Satish Gujral | The man with many faces
I have never painted or created for anybody, only for myself, says the artist
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“That who is stationary cannot be creative.” His words pretty much sum up the man who defies “categorization”, the legendary Satish Gujral—painter, sculptor, muralist, architect, graphic and interior designer. Sitting at his aesthetically pleasing Delhi residence with his wife Kiran, Gujral, 88, ruminates about the past, the role of Partition in his work, his love for experimentation, and his exhibition at the India Art Fair, which started on Thursday. Edited excerpts:
You have always been an experimenter, in terms of forms, surfaces, materials—is there a reason for this?
All my life I have changed styles and mediums. Material is the language of the idea. If you change the idea, the idea will find its own material. Even if I paint the same painting in the same material, it won’t come out like the original. I have been in the field for longer than 60 years and I have seen many changing times. I started in Lahore when I was only 14. The people and the culture of Lahore gave me an effect which cannot be repainted somewhere else. And while I was staying there, Partition happened and I became a part of it. I saw killings every day and I stayed on for six months to witness it. My education was completed in January 1949, but I left Pakistan only after the last refugees had been transported as my father was given the task to help Hindus move to India and I became the driver. I wrote an autobiography in which I gave expression to all that I was witnessing. There was no point at which the killer was a Hindu or Muslim. They were just human beings. I was moved to no end although I was not aware of it. But when I finished and moved to Shimla in India, where I stayed for four years, I began to paint man’s cruelty to man. So my first expressions became those of Partition.
While I was staying in Shimla, a friend of mine told me that in Mexico, people are painting the misery of the revolution, and that I should go there. The very next day the Mexican embassy announced a scholarship for artists. I applied, but got rejected as the (Indian) embassy thought I wouldn’t be able to adjust there as I knew no English and there was no Indian embassy or any Indians in Mexico. But when the Mexican embassy liked my work, I went there. In Mexico the artists were constantly learning and experimenting with new mediums, material and style. Painting murals were very popular that time, and when I went there, Mexican artists had just started experimenting with acrylic, which I later brought to India.
Has the horror of Partition faded, and is this reflected in your more recent work?
I have lived the Partition and was heartbroken at that time. And so this expression dominated my work that time. I knew that saying the same thing over and over again would lose it beauty. So my Partition phase was over in the mid-1950s and after that, till date, I have tried to give an expression to a new place every time I create.
You have also worked with so many mediums. Which one do you find the most fulfilling?
It would be the same if I ask you what do you like to eat. It has been a long life and I have worked with many mediums and enjoyed all of them.
How often do you paint now? Can you take us through the process of a new piece of work—from idea to finish?
I paint and I write. This exhibition might be my last exhibition as I don’t know how many years I have now. But whatever years I have, I’ll make them worth it by painting. Till today all of my new work is dominated by the feel of the place and its surroundings.
The Belgium embassy is considered to be one of the finest examples of your architectural work.
Everything in my life happened by chance. There was a time in 1968 when I felt that I have done all that is to be done with painting and shifted to architecture. That time many people thought I’m foolish to drop such a successful career in painting and go in for architecture, which I hadn’t studied. Around that time diplomats from Belgium came and wanted me to design their embassy in a way that it looked like the place (where it was being built) but was also modern. I designed the Belgium embassy in 1984. After that, I designed various other places, including the summer palace in Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. After seeing the Belgium embassy, the prince of Saudi Arabia came to me and asked me to come with him to Riyadh to design a palace. There was a mud house in that place, but I understood the feel of the place and created the palace for them. Then I also created the CMC (Computer Maintenance Corporation Pvt. Ltd) research centre in Hyderabad, and Goa University. But after that I got bored of architecture and came back to painting.
Who have been your inspirations?
All my life, I have admired many artists, but not beyond five years. After that I feel that I have nothing more to learn from that artist and I move on. It is important for your creativity. All these big artists have the same style that they have showcased over the years again and again. They don’t allow the public to use their brains. I did exactly the opposite and I paid for it as well. Every time I tried something new, I’d lose a huge number of admirers, but I have never painted or created for anybody, I did it for myself.
You are showcasing works from the 1950s to 2013—how did you select these?
All these works are from my personal collection; as you see I have never been so much into the selling business. There are five paintings from the 1950s that show Partition, the rest 21 works include sculptures and paintings that I have created since 2000 and can be bought.
Which one is your favourite?
For the first time in my entire life I’m answering this question, and I don’t have an answer.
Could you comment on the present art scene in the country? How important is the India Art Fair?
The present art scene in India is admirable as for the first time I am witnessing Indian artists painting for the sake of it, and not because of money and public. It is happening because of the opening up of the Indian market to the outside world as more and more artists now have exposure to the works and artists from other countries. And this art fair only makes it stronger as more and more people become aware of this art scene in our country.
You are a keen observer of politics. If you had to paint today’s Delhi, how would you depict it?
I am not a chronicler. Many people have asked me why I didn’t paint other incidents like the Sikh massacres that happened after Partition. I told them that I experienced the Partition and so expressed the suffering. You can’t paint the suffering that you have not experienced, only witnessed.
Satish Gujral’s exhibition is being showcased at booth number S-6 by the Chawla Art Gallery at the India Art Fair, NSIC Exhibition Ground, Okhla, Delhi, till 2 February. The exhibition will then move to the Chawla Art Gallery, Square One Mall, Ground floor, C2, District Centre, Saket, New Delhi, and will show till 20 February, 11am-7pm (Mondays closed).
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