Unlike many other artists, it’s not easy to confine Satish Gujral to a particular genre. His oeuvre leaps across boundaries of medium, materials and styles. Over six decades, he has tread diverse artistic paths — as a painter, sculptor, muralist, architect and even an interior designer — stringing them together with an evocative narrative about human condition. And now, one will get a rare opportunity to examine the breadth of Gujral’s work and the diversity of his artistic career with a new solo show, A Brush With Life. Presented by the Gujral Foundation, a non-profit trust founded in 2008 by Mohit and Feroze Gujral, the exhibition is being held to mark his 90th birthday. “The last major retrospective of Gujral’s work was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2006,” says Pramod K G, curator of the exhibition. “However, our show is not a retrospective but a homage to his life and career.”
Through 70 original works — paintings, sculptures and sketches — this month-long exhibition will trace Gujral’s role in shaping the trajectory of art in the country and also act as a tribute to the zeitgeist of Modernism as seen and portrayed by him. His work will be juxtaposed with rare archival images, mostly by photographer extraordinaire Madan Mahatta. Some of these will show works-in-progress, architectural models being drawn up and the others, vintage images, will recall works that have long left public memory. “Some images are of works that he had made for big industrial exhibitions in the late 1980s. These were temporary exhibits that were shown at Pragati Maidan and were ephemeral in that sense. These photos are the only recall of the work done at that time,” says Pramod.
For lifestyle designer Raseel Gujral Ansal, these photographs trace the evolution of her father’s ideas. “To see something completed is one level of response. To see it from inception is another level of dialogue,” she says.
Gujral says his education was completed in January 1949, but he left Pakistan only after the last refugees had been transportedThe exhibition allows you to piece together Gujral’s dynamic artistic language, giving a peek into his frame of mind and the socio-political context of the time. For instance, his early sensibilities were shaped by the people and culture of Lahore. It was there that he witnessed Partition and became a part of it. Gujral experienced the depth and scale of the violence as he transported refugees to border camps. “I saw killings every day. My education was completed in January 1949, but I left Pakistan only after the last refugees had been transported,” said Gujral in a 2013 interview. “When I finished and moved to Shimla, where I stayed for four years, I began to paint man’s cruelty to man. So my first expressions became those of Partition.”
One will get a rare glimpse of the post-Partition series from the early- and mid-1950s, at the show. “The Partition series is very significant and it will be special to see what will be shown from that,” says Neha Kirpal, founder and director of the India Art Fair.
Pramod has tried to create a representative sample of Gujral’s work that exists in private collections and institutions. The Gujral family, both immediate and extended, too, has loaned significant pieces for it. “I have loaned three works. One work is topical; he had painted it as an apprentice to David Alfaro Siqueiros in Mexico. It’s called Nancy, named after his girlfriend at the time, and I have had it with me since I was 16,” says Ansal. “Also, my father has done very few camels. The one I have is a camel from the 1990s.”
Self-portrait, 1956, oil on boardAlso significant are his sculptural and architectural works. It was in 1968 that Gujral began turning to other materials “with spatial and sculptural possibilities, ranging from sculptures using found objects to architecture,” writes art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha on www.criticalcollective.in. “Gujral’s approach to sculptural material is generally transformative; through processes of accretion, such as patinas, pigments or else through the process of abstracting through burning, moulding, gouging or splintering, Gujral achieves his ends.” This resulted in the iconic Burnt Wood sculpture series and also in award-winning architectural designs for the Belgium Embassy, summer palace in Riyadh, the Goa University and more. “His is a rare example of artists who ventured into architecture. M F Husain approached it as well, but in a limited way. Gujral, on the other hand, did buildings. I find his architectural works very interesting,” says art historian Ella Datta.
Gujral has always believed that material is the language of the idea. “If you change the idea, the idea will find its own material,” he has said in the past. Even with such diversity in materials and surfaces, one can find a cord running through the works — the subject of a sculpture done 30 years ago suddenly makes its presence felt in a painting done recently. The medium might change, but the narrative of the journey through life remains constant. “My father started his career at 25 and he is now 90, so that’s 65 years of work. Usually, artists are wary of tampering with a successful formula, and there is a consistency that continues. But my father always has and continues to push his boundaries,” says Ansal. “That’s why you see such a tremendous span and spectrum of evolution. It’s awe-inspiring to see such diversity.”
A Brush with Life will be on show at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, between January 21 and February 20, 2016, 11 am to 5.30 pm