Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Ecce Homo - Behold the Man!

Ecce Homo - Behold the Man!
A retrospective exhibition of Satish Gujral
At the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

Ecce Homo exclaimed Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judaea, just before presenting Jesus Christ to the high priests, after the flagellation and the crowing with thorns (New Testament). Santo Dutta, curator of the retrospective exhibition of Satish Gujral at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; likens the torture and death of Jesus with the dark shadow fused in much of Gujral’s work, essentially referring to the Image of Man in the art of Satish Gujral. Thus the exhibition is entitled with Pilate’s cry: Ecce Homo – Behold the Man!

When I went to interview the artist, I went with a million questions and some reservations too. There were many incongruities I could not reconcile with. It was in meeting the man, rather than the artist, that I found some answers. He touched my soul with his poignant thoughts and charming eloquence despite his hearing impairment and hesitant speech. I encountered a very special human being. His art only exemplifies this, but to understand its diversity and contradictions, it is not art history that one turns to but one’s humanity.

The word “genius” was used by Charles Fabri in 1952 for Gujral’s “deep-felt humanity” in his portrayal of suffering and sorrow in the famous Partition series of paintings. The story of Partition, Gujral concedes was evocative of his own anguish and that if Partition had not happened; if he had not been witness to those atrocities, he would have invented another theme to depict this. From his studio in Lahore, he could see the movement of the first waves of refugees, and as the impetus for Partition grew, it became his responsibility to physically transport refuges, abandoned women and children to camps set up in border areas.

The horror and violence of what he witnessed were perhaps some of his worst experiences and in portraying this he also exorcised some of the disbelief and horror of losing his own hearing at the age of eight, in an accident while on holiday in Kashmir. The stark reality of this enforced silence, he says, was “terrible” and subsequently shaped his whole being. Painting, for him became a means by which he tried to substantiate his existence, for as he says: “what proof you have when you cannot hear the sounds around you that you really exist?”

A retrospective allows us to see the way an artist has evolved. When viewing the work of Satish Gujral the journey unfolds in leaps and bounds. A young and emotional Gujral is evinced in the brutal, anguished strokes that define the harrowing portraits of Partition. The colourfully passionate collages are evocative of his Mexican sojourn and its re-defining influence. While the political portraits speak of his proximity to power; other drawings are infused with light-hearted folksy patternings which speak of his search for an identity rooted in this ethos. The majestic phase of working with wood, which gave us some of his finest work, is well represented and there are also works in metal and stone; some brilliant individualistic expression in architecture (photographs) and then more canvasses where some light-heartedness emerges at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. The progression is not slow and neither is there a definitive pattern of evolution.

 Each phase is complete in itself; not an adjunct to some other media or phase of his working. This can be disconcerting if you look at it from a narrow, orthodox perspective, but seeing it from this artist’s viewpoint of being inside a train in transition, where the constant changes allowed him to ‘break’ the otherwise stifling silence; one realizes that we take so much for granted and that in our stereotyped expectations of artists and their creative endeavour, we tend to lose track of the human being. How, when, where and why do we separate the artist from the man?

 “Artists are not men of ideas, they are men of feeling”, says Satish

Gujral. Their responses to the world are governed by feelings of joy, of inadequacy, of pain and more and this is what they express as they paint or sculpt. When Gujral saw wood turn to cinder, he determined that he wanted to work in wood. He didn’t have any idea what he would do but he knew that he wanted to work with burnt wood; with the same passion that Van Gogh had expressed to his brother Theodore, which as Gujral recollects he wrote : “I want to paint red. I want to paint red. I want to paint red; with all of my heart I want to paint red,” pointing out that he does not say what he wants to paint with/in the colour red. This is the kind of impetus Satish Gujral felt with every change of medium he undertook: a heartfelt passion.

