The soul in art

April 5, 2020

Following his recent death the artist’s autobiography reads like a self-written obituary

In his autobiography, A Brush with Life, Satish Gujral writes: “Charles Fabri, a Hungarian emigre who was curator of Lahore Museum… took his own life. The night before he committed suicide we met at an art exhibition. Instead of going to the Statesman’s office to write a review of the exhibition, as was customary with him, he handed an envelope, which … turned out to be the obituary he had written for himself”.

Memoirs and autobiographies can be self-written obituaries published in advance. After his recent death, Gujral’s book, too, appears to be one.

Satish Gujral was an Indian painter. He was born in Jhelum in the undivided Punjab in 1925 and spent a considerable part of his early years in the region that now constitutes Pakistan. He had lost his hearing following an accident when he was 8. This did not become an insurmountable handicap and he rose to the rank of India’s major artists. He didn’t like to attend an institution for the deaf and dumb in Delhi, and instead enrolled at Mayo School of Art in Lahore.

The Mayo School of his days was more of a crafts institution, and not suited to Gujral’s temperament. So, he travelled to Bombay to study at the JJ School of Art; where some of his “fellow students were destined to become famous in later life.” They included SH Raza, Laxman Pai and FN Souza. The environment at the JJ School was conducive to his creative genius and it was here that his interest in mural painting evolved into a passion. It further bloomed when he won a scholarship to Mexico. That saga, narrated in his book, does not come as a surprise to anyone living in this part of the world. Had the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, then serving at the Mexican embassy in India, not intervened, the bureaucratic red tape might have put paid to the emerging artist’s chances of travelling abroad. In his book In Light of India Paz recalls: “I had the good fortune to help a talented young painter, Satish Gujral, receive a fellowship to travel to Mexico”. (The talented painter paid back the favour to the Nobel Laureate Paz who as ambassador of Mexico to India had met his second wife at Gujral’s Delhi residence in the mid 1960s).

Octavio Paz in his book on India may have hinted at the similarities between India and Mexico — attitudes of the people, social systems, and even food — but Mexico proved another world for Gujral. In his native Jhelum, Mexico was believed to be “the firangi (foreign) name for pataal, the underworld”. And then there were such fraudulent theses about the Inca and Aztec civilizations of Latin America having Hindu origins. Gujral went to Mexico City, not knowing anyone, and having failed in his attempt to get his fellowship money released. But through a stroke of luck/chance/fate, his landlady “had a niece who was married to renowned Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros”. When the Mexican painter came to know about his situation, he helped and introduced him to his friends, including Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

While in Mexico, Gujral became an apprentice to Siqueiros, right after Jackson Pollack had left his apprenticeship. In Siqueiros’ house, the young Indian met Fidel Castro and Pablo Neruda. These encounters had another layer, linked with the painter’s political position. From an early age, Satish Gujral had been associated with socialism. Through his elder brother Inder Kumar Gujral (who rose to become the first Punjabi prime minister of India), he used to mix with likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri and Krishan Chander. Satish Gujral was also a poet in the progressive tradition. In Bombay he frequented Urdu poets since Urdu was the first language he learnt to read and write. He also acquired a command over English. When he spoke, his wife Kiran Ram Nath (and sometimes his son) had to interpret for him what the others were saying.

Satish Gujral came to the NCA (his alma mater) in the late 1980s and talked about his work and his time at the institution. His art was exhibited in Lahore, the city where as an emerging artist he had set up a graphic art studio in 1946. His mixed media paintings were part of the ‘1st Asian Art Biennale’ held at Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore in 1988 (his art has already been shown all over the world, at several prestigious venues, including V&A Museum, June 1955). Those burnt wood art pieces were a reflection of how the artist drew with fire to arrive at a swirling of forms. The blackened surfaces of these three-dimensional paintings indicated a world of fantasy and reality, a blend of myth and the mundane.

Gujral also used the imagery of Hindu mythology as a metaphor to denote the times he lived in. Throughout his life, he was clear about his political stance. He opposed the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, despite his family’s connection with the Nehrus and his brother’s involvement in politics. During his formative years in Bombay, he met a number of important personalities including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, through Piloo Mody. He would recall: “Bhutto stood out as a dandy. He was always nattily dressed in well-cut suites and matching ties. He radiated confidence”. Gujral met Bhutto again in the mid-1960s when “he told me that he had seen some of my paintings in the house of Faiz Ahmed Faiz”.

The ideology as well as love of Urdu literature bonded the poet and the painter. When Faiz “came to New Delhi after being released from a Pakistani jail. He brought the manuscript of poems he had composed during his years of imprisonment… He asked me to design the cover… He told me that if he had been a painter and not a poet he would have painted the way I did. When he saw the cover I designed for his Zindan Nama, he affirmed his statement.”

Satish Gujral had migrated to India, but his heart and art were beyond the considerations of political borders. Likewise, he did not want to confine himself to any genres. Trained as a painter, he sought other means of artistic expression such as architecture, even though he had never studied the subject at a school. His design of the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi (1984) is a masterpiece. “Many people thought I was foolish to drop a successful career in painting and go for architecture. Diplomats from Belgium had come to India and wanted me to design their embassy in a way that it represented Indian tradition but was also modern”. That piece of architecture is a testimony to how tradition can be translated into modern sensibility, because the building is as Indian as it is Minimal.

The genius of Satish Gujral was never at rest. He continued discovering and rediscovering elements from Indian history and iconography of Mexican murals and produced works which offered new ways of approaching reality: of concepts, images and materials. With each new work, he reincarnated himself, rather recreated his soul. Answering a question by Neville Tuli for his book Indian Contemporary Painting: “Is the fear of death in you very strong?” Satish Gujral had said: “I am not afraid of physical death. I am afraid of creative death, because without this [creation] it is just a body without a soul”.

Satish Gujral passed away at the age of 94 on March 27, 2020

Artist Satish Gujral's autobiography reads like a self-written obituary