May 30, 2020
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Pausing For Breath...

Satish Gujral's creative expressions will be on display in Bombay after a gap of three years

Pausing For Breath...
A woman's image comes alive on a stark white painted surface. So utterly captivating is the portrayal that the eye finds it difficult to drift any further. And intertwined with the woman is an animal, stately and assertive, locked in a communion of subtle metaphors.

The painting bears no name. Like all other works of Satish Gujral. One can assume what one wants, trying to fathom the deeper meanings in his quest for subjective reality. "I don't name my paintings. Instead, there are numbers... one, two, three, four," he says. "It is up to the individual to find out what the truth is." As he talks, Gujral lets his voice soften into sententious silence. Reclining on a bright green cushion and attired in immaculate corduroys, the 70-year-old artist gives the impression of someone reflective but perpetually restless. He is a sculptor, a muralist, a painter, an architect. The world knows it. His major murals in association with Le Corbusier are too fascinating to be ignored by even the most casual observer of contemporary art. On January 9, Gujral returns to Bombay's Jehangir Art Gallery for an exhibition of his paintings, sculptures and drawings after a gap of three years.

For those tuned to the manic prolificity of Gujral's contemporaries, his long break might be astonishing. But not for Gujral's followers: the artist's second exhibition in Bombay took place in 1961, followed by another in 1989. In Calcutta, too, the gap between two successive Gujral exhibitions exemplified his temperament, the first exhibition was held in 1960 and the second in 1992.

Genuine creativity is never a slave to the dictates of time. "I think of an exhibition only when I feel that I have something new to offer," says the bearded artist. "In spite of the fact that I change my medium so much, I see no reason to hold an exhibition if freshness is lacking."

It is this unceasing search for something new that has made Gujral what he is: an explorer whose viewless wings of fancy have guided him in every direction on the firmament of sincere, spontaneous creativity. "To me, creativity is like breathing. Just as I have never counted how many times I have breathed, the same goes for painting, sculpture or anything else. I fail to see any other purpose in life."

The confession consolidates the notion behind his intrepid, variety-seeking forays. Starting out as a communist who viewed art as an instrument for social change—the Partition provided him with the thematic cornerstone of his initial paintings—Gujral's innovative vision manifested itself in mediums as far afield as murals based on folk art and granite sculptures. Today, the artist continues to be equally evocative while his creations are characterised by a sensual texture. Be it his paintings or his black granite sculptures—many marked by representations of the human anatomy—each appears to be the residue of his creative sojourn with a new theme.

But this is precisely where Gujral chooses to differ: "The subject matter never comes to me first. In different moods, I have used the subject more as an instrument. I believe that painting is like classical music, where all you have is melody while the rest is dependent on moods. If I had an idea first, after which I chose to paint, I would be an illustrator."

A "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", as William Wordsworth might have said, generates Gujral's creative expression on canvas while he paints, on granite when he sculpts. He has left a medium, indulged in another for a while, and returned to the former, a rejuvenated man. "Within a few years, and especially these days, a style, a medium, gets exhausted. It is like in pre-historic times when man did not know about seeds and tilled land till it became infertile. If the land was left on its own, one could return to it and find it equally productive. In my lifetime, I have returned to painting three or four times, but I have never picked the same style."

For more than two years, it is paint and granite that have really stirred the experimentalist in Gujral. Distanced in time from the era when he opted for ceramics to give shape to his creative thought processes, the image of the woman haunts his paintings today. "When you look at these paintings, and as I also see them, the women, animals, vegetation, I feel that there is a depiction of the isolation of the Indian woman. Such is our social set-up that it is only with birds and animals that women can communicate today."

He endeavours to explain his own work, a difficult task indeed when juxtaposed with the undeniable: like all great creative artists, Gujral's inspiration has been from avenues unknown. "An artist is like a person who is pregnant and doesn't know whether the child will be a son or a daughter," he says, articulating a universal truth applicable to every painter, musician, poet, dramatist.

"When I began this series," Gujral repeats for emphasis, "I never knew what would come up. However, this theme has become a constant one for the last two years." The search for the truth, he feels, is the task of those who admire and understand art. It is with creation that the creator's job ends.

Till date, what makes Gujral distinctive among his contemporaries is his constant shifting from one style to the other, and from one medium to the next. How does he view those who have stuck to just one style since they began? He is predictable, and almost commensurately affirmative: "If an artist keeps on seeing trees all the time, never the river, never the desert, he is stationary. And they are stationary because they want to sell."

 The thought has been spawned by a conviction whose equivalent has rarely been seen in recent times. At the same time, it ushers in the realisation that for Satish Gujral, an end is not the end. Instead, it is the reason for a new beginning.

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