Satish Gujral returns to the public art space
Veteran painter, sculptor and architect Satish Gujral returns to the public eye after decades with a monumental new work,
On September 22, last year, Raseel Gujral completed three decades in design. “Some two weeks before that, my father told me I would be shocked by something he had done. Now, I am so used to being shocked by him that his words weren’t really a surprise,” she says. But what Satish Gujral showed her was nothing less than a revelation — a maquette of Trinity, which would go on to become an exquisite 8.5-fttall bronze sculpture, weighing nearly a tonne. “I have a small 12-inch single figure. But to see it being translated to that scale and monumentality was something else,” she says. “He knew how much I loved the single figure on a unicycle. And my completion of three decades as a designer served as a spark for him, to take the work further as Trinity.”
Over the past few years, the Gujral family had been discussing setting up a public arts programme around the veteran artist’s works. There were several significant sculptures that Gujral had created that had never been shown publicly. And thus began the first step: a dialogue with Malvika Singh of Delhi’s Bikaner House about showing Trinity there for three months [till March 31], as part of the institution’s newly-launched public art programme.
In this work, Gujral draws from Indian mythology and philosophy. It invokes Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, of course, but also represents the eternal cycle of creation, preservation and rebirth. “Trinity also brings together three aspects of his own creative practice— sculpture, painting and architecture. The threedimensionality brings forth the originality of his vision and vocabulary as well,” says Delhi-based art historian, Seema Bawa.
This bronze sculpture is also significant as it brings Gujral back into the public art space— more than fifty years after he executed a giant mural at Baroda House, the Northern Railway Headquarters, in Delhi. Some might argue that there has already been a larger engagement with his art, through the murals that adorn institutions such as Panjab University and Delhi’s Shastri Bhawan, as well as architectural works such as the Belgian Embassy and Modi House, also in Delhi. Even so, this particular artwork places him firmly and directly within a larger, democratic public arts space after long.
In some ways, it’s like coming full circle, as Gujral has been an ardent proponent of public art since the beginning of his career. In fact, he was exposed to the concept of public art at one of the crucial sites of its genesis, Mexico, where he went on a scholarship in 1952. There, he saw murals splashed across public spaces. The Mexico trip was also deeply influential for Gujral as he got to apprentice with artists such as Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, and was when he began to experiment with acrylic. “If you create art, you need to prompt a larger debate. This will not happen if someone simply buys and hangs a painting in a room,” he says, during an interview at his residence. “I believe that a language which is not spoken doesn’t live long.”
In Satish Gujral’s home, a peaceful island set amid the jarring, blaring sounds outside, one can’t help but marvel at his unique vocabulary, which transcends the boundaries of medium, material and style. His residence is a virtual mini-gallery, featuring family portraits, evocative paintings and sculptures— all of which have its centre the human condition and spirit. Bawa points to the fact that he is able to use so many motifs— be it the harness, the drum or the burnt wood— to create his own language. “He is able to create a vocabulary out of the medium itself. To be able to bring out the kind of forms that he does, from ordinary beaten metal, is so original. Whether it is burnt wood or a public mural, he uses the material to create words and signifiers,” she says.
The diverse artistic paths that he has trodden — as painter, sculptor, muralist, architect — shows that he revels in change. It is this remarkable energy and will to keep working even at the age of 93 that impresses Renu Modi, founder, Gallery Espace, who has had a personal association with Gujral. “When his retrospective was held recently at the IGNCA, one was quite taken by such a large body of works, shown together — especially those from the early periods, which one doesn’t get to see very often,” she says. In heres say, published in the Critical
Collective, art historian Gayatri Sinha also remarks on the marked a di sci pl in ari ty that has comet ode fine Gujral’ s life work. She quotes from his autobiography, in which he writes about the difficulty of reception that every change of form and material has evoked in the past .“The shift to architecture was resisted possibly because a framework for such inter di sci pl in ari ty int hearts did not exist, the examples of Picasso, and closer home, the Bauhaus of S anti nike tan notwithstanding,” shewrites. Forinstance, Gu jr al drew the ire of local architects when he was chosen to design the Belgian Embassy in Delhi in the 1980 s—he did not have a degree from an architecture school. But the competition for selecting the embassy’ s designer didn’ t bar those who were not architects by profession, and the controversy soon petered out. His design was later selected by the International Union of Architects as one of the thousand best buildings created in the 20 th century from around the world. In a 1983 interview, Gujral had said ,“The word‘ mural’ in French literally means wall—and as a muralist it was but natural that this preoccupation with walls would lead to architecture .”
As we discuss his foray into architecture, he cites the example of Le Corbusier, who was a painter who switched to architecture. “I believe that painting, sculpture and architecture are one. In earlier times, one person practised all three,” says Gujral. The roots of this idea also lie in his training at the Mayo School of Arts, where the former principal, John Lockwood Kipling, wanted an artist to be adept at all forms— painting, carpentry, textile design and architecture. At the time, Gujral says he was more inclined towards painting as he thought it was romantic, like poetry. However, the training in architecture came in handy later.
Gujral doesn’t like to “over-think” or “intellectualise” his process. “You don’t think. You feel, you create,” he says. “I shifted from painting to sculpture to architecture, but I didn’t make intellectual jargon about what I think. Unfortunately, the intellectuals make a mess of it by talking as if there is a theory behind it. Creation is not made from thinking, but from feeling.”
IN TRINITY, GUJRAL DRAWS FROM INDIANMYTHOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY. IT INVOKES BRAHMA, VISHNU AND SHIVA