PAINTING AWAY HIS PAINFeatured

Written by ABHILASHA OJHA
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Satish Gujral is an artists who delves deep into his angst and pain, only to come up with some powerful work

Isaw 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. So my first expressions became those of Partition.” – Satish Gujral

You don’t become an artist overnight. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to see that some of the best works of artists are a product of tremendous suffering that brings out the best in their work. In the case of Satish Gujral, the artiste extraordinaire, the close encounter with the horror of Partition led him to express himself creatively on the canvas. The angst, trauma and the sheer violence of this historical event repulsed Gujral who essentially found a release for his deeply disturbing feelings through painting. His first black and white work on Partition showing sad and wailing women received the national award – a fitting recognition for the young artist who was stepping into the realm of Indian art to create a place of his own. Not just the Partition but also his own personal challenge of being deaf could have, quite possibly, contributed to his artistic bent of mind. As a child, he would doodle while lying in his “sick bed” as he often explains.

In the six decades of his artistic career, Gujral’s name is recognised worldwide. His work has shown in galleries all over the world, retrospectives and auctions of several of his art has meant that in the global art market, his price (for want of a better word) has only appreciated. In an earlier interview to Democratic World Raseel Gujral Ansal, the daughter of Kiran and Satish Gujral, spoke of how her own design sensibilities were honed in her childhood days through her parents who were encouraging their children to understand and imbibe different cultures and artistic influences. On her father, Raseel had said, “He is a man who is extremely creative and nothing restricts him.”

Gujral, indeed, believes in the power of the material. “If you change the idea, the idea will find its own material,” he has said in an earlier interview. Any wonder then that he is not just a painter but also a muralist, sculptor and architect. Gujral celebrates the diversity of materials and surfaces with elan — for those who follow his work closely, a work of sculpture can translate into a painting with a language that’s similar but medium that’s different. The narrative can be constant in the artist’s work but he can push his boundaries in terms of the material, the medium, thus giving his art diversity.

The Beginning

Born in Jhelum, Punjab, in 1925, Gujral, being hearing impaired turned to drawing and reading Urdu literature at the age of eight. In 1939, he joined the Mayo School of Art in Lahore. In 1944, he joined JJ School of Art in Bombay where he came into contact with the Progressive Artists Group that was started by FN Souza and had members like MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee, SH Raza, KH Ara and SK Bakre. While Souza was very keen to have Gujral join the collective, the latter didn’t join, unable to to accept their techniques. “I went to Bombay to study at JJ School of Arts (from 1944-47), and the likes of FN Souza, SH Raza, VS Gaitonde and SH Bakre – who now occupy the centrestage of modern Indian art, were either with me in the same class or my senior by a few years,” reminisces Gujral. In the book, The World of Satish Gujral: In His Own Words, the artist explains his reason for not joining the collective in the context of the emergence of MF Husain as the “new star”. “His following had begun to grow not only on account of his merit but also because of the ethnic fervor that was spreading with each passing day. Unfortunately, this fervor entailed the dominance of Hindu myth and was coupled with the power of patronage that, since Partition, had become exclusive to the followers of this faith. This seemed to have lured Husain and his fellow Progressives to waste their gift in illustrating a mythology in which they had no roots, having been born into and brought up in another culture with its own distinct traditions.”

Later, Gujral would serve as an apprentice of Mexican Masters Diego Reviera and David Alfaro Sequiros in the early Fifties. From 1952 to 1974 Gujral had shows all around the world and has won numerous national and international awards. In Mexico, where he had gone on an art scholarship (1952-54) he also befriended Frida Kahlo. By the time he returned, Gujral’s name became synonymous with muralism. Before he left for Mexico, the artist had his first ever exhibition. Held in New Delhi, the show got a tremendous response. “The men who saw to it that the show received its due were Charles Fabri and SH Vatsyayan. The former… covered it in The Statesman. Vatsyayan wrote the introduction in the exhibition’s catalogue. Overnight, they transformed me into a celebrity,” writes the artist in The World of Satish Gujral.

The Master of Media

Through his experiences of apprenticing and imbibing various forms of styles, techniques and methods of art, Gujral became someone who defied categorization. Someone who ventured beyond conventional boundaries of individual art forms, the 90-year-old “master of media” has painted in oil and acrylic, sculpted using wood, bronze and granite, made paper collages, ceramic murals, designed buildings, worked in metal and glass and created burnt wood works. In fact, to coincide with his 90th birthday, Gujral Foundation, a non-profit trust founded in 2008 by Mohit and Feroze Gujral, presented A Brush With Life, an exhibition of 70 original works — paintings, sculptures and sketches — in New Delhi in January 2016. The month-long exhibition, which also showcased rare archival photographs of people like Ocatavio Paz, poet Faiz, Amrita Sher-Gil and his parents, who influenced his life and works, traced Gujral’s contribution to Indian modern art. From his Partitioninfluenced work to his abstract space paintings with tubular forms and textured background to his huge lyrical bulls in bronze, Gujral’s art continues to spellbound viewers. As Charles Fabri once said of the artist in his art column in The Sunday Statesman: “The word ‘genius’… is the correct term for Mr. Satish Gujral. This strikingly original artist… is a phenomenally sensitive observer, who, through his own sufferings and sorrows, has succeeded in conveying to us in dramatic canvases of elemental power what he feels about the world around him. His deep-felt humanity shines through the dark and bituminous hues of his compositions…’

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