‘art and soul

The pain of creation

One senses in nearly all of Satish Gujral’s work the looming presence of the cage of silence in which he has remained confined for the most part of his life, writes B. N. Goswamy

Self potrait by satish Gujral
Self portrait by Satish Gujral. 1953

One knows that there is a time for judgement, and a time for homage. In the case of Satish Gujral, it is time for paying homage. For this distinguished, and remarkably courageous, man has over the years become something of an icon not only among the community of artists but in our whole land, an embodiment of the triumph of mind over body.

By now nearly all that needed to be said about Satish’s work and life has been said, some of it by his peers and critics and biographers, and some of it by himself. One knows the beginnings: birth some 80 years ago in Jhelum, present-day Pakistan; growing up in a family headed by an idealist and a patriot; a childhood accident that led to a total loss of hearing; schooling in art and craft at the celebrated Mayo school in Lahore; a short-lived move to Bombay and return to the Punjab on the very eve of the Partition with all its carnage; and then, short sojourns in Shimla and Delhi apart, the scholarship that took him to Mexico in 1952, and changed everything.

There, in that distant land, and under the tutelage of two great muralist-revolutionaries, the fire that was in young Satish’s belly leapt out as it were, licking the air, scorching the surroundings. Images of violence and horror erupted in his work. Everyone knows that phase well. Even I recall tearing out to keep, in my post-college days, a small reproduction from a local newspaper of his painting, ‘The Condemned’. For it was a searing image: a nude, violated woman holding up a hand to her mouth even as she looked upwards with lustreless eyes, body caught and tied in a coil of darkness.

There were other paintings in the same vein, and I am certain that everyone who knows Satish’s work carries in his head some image or the other from this period.

From this point onwards, there was no looking back. With all the encomia that he earned during his work and stay abroad, Satish Gujral had become a celebrity, something of a brand name in the growing community of Indian artists. In his art, the artist moved on to doing other things, engaged with other concerns and other materials. Over the years that followed he was constantly expanding, for his energy seemed to grow with years.

There he was, doing almost everything: painting apart, making prints, collages, murals, sculpture in metal and stone; designing interiors, building structures, laying gardens. It is as if he had made up his mind never to be type-cast, to be put and locked in a drawer. One has only to look closely at the varying manners in which he signed his works – shifting from English to Devanagari; or from "Satish Gujral" to "Gujral" to "Satish", and back sometimes to "Satish Gujral" – to realise that he was re-inventing himself all the time. Quite naturally, not everything came off – it never does – but the energy, the passion, seemed never to flag.

In all this, however, what appeared to walk by his side, like a shadow, was also the pain of his being. One senses in nearly all of his work the looming presence of the cage of silence in which he has remained confined for the most part of his life. I do not know about others, but all too often when I think of Satish Gujral’s life and work, I recall that wonderful little poem of Fikr Taunsavi’s – "Dhuaan" – with all its passion and its pain. "Patlaa patlaa saa neelgoon jharnaa/ aatisheen tanganaa sey ghabraa kar/ seena-i charkh par nazar rakhey/ yoon bahaa jaa rahaa hai lehraa kar/ jis tareh ik ghulaam leader key/ zihn mein tund saa khayaal aaye/ paa ke lekin bhichaa huaa us ko/ kasmasaa uthey, bal pey bal khaaye/ aur khalaa-e baseet-o baalaa mein/ talmilaataa huaa nikal jaaye". It is not easy to translate it (and it sounds trite in dull prose), but it speaks of smoke, wispy and slate-blue, that, finding itself imprisoned inside a chimney-flue – like a fiery thought coursing through the head of a leader of a slave people – fumes and swirls, and then, heaving, forces itself out to be able to soar in the free skies above.

This being the time of homage, the National Gallery of Modern Art is, most appropriately, playing host to a retrospective of Satish Gujral’s work. To coincide with this, a Delhi publisher – Lustre Press/Roli Books – has brought out a handsomely produced book, filled with images of the many-faceted work of the artist introduced by three essays. There is something to read in the volume, especially Gautam Bhatia’s thoughtful piece on Satish’s work as an architect, and much to see: the early ‘Mexican’ work, delicate drawings, perceptive portraits, anguished collages, monumental architecture, bold forms in burnt wood and metal that remind you now of crucifixion, now of electric chairs.

One is taken on a leisured tour of the oeuvre but, inexplicably, there is nothing that tells you where the works reproduced now are. The pages are interspersed with views and comments on Satish’s work by several people. Some of these read well, but many – including the publishers’ own incense-burning blurb which describes Satish as a ‘twenty-first century da Vinci’ – do not. But then one has the option of moving on to the images themselves and lose oneself in them.