With his show that opens at Art Today today, Satish Gujral exhibits in the Capital after a considerable gap. Almost all contemporary Indian artists can be identified with a particular style, imagery and material. All but Gujral.
The artist has never been bound by his previous work. Never stagnating, he has moved from one phase to another, constantly searching for the new and innovative. As is evident in his latest works, the muralist, architect, sculptor and painter all rolled into one, has not been restricted by form or media in his quest for self-expression.
His latest collection of works combines a certain amount of innocence with intense sensuousness. Thematically, the works explore the relationship between the feminine and the natural world, be it in the form of animals, birds, fishes or plants. The element of fantasy is predominant here. A woman clasps a ram or a cow around the shoulders or is surrounded by a pair of swan necks and is entwined with creepers and vines.
Women in his sculptures have a serene expression on their face framed by neatly parted open hair. Evoking a sense of déjà vu with both renaissance Madonnas and Indian frescoes, the complete identification with nature reflects the close association that women enjoy with nature.
The imagery seen in these works is an echo of the vivid paper collages that he made during the late ‘60s with animals and men - in confrontation or in harmony. Yet the present series marks a change and evolution in conception and style.
According to Gujral, “the imagery slowly developed from the Bombay show onwards. It is like creating a language to express oneself. In contemporary art, every artist has to develop his own language,” says Gujral who seems to have created multiple languages in each stage of his career.
His paintings and sculptures bring to mind myriad memories and associations with myths and legends. Be it the girl with fish emanating from her person or the cow with a three band tilak on its forehead nestling its head in the lap of girl, myth has been used effectively.
Gujral admits that in the final creation there is a reference to myth. “But there was no conscious idea of a myth when I started. I am so ruled by my subconscious that I give it free reign - I don’t let my mind interfere when I paint. Naturally my subconscious may have been fed with lots of memories, but I don’t make a conscious input,” he says.
One can see that there is a linkage to miniature tradition in the toning and composition of the paintings, but this is amalgamated with a conception which is uniquely the artist’s. Gujral opines that “consciousness on part of man limits creativity because one reaches a plateau. The subconscious is a vast reservoir and it enables me to embark from one phase to another,” he says.
The exhibition consists of sculptures, paintings and drawings all of which combine to make one unified body of work - a manifestation of the latest phase in his art. His drawings are not made as preliminaries for paintings. Rather, he views the medium of drawing as an end in itself.
More often, he uses his drawings used to build sculptures. For his paintings he draws directly on the canvas with a brush “working on one area then another, discovering the volume, form and value as it is built up. Through the process I discover a composition,” says the artist who feels freer with a brush on canvas than a small piece of charcoal or pencil.
An artist who cuts no corners to achieve desired results, he has chosen to work in granite, a medium rarely used by contemporary sculptors. More often than not it is used by traditional craftsmen working in areas where it is locally available. Gujral allows each medium to speak for itself and find its own expression. “Those who ignore this, subordinate the material. It then fails to communicate. There is then only content but the medium does not speak,” ruminates Gujral.
While the shift from wood to granite in sculpture dictated a change in style and imagery, for his paintings, he uses specially made canvas with a rough textured surface. His paints are a combination of commercially manufactured acrylics and those which he makes himself. A media that became popular in Europe in the 60s and in India in the late 70s, Gujral has been painting in acrylics ever since the time he lived in Mexico.
Enumerating the disadvantage of oils over acrylics Gujral says, “It dries much quicker than oils which take at least 24 hours. In oils, sometimes when it has dried and you change it, the dividing line appears in slight relief. Also, oil colours crack after about 25 years and turn yellow because of linseed and varnish. Acrylic too has its problems - it is almost impossible to blend because it dries quickly,” says Gujral.
However, years of experience has helped him overcome this problem. He uses a very rough canvas with grain, painting one colour over another using a dry brush, giving an illusion of blending.
His sculptures are truly awesome. The hard stone has been handled in a very delicate manner. While his earlier sculptures are angular and geometrical, the recent works are softer and more fluid. The light chisel marks on the dark buffed surface create very interesting textures - the leaves on the vine, the horns of a ram, the eyes of the swan etc. Bridging the gap between the classical Indian sculptural tradition and contemporary art, his sculptures are technical masterpieces.
Besides, inherent in them is the distilled experience of the artist. The works evoke a sense of wonderment, fantasy, childhood innocence and charged sensuality. According to Gujral, “life’s inner force is revealing itself to you. So much of struggle and contradiction become insignificant. After so much of struggle it is simple laws of life that are reflected here,” he says matter of factly.
Gujral says that “in the very truth, intellect has played no role in creation.” Quoting the Panchtantra he says, “Scholarship is less than sense. Therefore seek intelligence.” As Satish Gujral reaches the Zenith of his career, the urge to experiment and innovate, create new idioms and styles is as alive and kicking as ever before.
Published in The Pioneer on February 20, 1995