Artist Satish Gujral passed away on March 26, 2020. He was 94. For many, this news may not have caused even the slightest furrow of the brow or a downward turn of the lips, especially when there are a hundred other Coronavirus-related news links on the feed, screaming for attention. In the time of a pandemic, severe lockdowns, and literal questions about life and death, the news of the passing of an artist and an old man cannot presume to get much eyeball hang time.
Satish Gujral was one of modern India’s most prolific artists and a ‘Renaissance Man’ himself. Satish Gujral’s life, art and now, his death may not have captured the imagination of the layman quite like his peers such as the debonair M.F. Husain or the provocative Bhupen Khakar; but for anyone with any inkling of modern Indian art, the news of this loss is profound.
Gujral, after all, represented an impossible diversity of form, remarkability of skill and congeniality of spirit. He was a painter, a muralist, a sculptor, and an architect – all perfectly rolled into one, but his becoming was seeded in a hard early life.
The boy who couldn’t listen
Gujral was born in the Jhelum of an undivided India in 1925 to Avtar Narain and Pushpa Gujral and was one among their four surviving children. Little Satish may have escaped child mortality, but wasn’t fortunate enough to escape a tragic accident which left him with a bad leg and completely deaf. It plunged the boy into despair, but his father remained unfazed.
Having discovered Satish’s natural talent towards drawing, the elder Gujral encouraged arts education for his son. He was enrolled at first in the Mayo College of Arts in Lahore and then to Sir JJ School of Art in erstwhile Bombay, although he did not complete his degree there. He then headed to Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on a scholarship – a highly unusual and courageous step, considering all his contemporaries were then going either to Paris, London or New York and he knew neither English nor Spanish. He picked up both the languages eventually, but more importantly, he picked up an ethos that was to shape his artistic career to a great extent later in life.
The man who wouldn’t listen
Before Mexican greats like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and even Frida Kahlo and Mexican ideas of public art held their sway on Gujral, the episode of Partition of India and Pakistan had left a deep imprint on his psyche. This is evident in the earliest phase of his art, which has dark tones and themes.
The next identifiable phase in his art could be called socialist, carrying as it did impressions from the freedom struggle and Nehruvian ideology. Applying the large mural-making skills he had acquired in Mexico, he made many humongous works on the facades of new government structures, and created a consciousness of public art among the peoples.
Gujral’s art consistently reflected the social and political conditions of his time, and his deep anxieties regarding the Emergency were no exception. Except this time, Gujral had moved on to another medium. His sculptures from that period, of people with tense faces and bound bodies, make no secret of the darkness of the extant conditions.
However, Gujral’s oeuvre wasn’t all dark. In the second half of his career, one sees a certain lightness, joy and colour in his work with themes like music, folk art and even sport! He often attributed this lightness of heart and art to his wife and lifelong companion, Kiran. She was not only the interpreter of the language of his communication, but also the language of his art.
Gujral also went on to design some remarkable architectural projects, notably among them the award-winning Belgian Embassy building in Delhi and the Ambedkar Memorial Park in Lucknow. Although he had no formal training in architecture, his movement through mediums was seamless, effortless.
Perhaps it was restlessness; perhaps it was playfulness of spirit that never allowed Gujral to rest on his achievements. Or perhaps it was his lack of hearing that meant he never really had to listen to the diktats of success. Having mastered one medium, he swiftly moved on to the next; a shapeshifter as it were. With his passing, we’ve lost this life of magic.