Satish Gujral passes away at 94, with an “overpraised, yet underestimated” legacy

As we mourn the loss of an award-winning artist, architect and sculptor whose work audaciously straddled many disciplines, can our evaluation of his legacy do him justice?

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Mar 28, 2020

One sunny December morning in 2017, I made my way to Satish Gujral’s home in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. I had passed the property many times and had noted the sign outside, revealing the identity of the home owner. But this was my first time at close quarters. I surveyed the well-kept lawns spotted with seasonal flowers lusciously in bloom, and went through the living room whose walls were lined with the painter’s art. I was asked to wait within a terrace-like enclosure. Gujral was wheeled in soon enough, and, a while later, his wife, Kiran, joined us. We were accompanied by an assistant who was meant to facilitate his understanding of conversation when Kiran was not around.

Untitled acrylic on canvas | Artist Satish Gujral passes away at 94 | STIRworld
Untitled (acrylic on canvas) by Satish GujralImage Credit: Courtesy of Chawla Art Gallery

This was shortly after he had loaned a sculpture to Bikaner House, India, to re-ignite a conversation around public art, a genre he pivotally pioneered not just through numerous murals he made, many of which still survive on the facades of government buildings in Delhi, like Shastri Bhawan, or the Delhi High Court, but also by communicating to the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, about the significance of public art. Titled Trinity, the nine-feet tall bronze triptych constituted by three lyrically figured forms referenced the Hindu gods of creation, preservation and destruction. It was intriguing to see how symbols that had been elemental to his artistic expression from the inception of his practice, especially circular forms that had, at various points in the past denoted forms of bondage, had undergone a semantic conversion. In this sculpture, in particular, circular frames served either as a lens through which the world was viewed or as decorative elements across the figures’ arms, or as the wheels upon which they were riding, directly imaging the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Satish Gujral with his wife Kiran Gujral at his home in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, India (2017) | Artist Satish Gujral passes away at 94 | STIRworld
Satish Gujral with his wife Kiran Gujral at his home in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, India (2017) Image Credit: Rosalyn D'Mello

Though the work was undoubtedly made by Gujral and retained many motifs, such as his S-shaped delineation of line which allowed for a lyrical temperament, the reliance on the circular as decorative and semantic symbols, and, most significantly, the theatricality of gesture and movement, and how his figures always seem arrested in the middle of the act of doing, seemed such a vast departure from the paintings that marked the beginning of his career. Like The Despair, for instance, made by him in 1954, which had been my introduction to his style and legacy. Before I ever saw any of his paintings, even this one, I had read about them, and it is special, I realise in retrospect, to have been acquainted with the political crux of Gujral’s work through the written word. One of the most significant and moving pieces of art criticism I had encountered, in 2009, when I was an assistant editor on The Art Critic, the selected art criticism of Richard Bartholomew was on Gujral.

Bulls in bronze | Artist Satish Gujral passes away at 94 | STIRworld
Bulls in bronze by Satish Gujral Image Credit: Courtesy of Chawla Art Gallery

Here I was, in 2017, visiting the 92-year-old artist, much like Bartholomew, who had gone over to interview him in 1961, at his ‘small sitting room’ at Constitution House. He made mention of the low furniture and batik draperies, and how it had been blowing cold that morning. Gujral was scheduled to take a flight that evening to Europe, and from there was meant to fly to America. His work lay in crates, and so, the walls were blank. Bartholomew wrote eloquently about the experience of communicating with Gujral, preparing me for my own encounter. He had noted that his accent is heavy, his gestures emphatic. “Aside from the words that pass between us, I have always felt that each interview I have had with Gujral is also a pantomime,” he wrote in a piece he titled ‘The Wall of Satish Gujral”, published in SPAN in June 1961. “When the painter speaks, I feel that he is translating all that he has to say into gesticulations, facial expressions and then into words that are heavy because they have passed through the currents of silence inside him.”

Untitled by artist Satish Gujral | Artist Satish Gujral passes away at 94 | STIRworld
Untitled by Satish Gujral Image Credit: Courtesy of DAG Modern

This was, indeed, how Gujral spoke. And I am certain that for those who knew him and loved him, and for whom he was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a mentor, or an employer, this might constitute an aspect that might be most sorely missed. When I heard about his death at the ripe age of 94, I went back to the recording I had made on my very basic phone, and found the photograph I had taken of him and his wife. He was seated on a recliner chair, she on another chair, her arms secure on the arm-rest. He wore a grey sweater, while she was draped in a beautiful shawl in earthy tones that contrasted with the electric green and blue of her kurta. Between them was a small table, and on it sat two silver gilded frames, both, if I remember well, featuring photos from their wedding. One with Nehru himself. Gujral had recounted to me how he had sought his counsel to convince Kiran’s family into acquiescing to their desire to marry. Her father had been opposed. He was a penniless artist. In the documentary, A Brush with Life, Gujral spoke movingly about how Kiran became his bridge with life. “My marriage was one thing that changed my life and outlook,” he says coyly. “She interpreted everything that was said,” he adds. According to him, her presence in his life led to the loss of a certain kind of frustration, which transformed his relationship to art.

Having lost his hearing at the age of eight because of a botched operation after a swimming accident in the River Jhelum, Gujral found himself submerged in a deafening silence. He sought refuge in Urdu literature, and later, as a student in Mayo college, was directly exposed to stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who were part of his brother, IK Gujral’s milieu. His early work was drenched in his direct experience of the horrors of Partition. They were, inarguably, the consequence of his personal trauma, and they remain today as documents, visual testimonies of the human cruelty that birthed two nations. Bartholomew called Gujral not only the keeper of the world’s silence but also the keeper of his own and man’s conscience. “For conscience is the knowledge of silence,” he wrote.

Untitled work by Gujral | Artist Satish Gujral passes away at 94 | STIRworld
Untitled by Gujral Image Credit: Courtesy of Chawla Art Gallery

As we mourn his passing from this world and dwell on the complexity of his legacy and the sheer audacity that marked so much of his practice—his ability to move unabashedly between not just mediums but disciplines, to never fixate upon a singular form of expression but rather to think of form as the consequence of expression—what Bartholomew said in his review of 29 of Gujral’s paintings at Thapar House, New Delhi, for Thought in January 1956, bears repeating. For, all these years, after Bartholomew’s own death in the service of art, Gujral remains, as Bartholomew had observed, “both praised and underestimated.” His strong points were indeed stressed, while his limitations, glossed over, which is a form of disservice to any artist, both living or death. While, as we grieve, it is understandably convenient to construe a narrative around the dead and thus evolve a chronological structure of his trajectory, one hopes that Gujral will get the art historical consideration he truly deserved, and that we are impelled to re-examine his contribution to muralist art in India beyond the reiteration of him having performed in the shadow of his tutelage by (David Alfaro) Siqueiros and (José Clemente) Orozco.

Note: Gujral was born in Jhelum in pre-Partition west Punjab, trained at the Mayo School of Art and later at Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay. He won international recognition for his his multi-faceted work in painting, graphics, murals, sculpture and architecture. The artist received many honours including the da Vinci Award for lifetime achievement from Mexico, awards from the Lalit Kala Akademi and a Padma Vibhushan from the Government of India. He was also honoured with The Belgian government's ‘Order of the Crown’ for designing the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi, considered among the 1000 outstanding buildings of the 20th century. The artist passed away on March 26, 2020.

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