Satish Gujral

Leonardo da Vinci of India

(1925 – 2020)


New York Times in paying homage to Indian painter, sculptor, and architect Satish Gujral (1925-2020), described him as “Leonardo da Vinci of India” for expressing his understanding of silence & its echoes through his art in various mediums.


Born in Jhelum in pre-partition Punjab in 1925, he overcame the turbulent early years – an illness due to which he lost his hearing – which left a deep and empathetic impact on his artistic expression.


The man who was “trapped in stillness” beat all odds of hearing impairment to garner national & international recognition for his creativity through paintings, graphics, murals, sculptures & architecture. He was honoured with “Padma Vibhushan”, the second-highest civilian award of the Republic of India, in 1999.


The man whose expression of “quietude” spanned nearly 70 years, passed away peacefully on March 26, 2020. He was 94.


Satish Gujral is an autobiographical painter. Whatever he or anyone else may write about his life and work is only incidental to the way his paintings speak of his pain, his agonies, his insights, his monumental affirmations, his expanding horizons, his vision about what life and death are all about, the unutterable joy, the dancing flow of colour and line which says it all: that he has come home to being.


What we see in Gujral’s work is the span of life, never just the arrested moment of creativity. That is why he is prolific, but never monotonous. If art springs from life, or is a mirror of life, or expands into variations on the theme of life, or is even a denial of life, it is nevertheless related to the lived moment. Gujral’s inward journeys have always exploded into visual excitement, but invariably towards a new direction. That is why he has never repeated himself, no matter how successful a particular period may have been. He could have stayed with each of his phases, beginning with the one that catapulted him into the history of modern art: the Partition paintings. Here indeed was the scale of expression which matched the scale of human tragedy. Both made the viewer gasp with pain. Here then was intensity of feeling, yet not realism of line. The intensity broke through realism and metamorphosed it, like a wound spurting into rivulets of blood … agonised into another identity. Gujral dared the viewer to face the trauma and go beyond it, just as he lent his ear to his own silence and let it shriek.


The fact that the Partition became the subject matter of his earliest work was incidental. His tortured brush was bristling with its own pain. ‘I am convinced,’ says Gujral, ‘that no external happening, whatever its intensity, can seed the compulsions within.’ The external for Satish Gujral, therefore, is irrelevant. His journey from the time that he was innocent, vulnerable and only eight years old when he was struck by deafness, has been essentially of inner happenings, his own relentless dialogue with the sounds of silence. And as those sounds have struck chords or changed scales, so have the various stages of Gujral’s visual melodies. His paintings reflect each stage in his life which has marked him with its particular intensities and turbulence, while the happiness took its time in coming. His allegiance to that inner call turned him to paint, draw, and make murals; experiment with ceramics, terracotta, aluminium, metal, wood, which he calls ‘brunt’ metaphorically, for bearing the onslaught of change; and then eventually, to create architecture. When his drawings in 1987 began to be sold like hot cakes, he shocked me by saying that he thought ‘the end was near’. Surely, I said, success cannot bring a sense of despair. He laughed delightedly. ‘It means the end of what I have to say in that particular way. I’ve always avoided becoming a prisoner of my own image’. He has drawn his strength from three vital sources: his father, Avtar Narain Gujral, lawyer and politician, who saw to it that his young child’s deafness should not commit him forever to the world of the deprived and that he must be able to hear the call of the horizon.


His elder brother, Inder Kumar Gujral, later to become India’s Prime Minister, who made him forget that he was deprived and aware that the world of thought and intellect was open to him; and Kiran, Satish’s wife, an artist herself who filled the silence within and made him hear the voices of love. He describes it best himself: ‘Providence, I had heard my father say, has the means to compensate for what it deprives its creations of. If the gift of creativity it had invested in my being was not its way of compensating for the sound it had snuffed out of my life, its entwining my life with that of Kiran granted me more than was my due.’ The first two influences helped shape the formative years of his life, while Kiran’s coming gradually began to line the monumental, dark foreboding of his canvases with rays of light. The gnarled blacks, the wounded reds, the stark, searing whites yielded to greens, blues, pinks, turquoise, and orange – colours that flare out from the canvas like fireflies and the hues of the birds of paradise. He also turned from content to form. It was not the human condition which dictated his choice of subject any more but the sheer inventiveness of form. The human figure remained the recurrent theme, but with a warmth that convoluted into various shapes, but never, ever, into cold abstractionism. The viewer never has to search for meaning in a Gujral canvas – he just has to let the colours and movement sweep over him.


Satish Gujral turned away from the canvas at certain points in his growth and his flowering as an artist, because the new always beckoned. As he says, quoting Ranier Maria Rilke, ‘… it is the impatience to possess all of life right away, right here.’ However, even though he was seduced by other materials and impatient for an adventure with a new texture – the range is colossal – he always came back to painting. ‘Like’, he says, ‘to an old love, or to a lost melody that keeps reverberating in your subconscious,’ which, at times, becomes loud and clear and again casts a spell at the conscious level. Time and again, the world of painting concluded that Satish Gujral was lost to muralism in the ceramic mould, to ‘brunt’ wood in the sculpturesque mould, to metal in the industrial mould, to granite perhaps as an ode to permanence, to architecture as the ultimate in aesthetic fusion. Gujral did not set out to explore a medium with only an intellectual curiosity to see what it may yield. Once the range of possibilities opened out to him, he was like ‘the little boy’, he quotes, ‘who stood in his shoes and wondered and wondered’. The variety of form, the range of textures, the multiplicity of material – it was like Aladdin’s Cave having opened up for him. The infinite possibilities, like the jewels, just sparkled. Satish Gujral took and took and then gave and gave to the world of art, a totality in experiment that leaves one astounded. But from the time that his paintings, with their convoluted agonies contained within a normal canvas wrung out so much pain from the viewer that he did not want to buy, to the time now when the joy so spills over canvas, that everybody wants to buy, Satish never compromised.


