From Tribune Archives

Satish Gujral: Passage from pain to peace

Satish Gujral: Passage from pain to peace

This article was first published in The Tribune on October 5, 2003

Uma Vasudev

Satish Gujral is now like a person who is born anew every December 25. But unlike Christ, he carries no mission except to find himself. He has translated the world of silence into terms that has made the observer a convert to his visual imagery. He has carried his spectator along with him in fierce renewals of creativity every now and then, with each new exhibition. In the process, he has himself become an icon.


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Satish is today at the pinnacle of his achievements as a painter, sculptor and architect. The most remarkable aspect of his work is that he never repeats himself. It is as if, like a creature in the forest, he sheds his skin each time and emerges in a new garb. He has worked on everything, from ceramics, murals, drawings, paintings in oil to his current favourite, acrylic. He has used wood, iron and bronze for sculpture. He has designed for buildings made of brick and stone. But the essentiality of the Gujral style remains instantly recognisable. You cannot mistake a Gujral work of art for any other for the sheer mobility of line. It is as if he is forever compensating for the stillness of the silence within him. He can never forget how at the age of eight, after a series of operations on his leg which affected a nerve leading to the ear, he was plunged forever into a partitioned world of his own. Between those who, like him, would never hear the sounds of life again and those who could revel in them. But not to be defeated, he made his works revel...

Satish was still lucky to be born in a family which would not admit defeat. His father, Avatar Narain Gujral, was a lawyer in Jhelum in what is now known as West Pakistan. The family was uprooted by Partition, they settled down in Delhi but the father refused to be intimidated by his young son's affliction. Both he and Satish's elder brother, Inder Kumar Gujral, were influences in his life which kept him glued to achievement. The father saw to it that Satish should not be relegated to the field of the deprived, and function like a disabled person. He saw his potential for the visual adventure of line, form and colour so he sent him first to join the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore and then to the J.J. School of Art in Bombay. He knew that after that, Satish could hold his own. To bolster that, there was also the Left-leaning, articulate and very protective older brother, Inder, who not only introduced Satish to the world of letters in Bombay through his coterie of fellow intellectuals, but has remained a protective inspiration throughout Satish's traumatic journey to turn his handicap into an inspirational force.

The world of silence became the golden gate to the world of fame. But it could be done only by someone who refused to be intimidated by the first or seduced by the second. Unutterable pain still remained for Satish the password for creative expression. The Partition of India and his direct experience of it through helping his father and mother in the resettlement of victims of riots that had destroyed the foundations of a nation, led to his famous paintings that shook the spectator with pain. Exhibited in Delhi in 1952, they inspired the then acknowledged dean of art critics, Charles Fabri, to declare the advent of "a genius". Satish says now that what he depicted was not the agony without, but the agony within. "Had Partition not happened," he says, "I would have invented it". The enlarged proportions, the tormented, bloodredscapes of men and women in pain, the traumatised white, the defiant blacks, all contributed to an imagery of such scathing hurt, anger and torment that it seemed to explode from the canvas. Satish Gujral became famous, but he did not sell. People did not want to buy such overwhelming pain.

But Satish remained a painter who answered only to the inner voice. So he never took up external causes. The fifty or more exhibitions that he has held so far signify the trail within, in conjunction with the events that have marked the different stages of experience in his life. A Mexican sojourn made him familiar with the turbulent world of Orozco, Sequieros and Diego Riviera. But when he returned to India it was his discovery of love, the bond with Kiran who was to become his wife, that turned the imagery in subsequent works to a play with exuberance. The pain within softened. The silence within turned golden. The blacks, the stark reds, the searing whites turned to warmer shades, the lines did not feel as if they would explode out of the canvas in despair. And yet, you could not take a Gujral work for any other. One, its basic dimension is on a large scale, even if the size of the canvas is small. Two, it has a definitive structure; the colours, nor the lines spill over. Third, the colours follow the discipline of expert draughtsmanship. The passion may be searing but the composition is controlled, well-defined, and does not run away with itself either from exuberance or despair. In fact, it is the controlled line which makes the feeling it exudes so much more intense. Satish, as an artist, does not let emotions run away with themselves. He disciplines them to an abstract-cum-realistic form which exudes its own intensity.

