Golden silence

Print edition : June 03, 2011

Satish Gujral with some of his works that were exhibited at Lalit Kala Akademi in April, at his Lajpat Nagar home in - SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Satish Gujral likes to set aside the disappointments of the past and prefers to move on, accepting fresh artistic challenges.

From the world of silence that he inhabited for most of his life to the world of sounds for a few years and then back to the world of silence. Satish Gujral's life is an endearing saga of wisdom, resilience, patience, audacity, vigour and a never-say-no attitude. From exchanging juvenile jokes with youngsters to talking about Partition, the octogenarian shows various shades of his personality in just one meeting.

Gujral got a hearing implant in 1996 in Sydney, but he removed it four years ago. His wife, Kiran, says: It was bothering him with unnecessary sounds and was a nuisance for his concentration. So Gujral is back to his soundless world, and Kiran is back at her role as the interpreter whose lips he understands most. He is happy in his own creative world, she says, looking at him fondly. Gujral reads her lips, smiles and nods his head in agreement.

If his works are testimony to his personality, then Satish Gujral is a die-hard romantic, irreparably hopeful and highly poetic. Unlike his earlier, multi-hued work, his 35 new paintings and 20 sculptures exhibited at Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, from April 7 to 13, wore a more sombre look, as if announcing his age and maturity. They consist of barely three tones of the palette; copper, black and brown fused to make an unusual luminous gold. The play of light and shade lends them an element of drama. The architectural depth in his paintings makes them further restrained. The spongy feel of his pliant brush makes them three dimensional.

In these creations, Gujral plays with kite, musical instruments and a fusion of man and animal, the recurring symbols in his work. His subjects (men/women) hold the kite fondly. A few lyrically fly with it with the rhythm of accomplished dancers. Their dresses flutter, indicating that they are hung in the sky in a breezy morning.

In other paintings Gujral seals man and animal, but he provides his man leverage over the sturdy animal; usually a horse or a bull. While the man harnesses the animal, he simultaneously seems to relish music. He holds a flute dotingly while controlling a bull. One remembers Gujral's fetish for music. The last he heard music was at the age of nine. Those were ghazals sung by K.L. Saigal, Begum Akhtar, Mehdi Hasan and K.C Dubey, his favourite singers. Then he met with an accident, which deprived him of his hearing and speech. But Gujral would attend qawwali concerts just to see the artistes emote while rendering the songs. He would tap his fingers on the armrest of his seat, connecting to the emotions of the artiste and feeling' the music. The emotional satisfaction he derived from the experience reflected in his works. His works of those days featured musicians playing the tabla, the sitar and the mridangam or even Ganesha performing to the tune of a veena player.

THE PAINTINGS AND sculptures at the exhibition had a sombre look, in contrast to his earlier, multi-hued works.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Gujral himself attributes the rhythm in his works to his love of music and poetry. From early childhood my father introduced me to Urdu literature, including poetry. I soaked myself in the poetry of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz in almost every mood. Poetry gave me what music gives to the hearing people. I still can hum ghazals by Saigal and K.C. Dubey that I heard in my childhood. It is important to note that the artist's love for lyrics and poetic expression makes him lace his speech with couplets from the above-mentioned poets. Even at 85, he does not fail to amuse his visitor. So, a simple How are you brings a meaningful smile on his face and he utters, Unke dekhe jo chehre pe aa jati hai hansi, Voh samajhte hain bimar ka haal achcha hai' (If her/his presence makes me smile, she decides I am hale and hearty).

Back to his sculptures in the show. The largest and highest he ever made complement his paintings. The street singers, a man riding the wheel of time, a beast falling prey to music, and so on. Gujral's subjects in his images and paintings wear a perennial smile, reflecting the artist's contentment.

The idea of speaking about his own work does not entice the versatile artist, and he minces no words. For an artist form is more important than the idea. Idea is converted into form. When anyone asks me [about] the idea behind any of my works, I tell them you are asking me to change the form into idea'. A work of art begins with feelings, followed by form. For more than 60 years, my medium of expression has been man; his misery, pitfalls, strengths, moods. The animal for me is a symbol of high power but he is always harnessed by men.

