The first stirrings of the artist in Satish Gujral began at the age of eight. When he became totally deaf. They grew in the next five years, as he alternated between an overwhelming loneliness born of bewildering silence that had descended on his inner world, and the agony of his bedridden body racked by bed sores and recurring encounters with the surgeon’s scalpel.
His disability, caused by an extremely purulent form of osteomyelitis, a difficult disease of the bones, was destined to take him in a direction few middle class families chose for their children: art as a vocation. An almost unthinkable alternative to the general preference for a degree in medicine, law or engineering. Or even more appealing, a job in the government. Anything, in fact, that provided financial security, the main aspiration of middle-rung families of the time. But given Gujral’s deafness, which had almost overnight placed all normal curriculae of education beyond his reach, art appeared to be the only alternative left to him.
Not that his descent into the world of the afflicted was without its own hopeful fallout. Because the intensely energetic boy, struggling to rediscover himself in the changed circumstances of his young existence, was already entering the world of adults long before his time. Unable to talk like children, what his elders, in their efforts to take their son’s thoughts off his suffering, unwittingly achieved was to make his receptive mind think like theirs.
So, though 13 when he joined Lahore’s Mayo School of Arts in 1939, he was in many ways more mature than most of his contemporaries. In the prevailing nationalistic temper of a highly politically aware family, his mind had already absorbed - in fact, stored - a great deal which was to find expression in his haunting paintings of the partition period. But that was still eight years ahead.
Finding the atmosphere at Mayo uninspiring, he rebelled against it. If its curriculum, influenced by the Bauhaus and introduced in the ‘20s by its principal. Lockwood Kipling, could not draw students from privileged families, it was less the fault of the subjects, it was less the fault of the subjects taught than of the prevailing snobbery of the times. The elite of the north favoured public schools. Art schools, particularly of the polytechnic variety, were considered more appropriate for those who wished to become draftsmen or drawing teachers.
Yet the mix of subjects at Mayo, with emphasis on teaching crafts skills to future artists, architects and designers, was a radical departure from the confines of the existing curriculae. Despite his initial resentment of the school he was forced to join, Gujral was to acknowledge his indebtedness to it in later years. The subsequent sweep of his creative skills, from ceramics, sculpture and murals to architecture and landscape designing, owed a great deal to the crafts instruction he received at Mayo. The techniques he learnt in those five years would give him the confidence to experiment with diverse mediums, rare in other artists of the age.
But if the sheer physical delight of working with different materials originated at Mayo, his intellectual development was helped by his brother Inder. Six years his senior, Inder was actively involved in the Marxist politics of Lahore’s student community during the years Satish was at Mayo. The brothers were close. It was on Inder’s persuasion that he had agreed to stay on at the school, and he inevitably gravitated to his brother’s rooms in the evenings, where passionate debates between radical young poets, writers and thinkers, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Satpal Dang and other, were a regular feature.
The Gandhian ideology he had imbibed from his parents who had spent long years in prison in the independence movement, and the revolutionary fervour of his brother’s circle combined to stir in him feelings of social commitment. He began to dream of using his art as an instrument of social change.
After Lahore, in 1939, came Bombay’s JJ School of Art: a not very eventful period, except for the struggle to gain admission. Earlier, to get him into Mayo, his father had appealed to the Punjab legislature for dispensation by which his handicapped child could sit in class with normal children. It was granted on the condition that Gujral would not appear for the exams, as his poor showing in them might bring discredit to the teachers and prevent their promotions! The problem at JJ was different. It was his inability to speak English, since he knew only Urdu and Punjabi, but once again the school relented in the face of persistent efforts by the family.
He was in his fourth year when India’s imminent and cataclysmic partition put an end to his studies in Bombay. Faced, like millions of others, with the prospect of becoming refugees, his family could no longer afford his schooling. Gujral’s father, invited to join the newly formed legislature of Pakistan, was in Karachi when large-scale rioting broke out in west Punjab. He was appointed a liaison officer to help the evacuation of his native district of Jhelum and his son became his driver.
The landscape of Jhelum, which Gujral traversed for the next several months, was of an amazing muscularity: a concentration of rugged ravines, rocksalt mines and forests, alternating with cultivated lands and habitations. Interspersing these stood trees of heroic size and spread which had over the centuries provided comfort to travellers, peasants, community groups and playful children. But what that landscape would now witness had few parallels in terms of the bestiality of human beings towards each other.
That debased period in the subcontinent’s history was to push Gujral into chronicling through his paintings the grief and terror born out of the bloodbath of India’s ill-fated partition. Even today, over 40 years later, they tell the story of human savagery and suffering more movingly and starkly than similar depictions of universal tragedies over the ages.
In these paintings - the first expressions of his artistic sensibility - be avoids indulgence in glory details. The victims he paints are not the dead whose lives were ended senselessly and with appalling suddenness. The real victims as he sees them are the survivors in whom the horror will live on for the rest of their lives. He shows their fear and pain in sparing and controlled compositions, investing them with an emotional intensity which draws the viewer into its vortex.
His own experience in the whirlpool of the communal madness did not end with the evacuation of the family from West Pakistan’s Jhelum district to Jalandhar in India. There was no escape from the brutality which had seized the bitter protagonists of a partitioned land, for the retaliatory killings he saw in India equalled in fury those taking place across the border. For a long time this frenzied period would intrude violently on the silenceofhisinner world, compelling him to turn to the catharsis provided by theme of his paintings. Not till seven years later, in 1954, after he had been in Mexico for two years, was he finally able to pull himself out of it.
