At the age of eight, he had first picked the pencil to doodle his thoughts after an accident terminally impacted his hearing. Art, thereafter, was to become his voice and the language through which Satish Gujral spoke to the world. On March 26, that voice was forever silenced, with the passing away of the artist. The Padma Vibhushan awardee was 94. His cremation was held in Delhi in the presence of close family members on Friday.
“To me, he has a very unique place. With great strength, he dealt with his physical incapabilities on one side and his conceptual abilities on the other, which is very rare. I would describe him as a conceptual planner — to him medium was not prime, it was the concept. He managed to assimilate and imbibe several creative languages in his work,” says artist Rajeev Lochan. During his tenure as the director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, he organised Gujral’s retrospective in 2006. Artist Vivan Sundaram adds, “He was extremely affectionate. He was quite an institution in Delhi, and a grand figure who will be sadly missed.”
While the medium of his expression varied from paint to wood, metal, paper collages, ceramics and architecture, the subjects too spanned from an exploration of the relationship between man and technology to his interpretation of mythology.
Gujral is best known, however, as the artist who painted the darkness of the Partition and its terrifying anguish in works such as Mourning En Masse and Days of Glory, among others. Born in Jhelum in 1925, as a young child he had accompanied his father in helping refugees relocate to India, and the memories of the bloodshed he witnessed were painted as recollections years later. “Partition is close to my heart and what I witnessed remained with me and was reflected in my work. Art was a medium to express that turmoil,” stated Gujral in an interview to The Indian Express in 2010.
Though he was trained in the techniques of art at the Mayo College of Art in Lahore, it was Gujral’s experiences and surroundings that truly defined and influenced his works. The younger brother of former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, he would often recall how he would accompany him to gatherings and poetry reading sessions of stalwarts such as Ali Sardar Jafri and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
In 1952, he got a scholarship to study at the reputed Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico, where he apprenticed under renowned artists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, and became friends with Frida Kahlo. While critics in India acknowledged his talent, in the art fraternity he remained relatively a loner who did not relate with the ideologies of the then dominant Progressive Artists Group.
He reportedly convinced Jawaharlal Nehru to make a rule that a reserved percentage of the cost incurred towards making a public building should be allotted for art. A proponent of public art, his murals are on numerous buildings across the world, from the Delhi High Court to Shastri Bhavan and Gandhi Bhawan in Chandigarh. He also dabbled with architecture, designing the Belgian Embassy in Delhi and Goa University.
“A Nehruvian, he was also inspired by the Mexican mural movement and followed a very different trajectory in the Indian art scene. The word crossover is now quite fashionable but Satish did them in a way that was institutional,” says Sundaram.
Artist Paramjit Singh, who had invited Gujral to be part of an exhibition curated by him for the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in Lahore in 1988, recalls how the late artist would always encourage the young. “He was an active painter till the very end. As a student, we would often look at his works based on the Partition, which were very important. Extremely lively, he had a great sense of humour and would often share jokes,” says Singh.
Though his journey of life has ended, as Gujral had stated, his works will continue to live. “The works have their own life, they travel, move hands,” he said, seated on a wheelchair, looking at over six decades of his work at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in an exhibition in 2016. “Good art,” he had added, “does not begin with an idea, it is driven by a creative force”.
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