In 1982, when Satish Gujral was commissioned to design the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi, there was an uproar within the local fraternity of professional architects. It was said that Gujral didn’t have a degree in architecture, and that only a “qualified” person ought to have been given charge of a project of such importance and esteem.
“Many wrote letters to higher authorities to have me arrested,” says Gujral, reminiscing on the controversy from the comfort of his Delhi home. His wife, Kiran, corroborates his version, “He met a lot of criticism during that time.”
But that phase of his life, of course, belongs to another era. Today, Gujral, aged 92, is considered the grand old man of Indian art. The accomplishments he has attached to his name are too numerous to mention. His work encompasses a huge range, and is built on forms as disparate as architecture, painting, sculpture and writing.
Then, there’s that impressive tally of awards and international recognitions bestowed on him. For his work on Delhi’s Belgian Embassy, too, he won a number of accolades. In 2000, this building was ranked among the 1,000 best architectural works around the world, by the International Jury on Architecture. For his design, Gujral was also awarded Belgium’s highest civilian honour “The Order of the Crown”.
The Embassy of Belgium is situated in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. From a distance, its two dome-like structures appear as though they are emerging from a potter’s wheel. The building could well be mistaken for a museum or some wing of an ancient fort. Yet, this is a distinctly modern structure, which is in keeping with Gujral’s artistic sensibility.
There are other prominent buildings in Delhi that carry Gujral’s touch. The India Islamic Cultural Centre here was designed by him, as well as the UNESCO Building. His overseas resume boasts such highlights as the Prime Minister’s House in Bahrain, the India Culture Centre in Mauritius, as well as buildings in Dubai and Riyadh.
In the 1940s, Gujral studied graphic arts and sculpture at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, whose curriculum was devised by John Lockwood Kipling, painter and father of the legendary poet Rudyard Kipling. At the institute, he was nurtured with the idea that painting, sculpture and architecture could be different facets of similar creative expressions, and that an artist is a free soul and must not restrict his thought process under formal constraints.
“I believe in the idea that the artist is led by his mood at a given moment and follows it rather than stopping to think what his normal attitude or nature is,” Gujral tells Guardian 20.
At various points in his career, Gujral took up many roles and played all of them with great finesse. “I dislike doing the same thing again and again,” he says. “I devote hours and hours of time to my work. Without being vain, I ask you, how many artists have changed styles and techniques? And how many artists can do that? At one point in my life, I thought I have done enough sculpture, so then I shifted to architecture.”
His wife, Kiran Gujral, tells us about the time he decided to go from painting to sculpture. “There was some person who was disappointed about the kind of work he had started doing. Most of the people do not have an understanding of art and they use art for making money. It was a difficult time for him.”
But being an artist requires one to take criticism in one’s stride. Gujral learned this early in his life. He stopped paying attention to people’s opinions. At the age of eight, due to an accident, Gujral lost his ability to hear. “My handicap had usually made me a butt of ridicule wherever I went,” Gujral writes in his 1993 book The World of Satish Gujral. “My subjection to it took many forms: I was either treated as a vegetable, shorn of any feeling or intellect, or jeered at and mocked. The sharpness of each form of insult sliced with an equal measure of ruthlessness.”
With the help of his father and brother, art became a funnel of sorts for Gujral, into which he could channel all his anxieties. In the 1940s Bombay, where Gujral was studying at the Sir J.J. School of Art, he came in contact with many fellow artists and friends of his brother Inder Kumar Gujral, who went on to become the 12th Prime Minister of India.
Books by writers such as Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and Premchand, recommended to him by his father, kept him company in college. Here, he also became friends with poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ali Sardar Jafri among other contemporaries. “The reading of poetry became music to his ears,” his wife, Kiran says.
The poems presumably instilled in him the ability to look at the world with deep sensitivity. He was able to the common reality and agony of the Partition years. In his paintings done between 1947 to 1960, one can detect the anguish of those years. His figures are huddled together, their heads bent and their forms shrouded.
As a painter, Gujral was at home in varied mediums. And as a sculpture, he worked with burnt wood, plain wood, fibreglass, ceramic and bronze with equal ease. Kiran says, “It is not that he changes his style and mediums deliberately. He doesn’t ‘think’ about doing something new. But there is an innate urge in him which doesn’t let him stop.”
His disability and passion for the arts connect Gujral to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Gujral also had an opportunity to do an apprenticeship as a muralist under Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera. (His other mentor was David Alfaro Siqueiros.)
Gujral, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1999, remains in active touch with the world of art today. He believes the quality of contemporary architecture has suffered due to the lack of patronage and the poor taste of builders. “Every space is made for the purpose of selling nowadays. Everything is sold by measurement. People are not open to ideas. The design element is not clearly explored. But in art, we need an open mind and open thinking,” says Gujral.
He also continues to create paintings and sculptures. His routine is not fixed. It depends on his mood on a particular day. But he has to be in his studio, without fail, every day.
Gujral’s appetite hasn’t dimmed in the least. Recently, he loaned one of his sculptures, Trinity, to the Bikaner House in Delhi. He says, “Trinity comes from the eternal trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. The eternal cycle is represented as a trinity. Of birth, death, and rebirth. All of which collectively represent the victorious and perseverant spirit of mankind in the likeness of the divine.”
His book The World of Satish Gujral opens with an epigraph by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Is it life?
No, it is desire to live in haste, in pursuit:
It is the impatience
to posses all of life right away, right here .
And Gujral believes in living life to the fullest, moment by moment.