A6ft-wide canvas hangs at Satish Gujral’s home in New Delhi. It will move to the Lalit Kala Akademi later this week, where the 86-year-old artist will have a solo exhibition. Above it hangs one of Gujral’s earliest works, painted circa 1950.
It is important for Gujral to see the two together. “To see my journey,” he interjects.
Few artists can claim as long an existence on the changing art scene of India as Gujral—showing across Asia, Europe and Latin America while still being rooted in his home country.
In an age when contemporary artists are expected to produce gigantic expositions on a yearly basis, Gujral says he can only get himself to exhibit when he is convinced that the nature of his work has innately changed. At the start of his career, this used to take as long as a decade. Now, it’s closer to half a decade.
Wall of fame: Satish Gujral with his paintings at his Delhi residence. Javeed Shah/Mint
This solo exhibition, Ascending Energy, Merging Forms, comes after four years and will have around 60 artworks, comprising drawings, paintings and sculptures in bronze. It will also include nine large-scale bronzes—a rare sight beyond the realm of public commissions—with experimental patinas or surface colouring.
I ask if it’s a retrospective. Even as his wife is translating the question for him in sign language, he says: “If I had to show what I have already shown, I wouldn’t have an exhibition. A joke repeated is no joke.” He laughs in his gentle, most Zen-like manner.
Gujral believes this is one of the most exciting times for Indian art and that at no point earlier have as many experiments been done as are being done today.
In his own quest for the new, Gujral has gone through several styles and mediums in his career. Oil, acrylic and automotive paint for canvas; and wood, bronze and fibreglass for sculpture. He even shifted from art to architecture for 20-odd years, and with no formal training in the field, designed outstanding structures, such as the Belgian embassy in New Delhi (for which he received an Order of the Crown from the Belgian government). “I quit architecture when I realized I was drawing no inspiration from it any more,” says Gujral. When he embarked on his second innings as a painter, it was with a renewed burst of energy.
His most significant discovery was a product of happenstance, though. When Gujral arrived in Mexico as a scholarship student in 1952, the Mexican government had just commissioned the development of a new kind of long-lasting paint for local muralists to work with. This was what is known as acrylic paint today and Gujral brought it with him to India when he returned a couple of years later. He speaks fondly of this first overseas trip: a train from Delhi to Mumbai, three weeks by ship to London, another week by ship to New York and a three-day train ride to Mexico.
Despite his veteran status, Gujral is a humble man. Does he still care about what critics would say of this new show? “Without hypocrisy, of course, everyone is a little affected by approval and disapproval,” he says. “But I’m not affected to a point that it infects my art.”
He goes on to say that everytime he’s tried a new style, it has been met with disapproval at first (this time it’s black and white bronzes). “Few artists or writers can claim to coin a personal style. And then, few have the courage to drop it,” he says. But he does it, he says, because that’s the only way he feels compelled to keep creating.
He’s changed the specifics of this show so many times now that with the exhibition a week away, the line-up and the catalogue still aren’t ready. But Gujral is far from worried. He’s a genial man who quotes from John Keats’ A Song about Myself to describe himself:
So he stood in his shoes
And he wonder’d,
He stood in his
Shoes and he wonder’d.
Ascending Energy, Merging For will run from 7-13 April at the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi.