In 2017, a day before his ‘Trinity’ sculpture was unveiled at Delhi’s Bikaner House, Satish Gujral sued administrative staff for moving the nine-foot-tall work a few degrees to place it at the perfect angle. . It was past midnight and Gujral was 91 years old.
“He said, ‘the angle is not right,’ recalls his architect daughter Raseel Gujral. That was three years before he passed away in 2020. It’s still a few years away, but his work still draws crowds of art connoisseurs, like at this year’s India Art Fair’s ‘In Memoriam’ space, which pays tribute to great artists. who recently passed away.
Gujral’s work offers an unparalleled representation of score paintings. But what audiences saw recently was a rare aspect of his art practice, hosted as part of the Kiran Gujral Art Initiative. These were iconic sculptures in burnt wood – a unique medium employed by Gujral despite a seemingly unfavorable reception by part of the artistic fraternity at the time – which offer a unique insight into the ideology of the protest.
Created at different times in his life, they are a window into the artist’s state of mind. The first sculptures (around the 70s) seem rigid in their aura. They seem to capture the feeling of rage the artist felt at the time. The charred bodies of the sculptures are colorless except for sporadic spots of disturbing reds, the result of burnt leather.
However, the pieces he created by revisiting the medium nearly two decades later exude a distinct calm, the sculptural form becoming fluid and seemingly taking the form of divine figures. The generous application of gold enters the color palette. These sculptures are almost festive.
“He started making the woods burned during the emergency. They express the feeling of repressed burning fire, incarceration and anger, the sculptures almost resembling angry deities. He burned the wood, he burned the leather, which he had never done before. When you burn leather, it comes out red, like blood.
The carvings were adorned with ropes and keys that symbolized bondage. Many of his friends from the intelligentsia were imprisoned. His art was like an enraged god,” Raseel recalled, adding, “After this period, the deities became benevolent and loving. One looks like Ganesh and the other like Shiva. They (the burnt wooden sculptures) started with rage and became a kind of divine expression. The work was first exhibited at the Dhoomimal Art Gallery in Delhi.
Gujral lived and worked during a prosperous period of the dissociation of Indian art from Western sensibilities. With his contemporaries FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain, he painted an ethos derived from Indian gestalt. An early communist, his art was meant to evoke, move and inspire passion against injustice. And he did (and continues to do so). His early, almost compulsive works depicted the suffering endured by ordinary men and women as India marched on its path to freedom.
This continued for much of his illustrious career. Painted in rich earthy tones – browns and ochres with a dash of gray and recurring touches of white, Gujral’s canvases brim with emotion, bringing to life the agony and helplessness of one of the greatest tragedies with which humanity is confronted. Many of the paintings in the Score are executed in crisp straight lines, their terrifying clarity screaming the horrors of 1947.
If one were to break down Gujral’s art into its smallest unit, the atom in question would obviously be emotion. It fueled his entire career, which is perhaps why the art seems so easy. Raseel, who used to watch her father work in his studio as a young girl (an empty paint oil can was her favorite spot), recalls the series of paintings he created after his wife Kiran fell seriously ill, leaving Gujral emotionally shaken.
“There was a time when my mum wasn’t well, and she was her backbone. When she saw his work later, she couldn’t imagine where all that emotion came from. He created this whole ‘man and machine’ series followed by a whole sports series. Art was where my dad could get lost so that his current circumstances or surroundings could be put aside” , explains Raseel.
Gujral was reincarnated at the India Art Fair exhibition, the first exhibition after his death. Although only a limited selection, chosen by the India Art Fair, was on display, Raseel insists the family could not have asked for a better tribute.
“We couldn’t give him a festive goodbye (Gujral passed away during lockdown), but my mum has been very clear that she’s not mourning him, as he led a full life. He is died painlessly in his own home. We decided that every time we do something for him, it would be a jashn. We celebrate his life,” she said.