The painter, sculptor, and architect Satish Gujral, whose artistic practice sweeps across the broadest course of independent India, died aged 94 on March 26.

Gujral was born in Jhelum, undivided Punjab, in 1925, one of the four children of lawyer Avtar Narain and Pushpa Gujral who survived into adulthood. At the age of eight, a series of medical complications following an episode of near-drowning led him to lose his hearing, sending him into the impermeable silence that would define his entire life and artistic practice. The unhappy fact of having to carry a slate and chalk around (as a makeshift means of communication) uncovered, by sheer chance, his deftness with drawing hat he chose to pursue.

With the strong encouragement and support of his family he embarked into an education in fine arts, beginning at Mayo College of Arts in Lahore before proceeding to Sir JJ School of Art in erstwhile Bombay, where he remained until 1947, leaving before the completion of his degree. It was Gujral’s involvement in the events of Independence that changed the course of his life. He observed at close quarters the decision to Partition India, as he accompanied his father (who was active in the freedom movement) to key meetings. As a volunteer, he helped refugees escape the carnage that ensued.

The Partition series

Responding to the violence he witnessed, and bolstered by a scholarship to the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where he studied under the Mexican greats Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Gujral turned to the canvas as an expressive vehicle for his suffering, channelling his pain into vivid depictions of the mourning, brutalised Punjabi migrant. This series, the Partition series, borrowed the revolutionary fervour and bold figurative treatment of Mexican muralism and brought it home, developing as a testimony to the unspeakable horror that had stained the birth of independent India.

It was in Delhi that he would remain for the rest of his days, contributing to the definition of modern Indian culture along with a number of distinguished contemporaries – some of whom were opponents, many others of whom remained lifelong allies, such as the writers Uma and Aruna Vasudev, modernist architect Habib Rahman, and the art critic Charles Fabri, who wrote of his “highly idiosyncratic style…and forms of great strength”.

Prophet by Satish Gujral (1962). Credit: cea + via Flickr

Gujral’s practice, subsequently turning to collage, sculpture, ceramics and architecture (most famously in the form of the labyrinthine Belgian embassy of New Delhi) conjoins together the various worlds he carried with him and of which he was indelibly forged. It reconciles the twilight years of Persianate Lahore and its poetry to the committedly socialist murals of Mexico, the state-endorsed modernist fervour of non-aligned New Delhi to the Cold War-era cultural grants by the Rockefellers, of which he was one such recipient.

It in part narrates the steady labouring story of the Punjabi migrant who placed his faith in his new nation and raised it up by forming a part of it, setting himself to work through, rather than despite, his experience of the bloody carnage of Partition.

Far from Jhelum

His own autobiography, A Brush With Life (1997) speaks of his sense of wonder at how far away from Jhelum his life had come to pass, the many detours and interludes elsewhere that had sculpted it into shape. The fullness of his journey and the vigour with which he lived it found constant place in his artwork, as he continuously experimented with new media and visual vocabularies to articulate himself: never once making a home in any one formal language as he both sculpted and painted well into his nineties.

Nor was his deafness ever an impediment to his relationships – Gujral loved his friends and family with the same fierceness that caused impassioned arguments with his colleagues and contemporaries. An American acquaintance recounts how Gujral was thrown out of Diego Rivera’s classroom after he derided the latter’s use of “colours that looked like they came out of a candy box”; this would not prevent him from forging a lasting friendship with Rivera’s wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, at whose funeral he was a pallbearer as testament to their closeness.

Gujral frequently cited his father, his brother Inder, and his wife Kiran as the three people for whom he was most grateful, as it was these three who constantly urged him into the world, refusing to allow his impairment to come in the way of his work.

I am fortunate to say I can also write of him as my great-uncle, the younger brother of my grandfather perhaps it gives me grounds to declare just how much his dedication to his art and his lust for life bled into one another. Chhote Dada, as we called him, was perhaps most inspiring in how he was so unabashedly and energetically himself – so life-giving, so impulsive, but at once so thoughtful, so open to feeling the extraordinary weight of his emotions and to expressing them.

His most astounding achievement, even above the many accolades he received for his work, was his ability to bridge the barriers of the resounding quiet that surrounded him, grasping onto the world with inspiring intensity. It is this experience of the sheer largeness of his personality, one that could fill a room although in near-silence, that we can carry with us on our own paths, especially as our current global crisis pushes us into an uncertain future. His art practice equally continues to reverberate in the present – as I revisit his Partition paintings, of its worst victims huddled together in anguish, I am reminded today of the footage from our country today, of other displaced migrants being forced to crawl home.

Satish Gujral. Credit: Ram Rahman

The sound of life

This is by no means an easy piece to write, even as we quietly reckon with the loss of a man who was monumental both in public and in private life. What has sustained me is remembering that the call to labour and create, even whilst in unutterable sadness and confoundment, is one of Gujral’s most abiding lessons to us, perhaps one that we need now more than ever. It is therefore through the process of grieving that I turn to consider his work once more. I realise, for example, to think that the adjectives that one would associate with his paintings – in lyrical forms that surge, cascade, and rise and fall – are themselves deeply evocative of sound, the sound he was, for much of his life, denied.

The riotous colour of his paintings from the 1990s, the eccentric, dramatic wood-based collages of the 1960s and 1970s, equally leave behind the insinuation of noise, perhaps his own memory of it – from the anklets with bells that recur among his painted dervish dancers, to the gentle cadences bestowed upon his metal sculptures, to (darkly) the wails of the mourners of his Partition series.

It is at once plausible and heart wrenching to note, on his death, just how much his practice opened a space for the possibility of sound to reverberate across his forms, the memory of murmur or music never fully extinguished. I offer a single line from TS Eliot to illuminate the paradox that at once shaped both the man and his art so profoundly: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Diva Gujral is the co-author of Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present.