"Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle,
Khuda banday se khud poochay, bata teri raza kya hai"
"Make yourself so tall that before every decision of fate,
God himself asks the man, what is your pleasure." Allama Iqbal
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|VERSATILE: Gujral with his latest paintings (right) and (below) his scale model for the Islamic Cultural Centre, New Delhi |
When the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opens the Satish Gujral Retrospective on February 1, it shall be celebrating a man whom the writer Khushwant Singh has called "the most outstanding man I have met in my life". Straddling the fields of drawing, painting, mural, sculpture and architecture, Satish Gujral, 81, is a slight, short man who has towered over the Indian art world for over five decades with much determination, ever bubbling bonhomie and periodically, some raging controversies.
As if inspired by Sir Mohammed Iqbal's famous couplet quoted above, Gujral's story is one of man conquering all odds that fate and history conspired to pile up against him. A childhood accident resulted in the painful and incurable leg infection- osteomyelitis and Gujral lost his sense of hearing for life when he was just seven. However, overcoming this handicap, he went on to study art at Lahore's Mayo School of Art and then at Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, before going to Mexico to work as an apprentice under the famous muralist and painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.
In between these stints of studying art came the Partition with all its attendant horrors of communal genocide and displacement. Gujral has written eloquently about these in his moving autobiography A Brush With Life (Viking 1997). To coincide with the present retrospective, Roli Books is bringing out another book on him, Satish Gujral: an artography with essays on his oeuvre by critics Santo Dutta and Gayatri Sinha, and architect-writer Gautam Bhatia.
Any retrospective of Gujral's should be hugely interesting because of the sheer output in a variety of mediums. From his anguished expressionist oils in the post-Partition era to paper collages, burnt wood sculptures, ceramic murals, granite figures and large buildings including the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi-Gujral has not only worked with a host of materials but also changed his imagery and style to suit the medium in each phase of his artistic journey.
In fact, his main complaint against most other artists including his bete noir M.F. Husain has been that they tend to cash in on an established personal style, not due to any creative compulsions, but mainly because of the pressures of the market. Nor has that been his only tirade. For a person with a speech disability, Gujral has been incredibly vocal in taking on virtually every other celebrated artist of his generation, from Francis Newton Souza to S.H. Raza, through the decades. He strongly maintains that the claim of the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG, of which Husain, Raza and Souza were the leading lights) of having ushered in modernism in Indian art is both hollow and untrue as the Kolkata painters like Paritosh Sen and Gaganendranath Tagore had preceded the Mumbai group in their tryst with European modernism. Besides these, Gujral asserts that Roop Krishna, a painter from Lahore who studied in Europe in the 1920s, had worked in the modernist style long before the second World War, when the American soldiers and European émigrés had introduced modernism to the Mumbai Progressives.
Gujral, who studied in Mexico, was hugely influenced, curiously not by his prime teacher Siqueiros or by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera with whom he had closely interacted, but by Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) who had died just a few years before he landed in the Latin American country. The Mexican masters had grappled with the problem of modernism versus indigenous cultural moorings at least one generation before Indian artists faced the same dilemma. Besides, the Mexican artists with their strong revolutionary leanings had a political involvement that went far deeper than what any Indian artist had ever aspired to, leave alone try to emulate. No wonder that Gujral has been contemptuous of the simplistic and borrowed Leftist rhetoric spouted by some of his contemporaries and juniors in India.
So what does this retrospective portend? Will it rake up all the old controversies and debates that this master of the brush has whipped up in the past? Will it lead to a new reading of his work? These are the questions that only time will answer. Till then a line from his old friend, the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz who Gujral is fond of quoting, will suffice: "Wohi chashma-e-baqa tha/jise sab surab samjhe (What every one took to be a mirage, turned out to be a perennial spring)." Indeed Indian art's material man needs to be re-evaluated in the context of our times.