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Satish Gujral rhythmically and obsessively painted ordinary Partition victims

‘Despair’ (1954), oil painting by Satish Gujral.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As if the month of March wasn’t terrible enough already, filled as it was with anxiety and hardship, the loss of one of our most senior and beloved artists made it more painful.

One of the last great artists born before Independence, Satish Gujral was, throughout his life, a symbol of forbearance and hope.

A childhood swimming accident had left him with a hearing disability and a retreat into silence, and into the world of drawing and poetry. The love and encouragement of his family helped him find his way into the formal study of art. As a young and sensitive art student, and as a volunteer helping refugees, the daily tragedies and violence that he witnessed during Partition changed his sensibility forever.

This experience led to Gujral’s most powerful works: the Partition paintings. An artistic project filled with ethical and emotive force, this is the artist’s record of the catastrophic aftermath of Partition which left a wave of death and despair in its wake.

Gujral’s Partition paintings are extraordinarily moving. I am reminded of Kathe Kollwitz’s powerful expressionist woodcuts about World War I, in which her 18-year-old son Peter was killed. Kollwitz later wrote about how she tried to make a drawing of her son, seeking him over and over within the drawing — and not getting any closer. She felt her son was somewhere in the work but that she could not find him through it.

Gujral’s paintings rhythmically and obsessively portray the ordinary men and women who became victims of Partition. The human figures on the canvases are shrouded in folds of fabric, as if to make it slightly more bearable to look at their trauma.

Satish Gujral was a pioneer of a new Indian modernism and not limited by artistic media or formal constraints.

Satish Gujral was a pioneer of a new Indian modernism and not limited by artistic media or formal constraints.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

With force and feeling, Gujral paints the suffering of the Punjabi refugees over and over: the deep shades, the swathes of cloth wrapped around the human figures, and the weariness, mourning, despair, and untold horror of their stories. With their faces half-covered by fabric, their eyes often unseen or heavy-lidded and half-closed, the figures cover the space of the entire canvas and its deep dark brown shadows.

Their hands are a reflection of their mental condition. Gujral often paints the figures with over-sized hands either lying inert and utterly helpless, suggesting the depths of their suffering and grief, or with tightly closed fists, the knuckles showing white with tension. An elderly couple, almost entirely hidden under shawls, extend their hands to beg. Their hands are large and knobbly. The gesture is filled with the horror of what has befallen them. In another painting, a young man is filled with despair, his fists balled up and fierce with pain, his fingers almost claw-like, as others hold him steady.

The folds of shawls and dupattas cover major portions of these canvases, echoing the lines of anguish on the faces of the human figures. The viewer feels an unspeakable grief at the sight of the figures huddled by the roadside or collapsed like a heap of cloth.

And yet these refugee figures in Gujral’s paintings, who have suffered trauma and carnage, are a symbol of dignity, forbearance and hope. They are exhausted, grieving, in despair — but in their stoic humanity, they are not defeated. The worst pain can be confronted, these works suggest, and the most terrible horrors survived — and human dignity can still come through it all.

Born in 1925 in Jhelum, Punjab, in present-day Pakistan, Gujral first studied art at the Mayo School in Lahore and then at the JJ School of Art in Bombay. In this great commercial capital, in the years leading up to Independence, he met the members of the bold Progressive Artists Group, including S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain. The Progressives wanted to break away from the prevailing nostalgic nationalism and forge a new, secular, pluralistic modernism, one that could hold its own internationally. This quest took some of the artists abroad, to London and Paris.

A mural by Satish Gujral at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.

A mural by Satish Gujral at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.   | Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Like the Bombay Progressives, Gujral was in search of a new idiom. However, his artistic choices were different. In 1952, he went on a scholarship to the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where he would learn from the great muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their monumental social realist murals not only retold the history of a land, a people, and a new Mexican national identity, but also celebrated the working people’s role in crafting their own history. Inspired, Gujral turned to murals himself and went on to produce important public art.

His work received recognition in the form of national and international awards, the Padma Vibhushan and the Order of the Crown from the Belgian government for the design of the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi, selected by an international jury as one of the 1,000 outstanding buildings of the world in the 20th century.

But perhaps his most important architectural project was the original design of the Ambedkar Memorial Park in Lucknow, commissioned by the administration headed by the first woman Dalit Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. For a country that was still only a few decades old, it was a new symbol of social justice.

Throughout his work of many decades, as an award-winning and internationally recognised artist, muralist, sculptor and architect, Gujral forged his own trail, not letting himself be limited by artistic media or formal constraints. As a pioneer of a new Indian modernism, he sought to tell the untold stories of contemporary history.

The writer is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru.

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