There was a phase at a certain point of time when Satish Gujral’s art provoked tears in our eyes and jolted us out of insouciant comfort and content. They struck a chord with above all those people who, like Gujral himself, had passed through one of the most agonizing times of modern Indian history – the Partition and its aftermath. Those drawings, with a strong expressionist verve and a deep humanistic concern brought pain and despair back to our consciousness.
The present set of drawings however, done over a period between 2005 and 2011, unfold an entirely different approach. These delightful drawings exemplify exuberance and gaiety etched, as it were, into the very groove of the contour lines of the figures and objects. The forms too are blissfully occupied with various kinds of movements and actions, conjuring up new ways of living a promising life. The terms of this rapture are unambiguously clear and modest. Figures engrossed with their own activities and engagements are unpretentious in their appearance and Gujral endows them with the quality of rhythm which becomes an integral part of their figuration. Figures seem to bounce and dance on asupple surface where life manifests itself even in the inanimate toy-like objects and contraptions – the intimate companions of these figures.
Born in 1925 in Jheelam of pre-partition Punjab Satsh Gujral traveled a long way to address this strange intimacy which is as much a part of his life-view as that of his own personal mythology and belief. Yet, with great élan he circumvents any narrative catch or obvious literal allusions and leaves it up to the beholder to make sense of these motifs. In fact, even when he was doing those drawings in the context of the traumatic experience of the Partition concurrently with personal torment he never historicized them with specific topical insinuation. Ultimately, it is his personal wisdom and vision in tandem with a deep concern for the relevance of art that pervade his creative outputs. The added element in the present set of drawings is his wonderful sense of humour that eschews sarcasm and illuminates geniality. The angst and rebellion in him turned into a person with enlightened vision. Human suffering that was central to his art in the beginning gave way to tranquility and peace. From around 1960s Gujral was gradually getting inspired by the jubilant aspects of life.
The fact that Gujral is a multifarious artist who has worked in diverse mediums and explored various forms in paintings, sculptures in metal and burnt wood, murals and architectures is a great boon for the artist himself in terms of the artistic freedom he exercises across all mediums. His drawings too bear the imprint of this adventurer artist. The kind of lyricism evident in the present drawings is thus one such stylistic mode which is different from his earlier expressionistic style or the slightly later playful idiom evoking an indigenous folk sensibility.
In 1952 he went to study at the Palacio National de Bellas Artes at Mexico on a scholarship. There he came into contact with the renowned Mexican muralists David Alfaro Sequeiros and Diego Rivera. These contacts and his two years stay in Mexico brought in a fresh spell of ideas, thoughts and concerns to Gujral. He felt the exigency to address the question of cultural identity in art. He went on to explore the possibility of deriving certain sensibilities from Indian folk and traditional arts. These encounters have left a lasting impression in his evolution as a prolific artist.
In these drawings the firm yet resilient lines quite paradoxically bear marks of austerity and control. The mood sways between playfulness and intensive effort almost like the swings and meticulously drawn toy-carts in some of these works. In many of these drawings the human figures are seemingly trapped in a sort of visual trance – exuding a quality of a freeze-shot or a halted moment. Thus resonance and stillness become the hallmarks of these drawings.
Despite the fact that these are primarily linear expressions, with a few rare tonal applications, there is a subtle presence of illumination. This light emanate from within the forms, they are built into the very existence of these figures. These features along with the precision of his thought and execution are what Keshav Malik calls ‘a stamp of definitiveness’.
Figures, in these drawings seem to be engaged in strange activities. They play enigmatically with gig-form toy carts. They sit on them, drive the wheels, and rotate the pulleys – all in an almost expressionless face. The lyrical representational mode refers back to a wistful time, a nostalgic psyche that hovers, as it were, on a somewhat undefined neutral space. The sportsmen and animal figures too play a similar role of enactment. The voluptuous bodies and their rhythmical countenance negotiate the spatial void with enchanted moments of gesture and action. This temperament gives credence to the visual celebration of life that is humble, mundane and even inadequate at times. They betray his deep and frank belief in what is most germane and natural.
‘I have always been more interested in drawings, to let the hand flow’, Gujral once said in an interview. At the same time this is also true that his hand flows with a freshness and precision of a highly experienced jeweler. His lines shine with a metallic luster.
Gujral envisions hope in actions. He depicts these actions often in a descriptive mode leaving a touch of enigma behind. He makes the figures heroic not out of any sense grand achievement, but out of their admission of the ordinary and the unassuming gestures. It is precisely this quality that makes them so special, so buoyant for Satish Gujral. He shares this wonderful perception of the world with all of us with such a kind of effortlessness that we tend to overlook the moments of exertions and severity. This is the reward on our part as much as on his.
Soumik Nandy Majumdar