The burnt wood phase was a consummate one that excluded any painting whatsoever and lasted some 10-15 years. Large-scaled works, some of them 60” x 40”, have endured the artist’s passion and responded with a lyrical movement, belying the rigid nature of wood, evocative of a handling of material with deceptive ease. This is the genius in Gujral that has been able to make any medium respond to his being; expressing through it his passion, his pain and anguish. Wood and gold leaf dominate in these works, with a minimal use of leather thongs, glass and ceramic beads. It is the scale; the starkness in the absence of detailing; subtle but emphatic utilization of texture, along with the contradictory use of burnt cinder with gold leaf that draw the viewer into the sensual folds of their wooded but not wooden embrace.

Satish Gujral is a man full of stories and anecdotes. For each question, he has a story to tell. In each of his works the stories are there to be read but perhaps few have the privilege to meet the artist and understand some of what underlies the ideas he has shared through his creative work. However, this becomes a valuable insight in any attempt to understand and evaluate the work. If it falls short of our expectations, is it because we do not know enough?  Does the onus of making it explicable to us, lie with the artist?

In our world today where time is at a premium and everyone in a hurry to get somewhere, it is not possible to grasp the depth of an artist such as Gujral is. The haunting hollows and bulbous forms seem intimidating in their traumatic rendition, but it is in these works that one also finds the essence of the man who has the courage to face himself and his pain. His preoccupation with this made Fabri, the art critic who incidentally also ‘discovered’ the artist in him, comment that “Life is like a round pillar with both the dark and the light sides of it” but that Satish Gujral “seemed to be obsessed with darkness only”. The artist penned his reply to the Editor of the Statesman (1956) saying: “Life is no doubt like a round pillar with both the dark and the light sides, but no individual can see both sides at the same time. If ever I come around to the light side, I will depict it.”

Many shades were passed through. One definitive phase in Gujral’s work and evolution as an artist was the time he spent on a scholarship in Mexico (1952-54). His association with the muralists Riveria and Siqueiros opened up a whole new world of ideas and materials. There also lay a parallel in the political and economic restructuring of the early 50’s in Mexico, with the same in India after years of Imperial rule. Gujral found greater empathy with the Mexican artists’ search to assert a cultural identity, rather than the ideology of the Progressive Artists’ Group he had encountered during his years at J.J School of Art in Bombay; for their quest focussed on the inner rather than the outer being. It has been this that has defined his search, where he may have touched upon ideas that emanate from the Indian miniature tradition and folk art but always returning to ideas rooted in himself rather than his ‘Indian’ identity .

Gujral’s work, stretching over five decades, is defined by a marked individualistic adisciplinarity. Every change of material and form, however passionate the approach, also evoked some difficulty of reception. His eclectic training at Mayo school, Lahore; where he was exposed to carpentry, clay moulding, wood carving, drawing and design and his training with the muralists in Mexico did however, facilitate the process. His architectural work is approached with “complete lack of historical inhibitions” and without following any dictated ‘ism’ of the time. He has worked on numerous building projects which include the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi, for which he was honoured with the “Order of the Crown” by the Belgian Government. The sculpted quality of this building, composed of brick dome vaults and skylights, created a whole new architectural vocabulary. Of this Gujral has said: “I just designed it through some kind of instinct and when I had finished I still did not know what I had done.”

In Satish Gujral, it is the spirit that triumphs and this is his greatest success. Whether it is grappling with a deafening silence, painting on canvas, working in wood, stone, metal or designing buildings, it is the spirit behind it all that shines through. A spirit of survival: an inspiration to emulate.

 And yes, he did begin to see the lighter side of life. The canvasses done at the turn of the century testify to this. Taking their cue from his early works, the forms remain sculptural, the lines are more sensual and colours turn vibrant. Reconciling with the nature of life, the colour of emotion has changed and so has the texture. The figure has evolved with a distinctive character, its anguish predictably blunted by success and the maturing intellect; reflected in the texture that forms the base for all the canvasses which absorbs rather than highlights strokes of the paint brush. However, one does not find in them quite the passion hitherto characteristic of the work of Gujral. The eye seeks this reassuring evidence of the ultimate triumph of the spirit, which celebrates in reconciliation, without trace of lament for the struggles or for what has not been achieved. In the latest canvasses on view: the Game series, one is particularly aware of a return towards a lament. As the hues darken once again, they seem to say:


“We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught .....”