Artist Satish Gujral believes any work of art should be made available for all to enjoy. He talks to Poonam Goel about his recent donation of a nine-foot-tall sculpture to Bikaner House in Delhi
Walking into celebrated artist Satish Gujral’s South Delhi home is like attending a mini-retrospective of his works. Gigantic canvases, richly textured and brightly coloured, take centre stage on every wall of his multistorey house, and the artist can recall in vivid detail, even at 92, not only when each artwork was created but also the stories behind them. “Look at this work,” he gestures towards a painting, “it is a portrait of my wife Kiran that I painted about 40 years ago.”
What follows is a passionate story about how he met her more than seven decades ago, and one has to gently nudge him towards the most recent happening in his life – his donation of a nine-foot-tall bronze sculpture, titled Trinity, to Bikaner House in Delhi. Depicting three Hindu gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – the sculpture also subliminally suggests the eternal bond between life, death and rebirth. “It’s a figure in triptych [a relief carving on three panels, vertically hinged together], poised in harmony and balance, communicating the cyclic passage of time through creation, preservation and rebirth,” says Gujral, who often uses mythological themes in his works.
Ask him about the moment or idea that inspired him to create this particular piece, and he says with an indulgent smile, “Ideas do not create art. Art creates ideas. I never think of the subject or medium I will use for my canvases or sculptures. The idea or the medium chooses me.”
This is not the first time Gujral has made known his avid support for public art. “A painting can only reach a well-to-do man’s drawing room, but art should reach out to the public. India has had a rich tradition of temple art that was accessible to all, but now art has become confined to commerce-driven galleries,” he says with apparent displeasure, and adds, “I have believed, since as early as the 1950s, that all art in India should be in the form of murals or public art.”
It was during his stay in Mexico, in the 1950s, that the artist cultivated his passion for murals under the influence of stalwarts like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. It is a well-known fact, too, that he played a vital role in convincing the former Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to formulate the rule allowing two per cent of the cost incurred towards the construction of a public building to be allotted for art.
Recognised globally as a master muralist, painter, sculptor and architect, it is his love for public art, he says, that inspired him to design award-winning buildings such as the Belgian Embassy and the UNESCO building in New Delhi and, more recently, the Ambedkar Park in Lucknow. Also, many of his murals are part of historic buildings, universities and institutions across India. “People say I excel in any medium and design I choose to work with, but I believe that every work of art is an attempt to stand out,” he says. “I live when I create and I do not choose to experiment deliberately. When I feel I have said enough in one medium, I move to another.”
It is this sense of adapting and accepting life’s various offerings that has made Gujral’s oeuvre so diverse. Born in Jhelum, now in Pakistan, in 1925, he briefly studied in Lahore before joining the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1944. Since then, his works have reflected the various phases of his life, the Partition being a recurrent theme in his canvases.
It is, however, not with agony that he recalls the experience of being uprooted from his home. “All painful memories fade with time. I prefer to think of the positive things. For me, nationalism is about creating my art, and I will live till I continue to do so,” he smiles.
The author is an art enthusiast and the views expressed in the article are her own