When speaking of Satish Gujral, it’s difficult to decide which of his creative identities is to be stressed. For he is many things at once. An architect of daring imagination, for example; though not, strictly speaking, in the profession, his building of exposed bricks, domes and arches for the Belgian Embassy in Delhi won him the Order of the Crown from Belgium. He is a maverick muralist, who trained under the Mexican masters, Diego Rivera and David Sequeiros, inheriting their assertive humanism and the former’s hefty, impassioned figuration, if not his epic vision. A sculptor who has not only worked with different kinds of material, both organic and man-made — clay, burnt wood, stone on the one hand and ceramic and metal, on the other— but has also attempted monumental sizes, including pieces that are 12 feet or so tall. A painter who made quirky collages and always thought of drawing as an equal partner of painting. After all, aren’t they all — painting, sculpture, architecture — about form and space? And now Gujral is an author too, having written his autobiography, A Brush with Life.
The versatility of this man of formidable gifts is indeed legend, and that extends, unusually enough, to his style as well. Given to prolific experimentation with different idioms, he refuses to be “enslaved” either by media or by a manner, for both could be “encaging”.
That doesn’t, however, mean that he hasn’t crafted a signature; only that it is excitingly fluid. And traces of his fluid signature can be found in both the themes and style of the drawings on display at the Aakriti Art Gallery till December 31. The human drama, be it of agony or of joy or of some concentrated activity, has surfaced in his paintings and drawings over the years. And human drama, though low-key and strangely shorn of emotion, is something you see in this series, done in pencil on rice paper between 2005 and 2011.
What is more, the focus on animals, like the bull and the goat and the horse, for instance, has been a constant in his art; and here they figure too, the picturesque zebra and the powerful horse. He has also been drawn in recent years to machinery; machinery not merely for the structural interrelationship that makes it work and renders it visually virile but also as tools to be manipulated by people.
Man, animal and machinery, therefore, combine — as they’ve done in shaping civilization — to declare the thematic pattern of this show. Often there’s the hint of a struggle or a challenge: men and women try to rein in galloping horses or to engage with strange contraptions or to explore the rhythmic elasticity of the human body in different situations and in different kinds of activity, including that of bowling a cricket ball with balletic grace. For they are dynamic protagonists in a montage of tableaux rather than contemplative observers — with belts, chariots, bulbs and wheels recurring as motifs with suggestive meaning. But the forms are, of course, stylized, gestural. The masculine energy of horses, for example, is frozen in a flourish of decorative mane; dancers with cymbals are poised in motion, one foot raised; a male figure, possibly a fielder, is caught at the point of springing forward, the sweep of the lines suggesting both speed and the tension of muscles.
And the sweep of the lines, often overlapping, is invested with infectious buoyancy. Unlike the drawings of Gujral’s early phase, his lines in the recent past have acquired lyricism and flow, an elaborate cadence of movement. Interestingly, however, these evoke sculpturesque dimensions and volume, reminding the viewer not only of Rivera but also of Ferdinand Leger. The human faces are, almost always, in profile, with starkly simplified contours — as they often are in murals, where finer details are eliminated in favour of bold, strident emotions and poses. In fact, the economy of the drawings, their bare-bones understatement, may seem to viewers rather provisional; as though these are preliminary sketches indicating the more complete works that are to follow, like paintings or maybe even murals, although the latter seems unlikely since the artist is more concerned with individuals in this series than with dramatic groups, always deemed more suitable as public art.
Born in December 1925, the Padma Vibhushan awardee is only 86 years young and still planning new projects. Not so much for tomorrow but for today, because he likes to do tomorrow’s work today. After all, tomorrow is another day, for another project.