‘I didn’t paint Partition, I painted my own suffering’

CHAOS AND CREATIVITY: Satish Gujral says art is a tool to initiate dialogue with people   | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty

The word ‘graphic’ holds a special place in legendary artist Satish Gujral’s vocabulary. He often uses it whenever he refers to his past. A past that is as extraordinary as his life. A past that narrates many tales of a remarkable life. It is while retrieving compelling anecdotes from his life, the 91-year-old relies heavily on his ‘graphic memory’ to recollect the feel, touch and sight of that particular moment. For instance, he in his childlike exuberance shares how warm he felt when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru called him on stage while releasing his portrait of Lala Lajpat Rai for the Parliament in the early ’50s. “I still remember how warmly he had put his hand on my shoulders. That was a proud moment because it was a commissioned portrait which was earlier rejected by the committee. But when Nehru saw it, I remember, he liked it so much that he wondered why it was rejected in the first place. So, him acknowledging my work in front of everyone is a memory that will never fade,” says Satish.

‘I didn’t paint Partition, I painted my own suffering’

This graphic memory is something he is blessed with. A quality he has employed quite generously while painting his dark and poignant ‘Partition series’. After all, he witnessed the ravages of riots first-hand while travelling to his hometown, Jhelum, a small river settlement along the river, in Pakistan immediately after Partition. He was accompanied by his father, a freedom fighter and member of the Constituent Assembly from Rawalpindi. “We were in Lahore when the country was divided. Lahore had become a living hell as everything was burning,” recalls the Padma Vibhushan recipient.

“My father decided to head home (Jhelum) and he was given a car. As we drove towards our home which was just 100 miles from Lahore, we saw that people were being killed on the road and women were raped. The route took much longer than usual because everything was burning and there was chaos,” he recollects.

When they finally managed to reach home in the evening, they were informed that everything was destroyed in their village. Their house had become a refugee camp. The macabre of life was being played out openly, everywhere around them. His father decided to stay back to help Hindus relocate to India and he accompanied him. Satish was in his early 20s when he became a witness to this bloodshed and all his outpourings came in the form of paintings that presented dark images of men and women. Anguish, grief and sadness dominated his works in the 1950s and 60s and the emotional outburst was best depicted in his works like ‘Mourning En-masse’, ‘Days of Glory’, among many others.

‘I didn’t paint Partition, I painted my own suffering’

“After rescuing people for over six months, I got a job as a graphic designer in Shimla. While working, I painted refugees and their pain. After a long time, I realised that I didn’t paint Partition, but I painted my own suffering,” he says.

That summer in Srinagar...

Suffering had made an early entry into Satish’s life. He was only eight when he lost his hearing. This was a result of an unfortunate accident that happened one summer in Srinagar. The entire family, including him, had gone for camping near a river in Pahalgam. One day, when everyone was asleep, the four naughty children decided to cross the river that was filled with boulders and its flow rapid. “I crossed the first two boulders quite smoothly, but while stepping on the third, I slipped. The fast rapids of the river took me away. Somewhere, my leg got entangled and a friend of mine managed to pull me out.”

This fateful incident was followed by bouts of fever and pain. He was immediately taken to Srinagar where he underwent multiple surgeries. This episode rendered him bed-ridden for a year and soon he started losing his hearing as well. “It was a difficult life,” he admits. “But when I looked at my father who was determined to get my life back on track, I too decided to fight my way out. He never gave up on me and I never gave up on life,” adds Satish who has studied art from the prestigious Mayo School of Arts (now National College of Arts, Pakistan) and JJ School of Art. “They became the foundation of my engagement with multi-disciplinary art forms and mediums.” A testament to this is the fact that he effortlessly wears the hat of a painter, sculptor, muralist and even an architect. Some of his prominent architectural works include the Belgian Embassy, the Modi House and more recently the Ambedkar Park in Lucknow.

One of the biggest turning points of his life came in 1952 when he went to Mexico on an art scholarship and apprenticed with David Alfredo Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, two artists who led that country’s muralist movement. “In those days, I was a leftist and wanted to paint on big walls. But later I realised that art shouldn’t be used as a propaganda. Art is a tool to initiate dialogue with people and with this thought I started advocating public art in my country,” says Satish whose murals adorn the walls of Punjab University, Chandigarh, Shastri Bhawan and Oberoi Hotel, among others.

“Art is a language that should be spoken in public places. We often meet people who say that they don’t understand art. I want this notion to end. This is why it is important to propagate and promote the idea of public art.”

He indeed has done his bit once again. He has loaned his iconic sculpture ‘Trinity’ to Bikaner House for a few months. “I want more people to see it and engage with art. This is why I agreed to loan it to them,” he says. Elaborating on why he never stuck to one medium, he quickly adds, “Life for me is changing and you should change, otherwise you would become a bore. This is why I never chose one medium to express myself. The thoughts and ideas were best explained in different mediums.”

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 12:24:29 PM |

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