Satish Gujral, pioneer muralist, and contemporary Indian artist made his body of work a locus for social history. Painter, sculptor, muralist, architect and interior designer, he defied categorization and formal restrictions to dabble seamlessly between distinct art forms.
Born 25th December 1925 in Jhelum pre-partition West Punjab, a swimming accident terminally impaired Gujral’s hearing and severely damaged one of his legs at the age of eight. Confined in his bed and entombed in silence, his self-esteem diminished rapidly. “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.” Aseries of operations on his leg and hip bone lengthens his incapacitation. This period of enforced idleness along with the accidental death of his brother Raj made him withdraw into isolation. To make the isolation and silence livable, his father introduced adult reading. Urdu literature and poetry shaped his general view of the world and became his constant companion.
His father, an anglicized man, insisted on his education and encouraged his painting. He was later sent to the Lady Noyce School where he refused to communicate only through sign language. In a radical change of ruling, he was admitted to the Mayo School of Art in Lahore in 1939 to study applied arts. He learned various techniques for stone and woodcarving, metal smithery, clay modeling, drawing and design, scale drawing and copying ground plans and elevations of old buildings. It was a laboratory of practical applications which gave Gujral an essential foundation for his practice as a polymath of multiple applications. Exposure with various disciplines broadened his horizons and made him realize that he wanted to be an artist as much as an artisan. Aside from the exposure that the Mayo School provided, it also paved the way for Gujral to venture into the larger art world. S.L. Parasher, his teacher, introduced him to the painter Roop Krishna, whom Gujral acknowledge as India’s first modernist.
In the course of his stay, Mayo, once successfully run by John Lockwood Kipling, was peopled with poor boys and orphans, several of them sought to learn skills that would lead them to livelihood rather than fulfill an urge of inherent aptitude. This greatly bothered Gujral who felt that the school betrayed the function it was erected to serve. He also endured taunting and ridicule from his peers due to his peculiarities. The constant humiliation coupled with his physical limitations fueled his angst and frustration which he channeled unto his works. In an attempt to escape his situation, Gujral started spending time at his elder brother’s college hostel. His brother, Inder Gujral, later prime minister of India, and his colleagues ignited in him a fervor for social revolution. Talks with them boosted his morale and provided an ideological basis for his future works. It was also during this time the idea of public art took hold.
The desire for further studies brought him to the doors of J.J. School of Art in Bombay to study painting in 1944. He was awarded the Burmah Shell Scholarship in the same year. At the J.J. School, Gujral befriended V. S. Gaitonde and was supported actively by Pran Nath Mago, a fellow Punjabi art student. Mago served as his translator and the bridge that connected him to the world. Acquaintance to American G.I.s enrolled in the school introduced him to Western art. Concurrently, he came into contact with the Progressive Artists Group (PAG). Unwilling to accept the PAG’s total adaptation techniques and vocabulary of European Expressionism and Cubism, he quested after a kind of modernism rooted in Indian traditions. His studies came to an abrupt halt in 1947 due to his recurring illness.
After his operation, Gujral set up a graphics studio in Lahore. This turned out to be a financial misadventure. At the same time, the impetus of Partition gained traction. The scale and depth of the violence forced his family to emigrate. The horror and violence he witnessed constitute some of his worst experiences and shaped his work as an artist. “No outer happening can seed inner composition. It must happen to you personally and so, my first beginning as an artist was partition. I witness the killing, murder, and rape. I painted the man suffering and people of those days adopted me as their artist.” His work from this era, known as the Partition paintings, would arguably be the most widely recognized works from his repertoire. These paintings in deep earth and metallic colors were instrumental in helping Gujral earn a scholarship in Mexico to study mural painting.
The year 1952 marked a turning point in Gujral’s life. He left for Mexico on a scholarship for an apprenticeship with Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera and David Sequeiros. Muralism revitalized his earlier convictions that art should be an instrument for social change and therefore should be in public spaces. Social concerns dominated his paintings and graphics. The human tragedies of the Partition of India came out in angry sweeping strong brushwork in his paintings. Within a year of his apprenticeship, Gujral exhibited twenty-five paintings at the Galleria de Arte Moderna in Mexico to widespread acclaim. He enjoyed social recognition and political patronage upon his return to India.
Even while sharing common debts to the past, Gujral’s conceptual sources varied considerably with his contemporaries. He continually adapted and changed his work in the virtual indifference of prevailing trends in art production. Gujral did not come under the dominant Euro American influence of post-war existential angst, or the influence of the Paris and New York Schools. Again his approach to indigenism appears to have been far less ideologically complicated than it was for many of his peers.
A distinct part of Satish Gujral’s work is a portrait, predominantly of political images and family. Nearly all of these bear the imprint of strong expressionist brushwork that he had developed in Mexico. They also reflect the political links that grew out of the careers of his father and his brother. In a dominant palette of white, black, gray and ochre tones, he painted Nehru (1957), Indira Gandhi (1957), Krishna Menon (1960), Maulana Azad (1956) and his own father (1957). Marking the end of his Partition phase, Gujral embarked on a series of abstract space paintings which were dominated by tubular forks emerging from a textured background. The forms are constructed to appear mechanical and robotic - an effect Gujral carried into the highly intrepid exercise of his ceramic murals, a medium which was to preoccupy him for the next two decades. Inspired by the traditional arts and the crafts of India, he soon diversified his sculptural materials with machined industrial objects in steel, copper, glass, painted often in strong enamel colors. Later he tried out junk sculptures, introducing light and sound in them.
Since 1952, Gujral has her many solo exhibitions of his sculptures, paintings and graphics in New York, London, Paris, Mexico City, Montréal, Vancouver, Toronto, Hawaii, Rome, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Berlin, Tokyo, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Washington. He had executed landmark murals in ceramics, tiles and machined steel elements abroad and India. In 1977, through the autodidactic process, Gujral started exploring architecture. He then went on to design many landmark buildings including the Gandhi Institute, Mauritius (1978-79) and the Belgian Embassy, New Delhi (1980-83). In 1986, he designed, amongst others, the Goa University, the CMC, Hyderabad. His other well-known architectural work includes the Al Moughtara Palace, Riyadh; the Prime Minster’s residence, Bahrain; the Indira Gandhi Cultural Center, Mauritius; the Al Bwardy House, Dubai; the Jindal Farmhouse, New Delhi; and the Mexx Farmhouse, New Delhi.
In recent years, Gujral’s work had developed on distinct lines which perhaps reflects a quieter phase in his own life. The burnt wood sculptures with their inherent iconic authority have made way for sculptures made in granite with strong primitivist features, and paintings that foreground the folk performer. Even in the absence of sound, there is an inclination towards the flow and quietude of lyricism. Retrospectively, Gujral’s vast oeuvre emphasizes his values as an artist privileging simultaneous and multiple forms of practice. He has allied with the concerns of a national art by building new alignment in third world practices, constituted of the ordinary as monumental.
The renowned artist and architect passed away on the 26th of March 2020 at the age of 94 in New Delhi.
Excerpts from the book The World of Satish Gujral, In His Own Words published by UBS Publisher’s
Distributor Ltd., New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Madras Calcutta, Patna, Kanpur, London
Excerpts from the book Satish Gujral: An Artography by Gayatri Sinha, Santo Datta, and Gautam
Bhatia published in India by Roli Books in arrangement with Roli and Janssen BV, The Netherlands