In the passing of artist, architect, designer and sculptor Satish Gujral, India has lost a giant who had vision and energy and always remained relevant to his times.
Long before societies and nations recognised the value of being inclusive to individuals with special needs, Gujral beat all odds of hearing impairment to garner international recognition for his creativity that spanned painting, graphics, murals, sculpture and architecture.
Gujral’s works traversed multiple modes and moorings and, over the decades, he drew inspiration from deities, the edifice of tribal forms, the gravitas of geometrical projections, animals as well as humans, to create a repertoire that entwined multiple references for his paintings as well as his sculptures.
Born in Jhelum in pre-Partition West Punjab in 1923, and trained at the Mayo School of Art and later in 1944-47 at Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay, Gujral overcame the turbulent early years — an illness that affected his hearing and the trauma of Partition — which left a deep impact on his artistic expression.
Among his finest shows
One of his finest shows was Metamorphosis at the Lalit Kala Akademi in 2008. Other than his dulcet drawings done on a straw-coloured archival paper, his sculptures were an odyssey of their own making. Of particular grace and expressionist zeal were his rams, horses and bull sculptures. The horses and bulls were created with riding gear, meticulously moored. When asked to explain the symbolism, he said: “The animals are a symbol of energy, whereas the riding gear, the way it is created to lie loose, is about energy in motion, something I need to reflect since I have been trapped into stillness.”
A week after his opening at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, he came one evening to Khushwant Singh’s home and it was a delight to listen to two men of aesthetics discuss Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Singh, then, related the tale of Faiz and Gujral to this critic.
“Gujral knew Faiz because every evening, he came to his brother’s [I.K. Gujral’s] hostel and read out his poetry,” said Singh. “ One day, Gujral’s brother told Faiz that his little brother wanted to read his poetry but could not hear and wondered if he could lend his book of poems for Gujral to read. Faiz did not send his book, he went and sat with Gujral. Faiz, in a way, became Gujral’s teacher as he gave him three unforgettable nights.”
Singh that evening recited Faiz and it was a scene to behold as Gujral’s eyes lit up and his smile widened. The love and respect between these two men was something to behold.
Burnt wooden sculptures
While Gujral’s paintings and sculptures have always been in the news, it is his burnt wooden sculptures that stand apart for their solidity of substance and the echoes of literature and folk accents and spirituality.
Among the best are his two sculptures at the ITC Maurya, New Delhi. Gujral created a modernist mould with Indianesque idioms. There is something hauntingly Indian in this work, although he consciously refuses to exploit traditional Indian styles. The burnt wood and the contours seem both sunburned and gritty, as it revels in its uniform matte texture.
When asked about his burnt wood series that has references to Indian mythology even as it reflects an interplay of contemporary sensibility, Gujral said: “One day, during Lohri, I saw sparks emerging from a burning log. The texture and colour attracted me, and immediately I knew that I wanted to work with burnt wood.”
Gujral was obsessed with the sooty blackness of burnt wood and, from it, created serpents and deities and forms sprinkling a hint of crimson and coral beads and gold like the glowing embers in the fire.
Colour and surface
In his paintings, we could see subtleties of colour begin to play across through the surface like a mirage seen in the reaches of a dry desert. He gained international recognition for the “elusive quality that retreated into profundity as the viewer attempts to grasp it.” One of his best was Mourning En Masse (1952) (casein on cardboard). His brilliance in his paintings lay not just in the textural facets but in the underlying solidity which seemed to melt into sliding planes of colour dispersing into an infinite horizon.
Gujral had deep powers of observation. From bells on the necks of buffaloes to the tools of the cobblers who sat on the streets, his eyes missed nothing.
One of his greatest design ventures was the Belgian Embassy in Delhi. It was picked out by the International Union of Architects as one of the 1,000 best buildings made in the 20th Century.
Gujral was also known for his generosity of spirit. In 2017, he donated a sculpture to Bikaner House because it supported his idea of public art. The idea of public art was experienced by him in its birthplace in Mexico. His tenure in Mexico brought him close to Frida Kahlo and Octavio Paz. Meeting Paz paved the way for his selection for a scholarship to study art in Mexico, and this changed his life.
The Mexican government conferred Gujral with “The Order of the Aztec Eagle”, an honour given to foreigners rendering distinguish services to Mexico and humanity. The Belgian government honoured Gujral with the Order of the Crown for designing the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi in 1983.
Gujral was a voracious reader and scholar too. He said his rams in drawings, paintings and sculptures belonged to literature as well as poetry. His rams had a lyrical beauty about them, their curled horns harking back to the haunts of history. He often said that Sanskrit poetry was narrated through dialogues with a bird. The “woman’s breast springing like the head of a bird” or “the woman communicating with a ram” represented an “inner lust and sensuality” for Gujral. But women who looked at his rams found them soft and perfectly poised. The lyrical and the pensive penchant for figurative forms defined his entire evolution through more than six decades of work.
His art will stand alone in the sands of time, evoking the essence of quietude and dignity just like the artist who transcended time to write his own pages of art history.
(The writer is a noted art critic)