Satish Gujral painted what he had to paint then, though it hurt him that his works did not sell, and he paints now what he feels he must paint and then stops, even when it is selling, because something else beckons.


He started painting with the disadvantage of being totally deaf. But he started painting with the advantage also of being schooled in the expertise of the craft. When he joined the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore in 1939 at the age of fifteen, the Principal, John Lockwood Kipling’s (father of Rudyard Kipling) dictum was that art must build on the indigenous Indian tradition of craft. Though this bound the Mayoist to a limited graph in artistic expression, in that he could draw inspiration mainly from tradition, it nevertheless exposed him to a variety of material and trained him to be able to exploit that material. A mediocre artist would make a replica of an ancient sculpture in wood, but a Gujral would use that expertise to create ‘brunt’ wood incarnations that were symbolic of the twentieth century, even as they convolved around the ancient form of Lord Ganesha. His years at the Mayo School of Arts instilled in Gujral the excitement for new material, even as it imparted the training to be able to expand that material to house his own vision. Hence, there was excitement at each stage in Gujral’s growth as an artist. Each stage, as he left it behind, also portended a renewal. Whenever people said Stop, this is it, this the ultimate, he shook his head, shed his skin, and ‘jumped’. ‘At first it frightened me because the conventional, critical point of view maintains that a style must develop as part of an evolution. I too used to share that view. But I found there are times when you do not stop to think whether the thread will break or not. The jump is necessary. So I jumped.’


Yet, no Gujral work could be mistaken for any other. The style changed but the feel remained monumental. The canvas with a Gujral painting, or even a drawing, always looked bigger than it was, the scale dominated space even when it came to the later miniaturised concepts. Perhaps Gujral always thought larger than life size. It was as if the canvases on Partition were too small to hold the tragedy within bounds. He was only twenty-one when the Partition of India traumatised him. Images of his father helping to relocate distraught refugees, wailing mothers, raped daughters and fathers who came across the bloodied border with nothing but their memories, stormed their way on to his canvases. At his very first exhibition in Delhi in 1952, Charles Fabri, the acclaimed Hungarian doyen of critics settled in India, proclaimed Satish ‘a genius.’


It was when he saw Satish Gujral’s work on Partition that Octavio Paz, then Ambassador of Mexico to India and later Nobel Prize Winner in poetry, immediately acknowledged that Gujral was the right person to go on a scholarship to Mexico, where the art scene was dominated by the stormy styles of Siqueiros, Orozco, and Diego Rivera.


By then Satish had done his five-year stint in crafts and graphics at the Mayo School of Arts and another three years at the J.J. School of Arts in Bombay, where he learnt painting, taught himself some English, and evolved as a modernist. Satish’s Mexican sojourn confirmed his penchant for scale and in addition inculcated in him, his preference for dimensional depth. Thereafter he was on his own. Even when he sought to make murals, they could not be just painted images on a wall, but a three dimensional pattern that stood out in ceramics, or a pattern in ceramics that looked like studded jewels. That is when it became apparent that the immediate post-Mexican phase in surrealistic paintings had now turned to folk and a reaching out for beauty. It portended the coming of the lovely Kiran into his life. The enduring contribution she has made as his wife and companion, has helped result in a compositional wholeness of being, in terms of encompassing the whole gamut of living forms in his paintings. It is as if he was released, not only from the silence, but also from the despair of his concerns. André Malraux declared that ‘art is the last defence of man against destiny’. For Gujral it was the very first. And he met the challenge head on.


In more than seventy years of his life as a painter, Satish Gujral has experimented with a range of material and texture, but even within each area, the experiment with form has taken innumerable flights. There have been three dominant periods; the first – the period of the Partition paintings. Here, the subject was the human form, the lines agonised but minimal, the colours – stark reds and blacks, the configurations encapsulating the history of pain. Later the gloom lifted gradually, the lines began to flow into space as in the period of the portraits, the agony transmuted into an infinite sadness, into an understanding rather than an indictment of the human condition. Always shadowed by curtains, Gujral began slowly to essay the light with his drawings and collages. The second dominant period was of his ‘brunt’ wood creations – paintings in three-dimensional charcoal brown with dots of red and whimsicalities that evoke the flavour of folk. It is significant that he then chose the form of the Lord Ganesh for a series in sculpted wood, embalmed with the sunlit gleam of gold – an indication both of his desire for roots, and his receptivity to light.


The phase in the midst of life is not only of joy, it is a celebration. While his earliest paintings were in oil, there is now superb craftsmanship in the use of acrylic with its shaded nuances and joyous fusions. The paintings centre around the images of man, woman, animals, and plants and virtually pulsate with rhythm. Even when they are sitting, the figures seem to dance. Somewhere, miraculously, by the sheer effulgence of his creativity, he paints as if to the sound of music and the beat of the drums.

-Uma Vasudev