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Satish Gujral: India’s Renaissance Man

The modernist, who passed away at the age of 94, defied genres, working across medium and material. But many believe that it is his Partition paintings that have withstood the test of time

Satish Gujral
Satish Gujral (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

In the late hours of Thursday, tributes flooded social media as news of artist Satish Gujral’s passing came in. Pramod Kumar KG of Eka Archiving, who had curated his last major retrospective in 2016, titled ‘A Brush with Life’ posted on Instagram: “The Renaissance man has left us on his final voyage." The artist, who had been keeping unwell for some time now, was known for his unique practice, one that defied genres. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, muralist and writer, working across medium and material. In her profile of Gujral on the Critical Collective website, art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha hails him as probably India’s first modernist, who defied the limitations of disciplinarity in the arts. It is a thought shared by Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions and publications, DAG, who feels that Gujral hasn’t been acknowledged enough for the huge diversity of work that he created.

Born in 1925 in the town of Jhelum in present-day Pakistan, Gujral’s practice focused on the fragility of human condition. “The extraordinary biographical aspect here is Gujral’s assertion in the face of personal limitations [a botched-up medical procedure after a swimming accident at the age of eight resulted in loss of hearing]," writes Sinha. “His art then is not only a quest of diversity of medium but mastery over a frequently disobedient and depleted physical body, even as his work paradoxically is emphatic in its evocations of authority and power."

Gujral was an artist who let his lived experiences speak through his work, as is evident through his Partition paintings, imbued with the agony and pathos of all that he witnessed in 1947. The artist described the scenes in a 2014-interview as: “I saw killings every day. My education was completed in January 1949, but I left Pakistan only after the last refugees had been transported. When I finished and moved to Shimla, where I stayed for four years, I began to paint man’s cruelty to man." According to art critic and curator Yashodhara Dalmia, when Gujral came to Delhi, he made a series of very powerful works with whirlwind sweeps, which showed women fleeing and all-round sense of despair – and his powerful depiction of the tragedy has withstood the test of time.

“But not many are aware of a smaller group of beautiful collages, some of which are now in the Chandigarh Museum," mentions Kumar. Singh hopes that these landmark works will be part of the intended museum by Gujral Foundation.

The other landmark moment in his life was when he went to Mexico on a scholarship in 1952, something that distinguished him from other artists of that generation. As cultural theorist, curator and poet, Ranjit Hoskote tweeted on Thursday night, “Unlike many of his peers, who went to Paris and London in the early 1950s, Gujral went to Mexico City on a scholarship to study with Diego Rivera and [David Alfaro] Siqueiros." Around that time, he also befriended artist Frida Kahlo.

In her essay, Sinha describes the profound impact of this experience as Rivera and Siqueiros “opened up a world of building façade decoration, the innovative usage of materials and what may be termed as imaging as a national narrative… national art with indigenous roots." This paved the way for Gujral’s interest in the role of murals in public art. When he came back to India, “he was instrumental in persuading [Pandit Jawaharlal] Nehru of the need to formalise public art projects for government buildings," writes Sinha. Gujral went on to create murals for Gandhi Bhavan, Chandigarh and Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi. However, both Kumar and Singh rue the fact that some of the murals in public institutions are not looked after very well, and that is a disservice to his legacy. “Unfortunately, the murals are not very well documented either. It is important to look at the buildings from the 1950s-1970s to take a stock of the public art that he did," says Singh.

For Dalmia, one of the most important facets of Gujral’s artistic career was that he was constantly experimenting – from oils on canvas to using burnt wood and moving on to create sculptures in metal, fiberglass, and more. “The world was his boundary. Look at some of the metal pieces which are in private collections and look like spaceships on voyages," says Kumar.

Even though Gujral wasn’t trained as an architect, he was equally prolific in this discipline as well. “He relied on his own perception of space. That was important in the impact that he wanted to create," says Singh. A Padma Vibhushan, Gujral designed the embassy of Belgium in New Delhi in 1984, the UNESCO building in Delhi, Goa University and the summer palace for the Saudi Royal family in Riyadh. “Most people only remember the Belgian Embassy, which featured domes and characteristic wire-cut red bricks. But no one thinks of the Ambedkar Memorial, commissioned by then-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, which was designed by him and his son, Mohit. It is quite a landmark piece of contemporary architecture," says Kumar.

Gujral’s buildings were characterised by a huge sense of theatre. “His spaces would have great big openings. Rest would be private spaces such as the bedroom right at the back. These would be connected with narrow labyrinths of corridors," says Singh.

In all his endeavours – be it as a painter or an architect - the one constant presence in his life has been his wife, Kiran. “Art was his life, and his wife was a huge part of that. She became his voice," says Kumar. He recalls when they were putting up the show, Gujral would often come in, and would always be accompanied with Kiran. “When we would go to his house, and even if she was sitting in another part of the room, she would always be watchful if we were getting what he was saying. They completely enmeshed with one another. And he was hugely grateful that someone could resonate his ideas," he says.

Those who knew him also call him a great raconteur. “If you spent a morning with him, he would regale you with stories. And a lot of times they would be about the Partition. It was evident the kind of pain and anger he still felt. Often, he would start crying while sharing the experience," says Singh. Dalmia concurs and feels that besides creating a niche as an iconic modern artist, Gujral was also an extremely warm and knowledgeable person. “Whenever we interacted, we could relate to each other. He was very responsive. He is going to be missed," she says.

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