Critics have read deep meanings in Gujral's works. But, interestingly, the more profound his work, the less the philosophy behind them, it seems. Gujral says: Most of my works are a result of any object I see. For instance, once when I saw ember emitting out of a burning piece of wood, it inspired me to do sculptures in burnt wood. Similarly, I saw a bullock cart outside my home which had a buffalo wearing a belt. It gave me the idea of using a belt as my symbol of flexibility and strength. It is up to the viewer to extract a meaning out of my work. I just make objects as I feel about them.

KIRAN GUJRAL, THE artist's wife, at their residence.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

After the accident at the age of nine, whenever the soundless world got at him, he picked up a pencil and doodled on paper and read Ghalib and Meer. Seeing his deft drawings, his brother, Inder Kumar Gujral, who later became the Prime Minister of India, advised him to take up visual art for a career.

So Gujral joined Mayo College in 1939 and got himself completely immersed in his training, which included metal smithery, clay modelling, woodcarving, drawing designs, copying of the ground and elevations of old building. Fighting constant illness, he joined J.J. School of Art, where he met the members of the revolutionary Progressive Artist Group (PAG) : F.N. Souza, P.N. Mago, Akbar Padamsee, M.F. Hussain, Jehangir Sabavala, Gaitonde and many others. But an emotional Gujral could not relate to Western cubism as an artist's style of expression.

A few years later, in 1952, Gujral went to Mexico on a scholarship. The then Mexican Attach and later a Nobel Prize winner, Octavio Paz, cleared his name for the scholarship. In those days, scholarships were awarded to refugees to pursue their career abroad. If members of the PAG learnt from Western cubism, Mexico taught me to look at my own backyard. All those who preferred Western expression remained stuck with one style, but I never followed one style or medium. That way, Mexico was a turning point in my life that gave me a direction.

After he came back from Mexico, his struggle for survival as an artist began. Brother Inder would accompany him everywhere as an interpreter. Then he met Kiran in 1953 at his exhibition in Delhi. Kiran, a final year student in the College of Art, was attracted by the mix of intellectual, historical, mythological and emotional shades in his works.

A year of dating and Kiran, despite being discouraged by her family, decided to marry him the following year. A devoted wife, Kiran also worked as his interpreter. It is interesting to note that the years between 1952 and 1974 were Gujral's most prolific.

Of his wife, Gujral says, fondly: She lived for me. When we got married, she kept on working because of my insistence. She used to paint but she found her passion in ceramic. She used to attend a pottery workshop with me. I used to do sculptures and she, decorative pieces. When I finished working in ceramic, she didn't want to pursue it alone. So, she found her passion in interior design and jewellery. When she left them, my daughters picked up those skills.

The animal motif, a recurring symbol in Gujral's work, is back as a strong presence in his recent collection.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Gujral's first work in charcoal, ink and pencil was of women moaning in group (1952). It came straight from the heart. It was about women who were most affected by Partition on both sides of the border, he explains. The work went on to win the National Award in 1954, and this was another turning point in Gujral's life. He started getting commissioned work from across India and from abroad.

During his most productive years, Gujral mounted scores of solo shows of his huge, stylised images, paintings and graphics in Mexico City, New York, Rome, Montreal, Buenos Aires and Stockholm, and also in cities in Germany and Japan. Back home, his fame spread and exhibitions of his work were organised in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and New Delhi.

These shows saw different styles after every two to four years. He drew heavily from traditional Indian art and craft, everyday objects such as a kite and a wooden spin with a string, charpoy, hukkah, chessboard, dove and musical instruments such as the sitar, the mridangam and the tabla. A man engrossed in talking to a dove while holding a hearing aid is one of his most touching works of the 1970s.

