I went to school at the age of five. At the age of eight, I had a very serious accident which put me through a series of operations and I was confined to bed for a long time. The illness continued till the age of 10 when I lost my hearing because of it. Needless to say, I could not go to school all those years. Two more years passed. The only language that I knew then was the Urdu language, not to speak of my mother tongue, Punjabi. My father tried to find some type of education for me. As I used to doodle a lot during the time I was confined to bed, he thought maybe a graphic education could be the answer. He, therefore sent me to Lahore, 100 miles away from my home town, which is now in Pakistan’s Punjab.
I studied painting and related subjects at Mayo School of Art, Lahore. It was a school with a difference. The curricula was based on craft and many a craft, all traditional, we, the students, learnt. Stone carving, painting, sculpture, clay modelling — all of these were taught in such a way that they provided a root for future education.
After studying such a course for four years, students had a choice to study further in whichever subject they wanted. I wanted to become a painter and a sculptor. The final course for this was available in Mumbai, the JJ School of Art. At JJ, I studied for three years. Then the partition came. I returned to Punjab and with my parents, migrated to India. I had seen the sufferings of people afflicted by the partition from close quarters. The partition and its accompanying pain became my first theme in painting when I settled in Shimla post-independence. I stayed in Shimla for four years. Then came an opportunity to go to Mexico with a scholarship. I stayed in Mexico for two years followed by another year’s stay in New York, London and Paris and then I came back to India. I did not study a full course in architecture. I only studied draftsmanship and geometry but my training as a painter made it easy for me to dabble in architecture.
The creative spirit
Creativity became a religion to me. Whichever medium I had an opportunity to work in, I did not hesitate to. When the Belgians decided to build an embassy in India and organised a competition to choose the architect for the embassy building, I decided to take part. However I did not have any high expectation as no Western country had till then hired an Indian architect to build its embassy. However, I did the design and submitted it and was lucky to be chosen. This provided me with a platform for architecture.
It was at Shimla. I painted the turmoil of the partition. The title of the painting was “mourning en masse”.
High as a human being
My marriage to Kiran who has been my companion for the last 52 years. She brought me a new hope in life and became a bridge between me and the world.
My success can be sourced to my consistency to change. The continued change in my media and work has brought me fame. Artistically, it has been good and it brought me respect but commercially, it was no good.
Advice to youngsters
The only way to be really successful is not to imitate and to listen to the inner call of your self. It may not bring much worldly profit but it is the true way.
Satish Gujral interviewed by Pranab Ghosh