March 27, New Delhi (IANS) Witnessing the trauma, sheer brutality, absolute insensitivity and degradation of human respect during Partition, when he along with his father helped people cross over to India, never left his mindscape.
So, when artist Satish Gujral, who passed away on Thursday night, painted the Partition, it made everyone stand up and take note, including the first Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.
His work on the division of the country may have been catapulted him to instant recognition, but for Gujral it was always important to continuously touch upon themes, change styles and mediums. No wonder, despite criticism from some quarters, he never thought twice before working with wood, ceramics, sculptures, murals, architecture and paper collage.
Born in 1925 in Jhelum (now Pakistan), Gujral, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1999, produced fantastic burnt wood sculptures (two are at the ITC Maurya, New Delhi) and showed his works across the world, including cities like New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Montreal.
In the latter part of his life, he was almost equally known for his architecture. In fact, the Belgium Embassy in New Delhi designed by him was selected by the international forum of architects as one of the finest buildings built in the 20th century.
Despite suffering from hearing impairment, he attended the Mayo School of Art. It was only at the age of 72 that he got an implant that gave him the ability to hear, but he removed it at 78.
While many documentaries have been made on the life of the artist, a full-length feature film is also in the works. Gujral was much influenced by Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueros under whom he studied when he received a scholarship to study at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico.
Speaking to IANS, artist Gogi Saroj Pal, who met him frequently, said she closely watched his work and how he evolved and changed mediums effortlessly.
“However, what is most important is the fact that he never paused, and made it a point to work consistently. His contribution is immense. In fact, when I had gone to Pakistan decades back, people knew about him and his father, who was an extremely rich man there before 1947,” she said.
Stressing that he has always admired his work, artist Probir Gupta added, “I am particularly fond of his burnt wood sculptures which brought forth a very distinct aesthetic, language and politics. Of course, one my favourite creations by him is the Belgium embassy, for which he was not just the architect but also the interior designer.
“Even today, I slow down my car whenever passing it. He understood the richness and practicality of Indian architecture and did not need to borrow western ideas. His own language evolved from our traditional architecture.”
Calling him the pride of Punjab, photographer and Chairperson of Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, Diwan Manna, said that unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not go to Europe to study and developed his own visual vocabulary, sticking to it till the very end.
“Not following the Progressives, he charted his own course and belonged to the generation that was totally committed to its art,” Manna said.
Remembering that in his personal life, he would not just be with painters, but shared a great rapport with writers and theatre persons, Manna added, “One could see him frequently with Balwant Gargi and Padma Sachdev.”
“Always in the limelight and definitely better known than his former Prime Minister brother, I.K. Gujral, he managed to achieve a lot despite his disability. I like his early works, which had a certain punch to it,” said artist Inder Salim.
For artist Veer Munshi, the deceased will be known for working on important socio-political issues. “The way he tackled Partition and migration is commendable. I will remember him for his sense of humour and how he would enjoy talking in an abstract manner,” Munshi said.
Bhavna Kakkar, a gallery owner, added, “He was always kind and full of anecdotes in Punjabi. Well, I always practiced my not so fluent Punjabi with him. We always spoke about his beloved Mayo School of Art whenever we met.”
Expressing his anguish on Gujral’s demise, Prime Minister Modi wrote on Twitter, “Satish Gujral Ji was versatile and multifaceted. He was admired for his creativity as well as the determination with which he overcame adversity. His intellectual thirst took him far and wide yet he remained attached with his roots. Saddened by his demise. Om Shanti.”