Gujral’s canvas comes alive with a resurgence of colour and line, a new mix of sound and rhythm

When he was 72 years’ old, Satish went through a surgical operation which brought the world of sound back to him. He could hear but he could not decipher. Each new sound was like a strange onslaught on his ears. Like a child, he had to relearn the alphabet of sound. In his work, he found instead of colours he could be alive again to the greater rhythm. In his first exhibition after the operation, his paintings swung on the canvas with dancing convolutions of form and colour. But gradually, over the past year, he began to find the compulsions of learning to hear and decipher, too demanding. He was still working from 7 am to 7 pm in his studio. But the cacophony of sounds which demanded to decipher was taking up too much time. He was nearing 78. He felt he needed more time. So he took still another daring decision. He had the implant, which had brought sound, removed. It was a homecoming to silence.

With the experience of sound, he had gone on a visual revelry. But in his latest work,’Back to Silence’, you see the canvas come alive with a different resurgence of colour and line, a new mix of sound and rhythm, the abstract almost conferring with figurative, not overlapping it. The superimposition of one compositional whole does not blot out the other behind it. He allows it to seep through, like the world of sound he chose to leave behind, but which remains in his memory; it has smoothened the edges and softened the colours.

Satish Gujral's current phase, seen in his latest works, is in a comeback genre, so much the richer for having scoured experience briefly in the world of sound. It contours the dimensions of a paradise regained, reaffirmed, reinvented. The artist is at peace with himself.

"There’s more motion in my works now"

In your latest paintings I find that the most significant change is in the use of colours...

As you know, I never come out with an exhibition unless I have something new to project. I have always kept changing. Sometimes even what I call jumping out! The colours have been changing for the past four years. After my surgery, suddenly everything felt different. For instance, I could not hear your voice before, but I had developed my own idea of it. When I regained sound, I found how different my idea was from reality!

Does this mean that colours too were heightened or were distorted earlier, in proportion, perhaps? Even though you could see?

The change affected the use of colours. Everything started to become softer. It affected me in two ways. My thought changed as well as my perception about the world around myself. It is said that in soundlessness there is stillness. In my present work there is much more motion.

But the motifs are the same, before sound and after?

Yes, but when I came back to silence after I had the implant removed, I had the most recent memories of sound. So in my latest works, not only has the imagery changed, but the colour too. Then I found how stillness is so opposite to life. Yet, when there is no sound it helps you to listen to yourself.

Maybe because you were deprived of sound, you opted for more movement in your paintings? I see that at every stage your works have a basic motion. Would you say that has become more evident now?

After I regained sound, there was a change in the way I imagined things, yes, the motion too was reinforced. Motion became more important.

But hearing brought you into the midst of life!

All senses affect each other. If one is short of one, the other gets heightened. The loss of my sense of hearing has affected my sense of the visual. I saw things differently. You see it in form and colour.

But your motifs have not changed.

Motifs have no meaning. A painter uses a goat or a man or an instrument to achieve harmony in the painting. He or she is not fascinated by the object itself. Whatever lends itself to a composition becomes part of it.

What would you say has been the most influential impact on your work after your recent experience with sound?

During last year, I have used overlapping images more. It’s not that I have not used them before, but more so now. The use of the figurative and the abstract is joined together but neither the figure nor the concept is obliterated even partially. You can see the outline of one behind the other clearly. It’s like my memory of sound. It is there, and it is not there. The other day, Kiran asked me what I remembered of the sounds of my childhood. I told her it was the songs of K.L. Saigal and K.C. Dey. I even recall that Dey had a heavier voice than Saigal! The rest are memories. But the recent sounds are still fresh. In my paintings now, this overlapping of images is like the overlapping of my memory of sound over what I see now - or over my silence.

You’ve never been enamoured of landscape.

In contemporary art, landscape has almost gone out. Seeing a beautiful landscape is very nice. But it may not necessarily provide you with a composition. When you eat, you eat whatever you like. But what it creates is energy. I do not think of a painting before I paint. Nor do I see what is painted in a painting, but how it is done. I have always felt that one who cannot draw, cannot paint.

It is the critic's job to look for meanings!

— Interview by UV

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