Mythical figures such as Ganesha and Saraswati appear in his canvas more than any other god. More often than not, these gods, heavily bejewelled, are seen talking to him animatedly, playing with him, waiting for him to ride a horse or a bull, or dancing to the tune of his sitar or the beats of his tabla or mridangam.

Gujral is also the first collage artist in India. On his first paper collage show, he was severely criticised. I was inspired to make a paper collage accidentally when I mixed ceramic tiles with those of terracotta [unglazed fired clay] and wooden alphabetic faces pre-made. It met the most negative response ever in India. People thought this was a joke torn paper being peddled as art. The first exhibition of collages was held in Mumbai, in Keko Gandhi's gallery, which was then located above the Jehangir Art Gallery. This was followed by two more shows, in New Delhi's Triveni and New York in 1968. The response, thankfully, was positive.

A SCULPTURE OF a streetsinging couple. A stylised image that reflects Gujral's love of music and rhythm.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Gujral's' closeness to the Nehru family and an assumed political patronage have often been talked about. Charles Fabri, an eminent art critic, introduced Gujral to the Nehru family. Impressed with his style, Jawaharlal Nehru once called him to paint his portrait at Teen Murti House. But there Gujral saw Indira Gandhi and found her more interesting as a subject. Indira agreed to sit for him.

He recalls, While I was painting Indira Gandhi at Teen Murti House, Feroze Gandhi passed by accidentally. He looked at the portrait and then gave me a hard look. Later in the day he told Inder Malhotra that seeing me paint Indira Gandhi had lowered my status in his eyes. He did not consider her worthy of a portrait done by an artist like me!

Fabri did not like Indira's portrait. In his review, he said that he had painted her ruthless while she was delicate. Discouraged by the review in The Statesman, Gujral decided to keep back the portrait. Nehru teased Gujral, saying, I thought you were gifting it to us. Then Gujral told him of Fabri's review. Nehru laughed and said, So what if he has called the portrait ruthless. She is ruthless. You could see in her what others couldn't.' That portrait is now mounted at the Nehrus' former residence in Allahabad.

Gujral denies having accepted political favours from the Nehru family. He asserts: I had no political patronage. In fact, the contribution of my brother Inder Kumar Gujral was just that he was my interpreter. When he became Prime Minister, it became a disadvantage for me. I could have taken political advantage as my father was among the three Hindus in the Pakistani Parliament. The only favour that I got from the government is that I got a two-room barrack which is now a Women's Hostel at K G Marg. But then in Khel Gaon most of the artists, dancers, musicians and journalists got houses those days and they still live there. I made my house on my own 16 years ago. But I would agree that I pushed Pandit Nehru to declare that 2 per cent of all public buildings should be dedicated to art.

A BULL HARNESSED by a man clutching a flute with one hand.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Long before Inder became the Foreign Minister, I had bagged a contract to design the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, but as he came to power he cut my name from this contract. Each time I landed a government project, incidentally, he came to power and he removed my name, thinking it would look like a favour. So many films were made by the Culture Ministry on different artists. Each time they had plans to make one on me, Inder would come back and my name would be the first casualty. By the time he became Prime Minister, I had already reached many notches up in my career and didn't require any political patronage. I had started doing private commissioned work and was pretty comfortable with my finances.

Gujral likes to set aside the disappointments of his past and prefers to move on, accepting fresh artistic challenges. People want to see the same kind of work from an artist repeatedly because it does not challenge their intelligence. So when an artist works in a different medium, he is taking a risk. This risk has troubled me all my life. Each of my exhibitions is a milestone for me and I cross it each time. I keep on trying out one medium until it stops surprising me. I never give up. I am 85 already, and I feel that I must do much before the end comes, he says.

In order to paint more, Gujral has assigned a museum expert from Hong Kong to design a museum next to his home at 16 Feroze Shah Road. It will be completed in one year and a half. My son is negotiating with him, he says.

Producer Bobby Bedi wanted to make a feature film on him based on his biography by Khushwant Singh. Farrukh Dhondy wrote the script. The film, to be made with Mexican collaboration, is still in the box.

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