The family’s strained circumstances drove Satish to his first job as a graphic artist in the publicity department of the Punjab government at Simla. It was a disaster. Not one of his designs was accepted. In fact they so outraged the 18th century outlook of his seniors, it wasn’t long before he was asked to leave - to his relief, though to the extreme distress of his father.
Back again with his parents in Jalandhar, he resumed his partition series. But, given the terrible state of their finances and his reluctance to ask them from money, he ultimately tore up old bedsheets for canvases and made his own paints from raw pigments and glue - the conventional formula of the cinema banner painters of the time. Many of his early partition paintings were made with these materials.
On one of his frequent visits to Delhi, to visit Inder and because of his need for the company of other artists, he came across an offer of a scholarship to study mural painting scholarship to study mural painting in Mexico. His brother’s reaction to his excitement at the prospect of studying art in Mexico was sceptical. He couldn’t see Satish winning it with his scant knowledge of English, no Spanish and the added disadvantage of his handicap. But to avoid hurting his feelings, he helped him apply and on the day of the interview the brothers - each carrying a canvas - waited in the verandah of the building where Gujral was to be interviewed.
Miraculously, he won it. Largely due to the deep impression his work had created on Octavio Paz, the poet and Mexican cultural attaché in Delhi at the time. Possibly as a result of the revolutionary fervour of its artists and their commitment to the dynamics of their own traditions and experience, Mexico’s teaching methods differed from the more aggressive approach of European and US schools. While the latter tended to superimpose their attitudes, trends and glitter on aspiring artists from older civilisations, the Mexicans asked them to respect their own heritage. Just as they themselves revelled in Mexican traditions and reflected them through their artistic expression, they expected other artists also to stay close to their social and cultural moorings.
Gujral’s two years in that country were a heady and instructive experience. The influence of painters like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and others, was to profoundly affect his emotional and intellectual view of art. He instinctively felt an affinity with the Mexicans and was warmed by it. And by their friendliness and generosity. So he could not discern the subtle impact their work was beginning to have on his own. On his brushwork, for instance. While Gujral favoured simple, flat surfaces, it was clear these were giving way to Orozco’s intense and fiery strokes. His Mexican teachers, however, had the integrity to warn him against this; to help him back to his own creative wellsprings.
But his major gain was in the understanding of materials. He learnt that for a mural to fully integrate with architecture, it must be fabricated in sympathetic materials. Paint is not one of them. Ceramic is. It has the same organic character as other building materials, the same volume and gravity. Unlike a painterly expression on the wall of a building, ceramic is not illusory. Just as architecture cannot establish its presence through illusions but only through its strong and assertive physical form, a mural could not be treated as a metaphor. It has to be integral to the structure it is part of.
The terracotta origins of ceramic and Gujral’s encounter with it, took him back to India’s folk traditions. To the colours, motifs, forms and themes of a vibrant, living culture. The inspiration for some of his outstanding murals in India’s public buildings and the paper collages he made during the 60s, came from the Mexican interlude. From the attitude to art and the insight into materials he had developed there.
With the 70s came his interest in metals. Fascinated by the strange texture and copper-like appearance of old buffalo bells, he started experimenting with metals. Once again the inspiration came from traditional methods. From the technique village artisans employed to achieve the appearance of copper: by firing copper powder over sheet metal they could produce an effect which resembled metal enamelling.
Although at first his aim was to achieve this effect for his own understanding of the materials, it led to a new phase in his evolvement: a full-time involvement with metal sculptures. This was also an outcome of his subconscious effort to achieve a synthesis of painting and sculpture.
Gujral burst on India’s architectural scene in 1980 with his award-winning entry for the Belgian Embassy on New Delhi’s diplomatic row. It was an exultant tour de force of contours and concavities; of voluptuous lines, textures and sculptured forms. An appropriate addition to his ancient capital of impressive architectural lineage. Without idealising the classical or the modern he succeeded in creating through this work an architectural idiom of rare originality.
The extent of the coverage the completed embassy buildings received in publications around the world set a record of sorts. There was near unanimity on the compelling power of this design statement by an unknown Indian who had never attended an architectural class in his life. True to form, many architects in India - a mixed lot of prima donnas and noisemakers - resented his presence in their profession. Even more galling were the rave notices his work received, and among the roadblocks placed in his way was denial of membership of the Indian Institute of Architects, though the ban on his admission was later lifted and he was eventually made a Fellow.
There is no doubt that Gujral has arrived. Almost as if he is determined - because of his disability and the limitations it imposes on him - to make the world acknowledge the resonant nature of his defiant creations. He appears on his way to joining in his own lifetime this century’s few towering figures whose extraordinary creativity has compelled global recognition of their poetic vision and artistic range. A vision not confined to a single art form - just as his isn’t and which in his case has given him the confidence to move from each successful genre to another.
He has a challenging list of architectural assignments to work on: a university at Goa; an Indian Cultural Centre in Mauritius; a new Indian Embassy complex for Kathmandu and several other projects. But his enthusiasm and search for new mediums and forms of expression continues. The search has recently led to brunt-woods, which are works in wood and leather. Though in onesensetheseare sculptures, there are traces in them of architecture and painting, and also of iconography.
Given his handicap and the long years of struggle, Gujral now enjoys the acclaim and popularity of his hand-won success. But is the social circuit the best source of inspiration for him? Has his success eroded his earlier ideals of Gandhian thought and socialist concerns, and affected his desire to apply his talent to the larger Indian canvas?
At this point Satish Gujral is a creative genius of the Establishment. Will he now seek opportunities to use his great gifts for a broader segment of the Indian masses, in line with his earlier dream of using his art as an instrument of social change? If he can do this - and it is a challenging task - he will have truly fulfilled his destiny.
Published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, January 14, 1990, pages 46-49