Krishen Khanna remembers Satish Gujral, who passed away on March 26, 2020 ♦
Note: After Satish Gujral died, I spoke to his friend and my grandfather, Krishen Khanna for India Today. This is what he had to say.
My friendship with Satish Gujral feels eternal, did I know him for fifty years, or a thousand? I first met him around the early 1960s. S.H. Raza, who had already won the Prix de la Critique, visited his show, and we all wanted to know what this established artist thought. Satish described taking Raza around in a very funny manner. He came to the first picture, and, Satish pursed his lips, imitating Raza grunting. At the second, he mumbled, Hmm, hmm’, melting a bit. He came to the third. Ae gal hui!’ he shouted. Now we’re talking!
Satish had a great sense of wit and humour, perhaps more so with me because I was Punjabi, like him. I also had the patience to get past his lack of hearing. Punjabi was his first language, and we would crack jokes, rib each other. He’d say, Tu bada badmaash hai!
When he talked, there were no whispers involved, no sotto voce. He was direct and forceful, that was his stamp. Unlike, say, the American action painters who depended on the way the brush functioned, Satish created his imagery with great determination. He developed a style which was very overt and big. I wouldn’t say this had a direct relationship with his lack of hearing, but he did choose this particular territory. There are no tricks involved whatsoever, no side effects.
In a way, he was different from the dominant group of artists, who were nurturing an inward-looking sensibility that allied with what was going on in Europe, Paris particularly. Satish was against painting for painting’s sake; the absolute value of painting without recourse to any other meaning. Instead of Picasso and the French lot, Satish chose very fortunately to go off to Mexico, in 1952, and work with the muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their angle of vision was very much the population of their country, the people around them mattered, and the heroes who fought for independence.
Satish was able to connect with all of that, particularly given his experience in 1947. He was among the few artists who painted the aggrieved people of the Partition. His paintings harkened back to Punjabi funeral customs, which involved loud cries and beating of breasts. A huge performance in which people got rid of their angst, their sorrow, so they’d be washed out. I don’t think anybody portrayed the agony of people who had been deprived as straightforwardly as Satish did in these extraordinary paintings. And his contemporaries were people like Pran Nath Mago and Harkrishan Lall, both very fine painters. Satish always captured the political imagination, whereas politics was almost taboo with most painters at that time.
Satish very positively had a political angle, even when his work evolved to be more abstract. He never let go of his particular steam, his own vision. In later works, there’d be this great big horse-rider, a monument of a thing charging, and you suddenly realise it’s got wheels underneath, like a hobbyhorse.
Satish also thought that painting shouldn’t be something only for the sitting room. He took on huge murals, for example at Panjab University . He took on huge enterprises: architectural projects like the Belgian embassy in Delhi. I was amazed by the way he fashioned space, and wondered how a painter could think about the third and fourth dimensions. He’d say, It’s very easy. You could do it. I knew I couldn’t. But one thing I did take from him was to not be frightened by scale, by large areas and large ideas that needed to be carried out not over one day, or 10 days, but a long period of time.
Satish also took up and excelled at ceramics. I remember seeing him when he was quite ill at one stage. There he was, lying in bed, with lots of books on getting various patinas and colours around him. He would study these and write out methods, the heating and timing had to be precise for getting the right glaze. He got some fantastic colours, I have a few pieces with me: a table, a tea set. I think one of his daughters may have been helping him, or his wife Kiran. He was deeply, madly in love with Kiran, and she managed everything. When he was in his 70s and had the operation to restore his hearing, he told me that, really, he had just wanted to hear Kiran’s voice. Theirs was a beautiful marriage.
His knowledge of Urdu poetry was also extraordinary. He saw one of my pictures of dogs floating around and immediately quoted Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem, Kutte, inscribing it in my sketchbook, in his beautiful handwriting. He was elegant in all matters, down to the way he dressed. If I had to caption the totality of his work, I would use the words dignity and composure.
When Satish worked with the Mexican muralists, he discovered a method they used for making paintings absolutely impervious. My father bought a painting from him, which I’ve had for years, with not one iota of damage. It’s grey, narrow and shows Krishna and Arjun on the battlefield. There’s a curtain of forms going down the length, you’ve got to go through it to find out what is actually happening. And the underpinning of paint and mixed-in materials is so tough, you can scrub it, you can do what you like, but you can’t destroy it. That was completely like his character: indestructible.