A Voice Of His Own

Written by Gayatri Sinha

Published: March 31, 2020 12:10:34 am

Satish Gujral. (Express Archives)

Satish Gujral’s death has come at a time when the world itself is entombed in a larger silence. For such a gregarious man, this is indeed a mournful farewell. Gujral as a post-Independence modernist stood at some distance from the Progressive artists. In retrospect, he may be seen as something of a lonely tower, in the rugged individualism of his work and the great ease with which he could manipulate different languages to his own ends.

Even as his location in art history now demands more critical attention, Gujral’s originality marked what the critic Charles Fabri described as “genius” in the early 1950s. What Chittoprosad and Somenath Hore did for the Bengal Partition, Gujral did to mark the Partition of West Punjab, which he witnessed first hand, driving a truck to ferry migrants to India. Nearly four decades later, in the aftermath of the Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he was to make his burnt wood sculptures, drawing on a technique of burning and charring reminiscent of artists like Alberto Burri and Anselm Kiefer. As an architect of more than 20 major projects, he completely dislodged prevailing styles to bring back the arch, the vault and the dome, creating in the process a new architectural ideal.

Gujral suffered a hearing loss at the age of eight, following a swimming accident in the river Lidder. A series of operations on his damaged leg and hip only heightened his isolation: “The failure to hear my own voice made me feel I was living in a phantasmagoric and surreal cocoon. At times I doubted my own sanity.”

His family introduced him to the writings of Munshi Premchand, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and Lala Lajpat Rai, and he also developed a love for Urdu poetry. His life changed when he entered the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, where he gained skills in carpentry, clay modelling, wood carving and drawing, all of which laid the foundation for his later practice as a polymath. To avoid the badly-cooked school food, he began to eat at his elder brother Inder Gujral’s college hostel, where he met some of the leading voices of the Subcontinent — Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Krishan Chander and Ali Sardar Jaffri, who wrote with nationalist zeal and romantic fervour. He also studied at the J J School in Bombay, but as Partition neared, and he helped with the painful process of evacuation, the foundation for what is known as his Partition paintings was laid. In his first exhibition, inaugurated by Octavio Paz in Delhi, these paintings, with their powerful expressionistic brushwork, enabled him to win a scholarship to Mexico.

While the Progressive artists identified with the schools of Paris and New York, Gujral’s tutelage, at a time of great social change, was under the Mexican muralists. With Frida Kahlo, who also suffered from osteomyelitis, he shared a close bond, and under David Siqueiros, learnt to use acrylic paint, bringing the technique back with him to India. Both Siqueiros and Diego Rivera were to admire his passion and commitment, and, wrote together in 1952, “Gujral’s pictorial work appears to us to be of extreme importance.The relation that is between his work and modern Mexican painting will undoubtedly be of great use.”

The artistic links between India and Mexico may have faltered; however, Gujral continued to bring enormous energy to whatever he set his hands to. During the 1950s, encouraged by Indira Gandhi, he painted in a spate portraits of Nehru, Krishna Menon, Maulana Azad and Indira herself. Then, between 1962-80, he executed murals at leading locations like Punjab University, Shastri Bhavan, Delhi High Court, the World Trade Centre, New York, and so on. Rather than settle into a single medium, he moved onto paper collages with large primitive forms, metal-based sculptures, drawings, paintings and the burnt wood series. As an artist in the world of architecture, he said, “I have to approach architecture by its own rules. I don’t simply draw a building; I build it”. For his diversity and extraordinary passion, Gujral has made his place in art history.

The writer is director, criticalcollective.in

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