music for you.
What do you think about the current debate on nationalism?
To me nationalism means working on what I consider is best for the nation. It does not mean believing in any ‘ism’. Today’s nationalism is not in the interest of the nation, but in the interest of different ideas.