Painter, sculptor, muralist, architect, poet, and a writer—Satish Gujral was truly a multi-faceted personality whose creativity knew no bounds. The artist established himself in the post-Independence era, when a newly-born nation was searching for its identity. Honoured with the second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan and with the ‘Order of the Crown’ by the Belgian Government for designing the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi, Gujral earned accolades both at home and abroad. These were not just for his sculptures or murals but also his architectural projects. He soon came to be known as one of the pioneers of Modernism in the country.
Born in Jhelum, Punjab, in 1925, Gujral spent his early years drawing and reading Urdu literature. In 1939, he joined the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, after which he went on to the Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai where he met members of the Progressive Artists Group like F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza and M. F. Husain. Gujral rejected the Western art subjects and techniques as inspiration. Instead, he searched for an identity that was truly Indian in its soul.
In 1952, Gujral received a scholarship to study at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where he served as an apprentice to pioneering muralists, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Later, he painted large fresco murals, many of which were done on the façade of significant buildings of Lutyen’s Delhi. He also came to be known for his signature burnt wood sculptures.
At the ongoing edition of the India Art Fair, Kiran Gujral Art Initiative, founded by his wife, is showcasing ten of his these sculptures. These were created between the late seventies and 1990. This is part of the ‘Memoriam’ section, which pays a tribute to notable artists who passed away recently. “Satish Gujral was one of the most multidimensional and notable artists of the post-Independence generation. He gave shape to an Indian artistic language. It is important that we introduce his works to a younger generation of audiences, who deserve to know his greatness,” says Jaya Asokan, director, India Art Fair.
Raseel Gujral Ansal, daughter of Kiran and Satish Gujral, feels that the style of burning wood was a departure from his usual canvas works and metal sculptures. “He displayed these for the first time at the Dhoomimal Art Gallery in the 1970s. The whole series was an exploration of new media such as leather cowrie shells, and glass bead embellishments,” says Ansal.
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These works were spurred by the anguish brought about by the Emergency. “The entire intelligentsia of the country was under radar,” she adds. This was particularly significant for the Gujral family as her uncle, I.K. Gujral, was the Union minister of information and broadcasting at the time. “My uncle was directly at loggerheads with Sanjay Gandhi and was packed off to Moscow as the Indian ambassador to Russia,” says Ansal. The burning of wood was his act of aggression against all of that. Gujral was deeply disturbed by such events in the country that his parents had fought for, and all that it stood for – liberty, secularism, and freedom of speech and expression.
Gujral’s studio contained elements of calm within in the chaos. “Because my father lived in silence, he could actually disappear into his imagination in the most crowded of spaces. He could sketch furiously, sitting amongst all of us as a family, oblivious to everything around him,” says Ansal. For his sculptures, he began with a basic form in clay and then translated it in wood, before burning and embellishing it.
As a person he was intense, intellectual, and was known to be very funny. “He could have you in splits,” reminisces Ansal.
Satish Gujral passed away on 26 March, 2020.