Satish Gujral’s sculpture unveiled at Delhi’s Bikaner House
Outside the foyer at Bikaner House, a nearly nine-foot-tall bronze sculpture is causing quite a stir. This is a triptych of forms that could be likened to dancing figures that Indian history is replete with. But in the hands of its 93-year-old creator, Satish Gujral, it carries a much more layered meaning and a visual subliminity. What does surpass the creation, however, is Gujral’s own ability to speak, given his age, not just coherently but with a clear line of thought born from a near-flawless memory.
“I donated the sculpture to Bikaner House because it supports my idea of public art. Something I started talking about at the beginning of my career 60 years ago. It hasn’t changed since,” says Gujral. The idea of public art, he explains, isn’t merely associated with access or public spaces per se. “I experienced the idea of public art in its birthplace in Mexico. It doesn’t have to do with outside or inside [galleries and museums] it just has to be public. The same way language becomes a public language. The printing press, for example, made reading and writing a public exercise. This is an attempt to excavate that idea of public art again.”
Gujral, who was born in Pakistan in 1925 and first studied Art in Lahore before a spell in the JJ School of Art in Bombay in 1944 that was cut short due to sickness, has witnessed India go through various phases of history – celebrating occasions like Independence, and at other times grieving the Partition or the years of the Emergency.
The younger brother of the late Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, he always remained close to the political sphere, one that he has tried to mobilise for the arts. “I met Nehru immediately after returning from Mexico and told him that he should assign a percentage of the budget for each government institution to art. Nehru even tabled a bill in parliament, but the bureaucracy never really followed through on it,” he says.
The sculpture titled ‘Trinity’ is a meditation on the three stages that are life, death and rebirth. One would assume that age and deteriorating health might have turned Gujral onto this path. But his life from the very beginning has not been without its challenges. Gujral partially lost his hearing at the age of ten. Even though it was surgically restored as late as 1998, he still needs to read lip movements or a piece of paper to understand. “Mexico was a great challenge. My brother told me I should not apply for the fellowship in 1952. Imagine, India did not even have an embassy or an ambassador to Mexico at that time. The poet Octavio Paz, when he reviewed my application, said that everything that I had was what was undesirable in an applicant. I hardly spoke any English let alone Latin. Paz, however, said things could only get better. Negatives could only turn into positives,” Gujral says.
His physical challenges notwithstanding, what troubles Gujral the most is memory, and in particular the memory of Partition that has shaped most of his work. “My family was deeply affected by it. My brother and father were part of the freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh was practically family. I remember meeting Nehru at a refugee camp in Lahore where he was severely abused. I have a graphic memory of a meeting he called after returning from the camp. Nehru was in shock, he kept staring at the ceiling all the time, unable to believe any of it.” Gujral’s voice still breaks when he narrates a memory that is seemingly as clear as it is painful. Wouldn’t it be easier to just forget?
It is no wonder that a man who witnessed so much at a young age, and was debilitated by his own physical restrictions, sought peace and direction in something. “The idea of life, death and rebirth took place in me right after Partition when I started reading the Upanishads,” Gujral says. ‘Trinity’ espouses a kind of balance between hope and experience. That while lived experiences define who we are, it is the impending scythe of death that gives us direction and the possibility of rebirth that may even give us motivation to choose one way or the other.
That said, can something as morally ambiguous as Partition be forgotten? “Eventually, I learned, everything comes to an end, even the pain of memory.”
But given how divisive politics has reared its head again today, can this country survive another partition? “Why not, we have survived so much,” Gujral says, with an optimism hat many of the younger lot in the room would find hard to match.
What: Trinity, a sculpture that is a meditation on the three stages of life, death and rebirth.
When: Till March 31, 2018, 11am - 7pm
Where: Bikaner House, Pandara Rd, India Gate.
Nearest metro stations: Mandi House, Udyog Bhawan
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