Shri Satish Gujral

Interviews with Thought Leaders Dated:  April 11, 2014
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Padma Vibhushan Awardee Shri Satish Gujral

There are few great men whose works can be dubbed extraordinary across varying mediums and forms of expressions, and when you turn the pages of history, their names always flash in Gold, leaving footprints on the sand, reminiscent of their legendary work and contribution. And today, we are talking about one such master, the multi-talented legend who has revolutionized the eternal field of contemporary Indian art and Indian architecture, the man with many faces, Mr. Satish Gujral. 

The paintings depicting life and agony and the buildings standing proud and tall today owe it to their creator their social impact, influence, relevance and more. Satish Gujral, is not just a painter and an architect, but also a muralist, sculptor and writer par excellence who has dominated the post-independence era with his works that have garnered international recognition and fame.

Meeting a legend is legendary in itself. And since it was written in fate, we made it. His Lajpat Nagar based bungalow is a masterpiece itself, with the interiors donned with a plethora of Mr. Gujral's works - the paintings and the sculptures created not to be sold, but only for the spirit of creation.

We share the great master's take on art, architecture and creativity.

How would you describe the relation between art and architecture?

All my life, I have tried to express that art and architecture are not two different things and anything that you choose to create is an art. I began to design buildings without a conscious idea that I am shifting from painting to architecture. My early training had been in an institution in Lahore which was headed by the father of Rudyard Kipling, the poet. Kipling belonged to the old school which believed that all visual expressions are one. So we were taught part of everything-To draw, to script, to draft

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the old masters did. 

When earlier in school at Lahore I was asked to make a pot, I thought this was a waste of time, I am a painter. Then they told me to draw the plane of a building. All this time, I was not aware what they were introducing me to. After the education I found I could take any of my learnings as my vocation. 

Michelangelo had designed Rome, its murals and its buildings with stone. It is in the modern times unfortunately that all these expressions were divided. Result was – all suffered. Painters do not understand architecture. Architects do not take interest in painting and so on.

Please tell us more about your early brush with architecture.

I spent 5 years in Lahore studying various forms of creative expressions together. Later I thought that I may specialize in one for a while, so I went to Mumbai JJ School and studied painting for 3 yrs. But then, it came to my mind that if I had gained so much then why should I limit the experience to one. Driven by my passion to expand my horizons, in 1952, I decided to travel to Mexico where they were designing

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concepts. It was a bold decision since most people in India had not even heard about the existence of Mexico. India got free in 1947 and here I was thinking to go to Mexico in 1952. 

India had no diplomatic relationship with Mexico and to arrange my stint in Mexico was a great problem, yet somehow I arrived in Mexico and was horrified to find that there was no other Indian there and I spoke no Spanish. It was very difficult but I have always been governed by the fact that when you choose to do something, nothing should stop you. 

Luckily, in Mexico, I came across an architect who was the father of modern architecture. On reaching Mexico, I discovered that an American architect, who was with me in Shimla, had been a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. He suggested that if I was lucky, I may meet Lloyd Wright. Later I found that Frank Wright came every year to Mexico and was a great friend of the great painter Diego Rivera, whose student I was at that time.

One day Rivera told me that a great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright was coming to visit our class and he asked us to prepare a few questions that we might like to ask. Incidentally, we were 5 students but only I spoke English. So when Wright came, I asked him, “You are a great architect and Diego Rivera is great painter. Then why is it that you never got a mural done in your building by Rivera?” Wright, looking towards me said, “Look, when a building is otherwise incomplete and there is a dead wall, then I would want an artist to give life to the dead wall by painting a mural. But I have never built a dead wall.” He then said, “To do a mural for architecture is to deny the right to both mediums to be independent.”
This left an indelible mark on me. And I was convinced that all mediums are one. 

Eventually, after finishing my education in Mexico, I felt I had not wasted my time, that my education there had made me richer. I could design murals, paintings, buildings. In India, though art and architecture were being treated as separate domains. People here, including architects did not agree with me that architecture had become a specialized medium. I think this decision was a wrong one – by specializing yourself, you are looking at a part and not the bigger picture.

In 1977, you started your architectural journey. As you say, both art and architecture are inseparable, yet how did this formal transition from painting to creating buildings come about?

When I had been back in India for about 5 years, a chance came my way. Belgian embassy wanted to build a building here. I had a Belgian friend at the embassy, who strongly felt that contemporary architects have confined themselves to a box and have forbidden non architects to design. 

As you might know, Indian government has a law that requires an architect to have a license to design buildings. So if you wanted to design a building you have to have formal training in architecture. But, luckily in Belgium, the law is not applicable to competitions and any one can submit a design. On my friend's insistence, I started to design the Belgian Embassy. However, I was not consciously thinking that I was designing a building. I just sat like I paint or I sculpt. When the building design was submitted I learnt that they had chosen mine on this very merit that it has the spirit of the country where it is built and that it also had the spirit of the people for whom I had built it. 

The present king of Belgium, who was then the Prince, was brought to inaugurate the building. In his speech he said “Last night when I arrived in India, I came to the building, I looked and I thought that I was in India but when I slept in it, I felt I was in Belgium.” This was a gratifying moment for me.

However, there was a great uproar among Indian Architects. They clamored for the cancellation and disqualification of the design. Fortunately, some leading architects did not agree with this uproar. Again, someone wrote to the British architect council about this, saying that in the case of every great architect who created modern architecture, this objection had been raised that they had no formal training of architecture. Corbusier had no formal training in architecture nor did Frank Wright. But they brought their vision to change what was becoming a repetition.
In view of all this, the Indian council of architecture decided to recognize me and gave me a license to practice architecture. 

What is your most defining moment? 

My most defining moment was that although I had not begun the Belgian embassy design with any concept, once the sketch was ready and accepted, the remark was made that it looked very Indian. I had not thought what it would look like but once it was done, I discovered that it had the spirit of Indian culture to it. That discovery was the most defining moment for me which guided me in the future.

What was your most defying moment?

At the time of partition I was in Lahore and witnessed massacre, frenzy of murder and loot. My father was working to help refugees to move from Pakistan to India and I was with him. For 4 months, what I observed was a defying experience -  it was so much sunk in myself, that it angered and troubled me no end.

After having experienced this human frenzy for so many months, when I sat to paint I was a little disturbed and whatever I painted showed some effect of that cruelty. So I got dubbed as an artist of partition. But much later, I thought that the misery and frustration that I was painting, was not just an expression of partition but also my expression of my own trouble.

You have been named as one of the top 25 citizens who have brought Delhi on the world map, your Belgian embassy project is one of the finest masterpiece 20th century has seen around the world. Is there any project that you would want to go back to and redo?

You never redo a work of art. It is an expression of what you feel at a point of time and you can never go back and change it. I remember sometime in the early 60's when there was a war between India and Pakistan some writer wrote that it is time that gujral also paint what he feels about the war this like he did at the time of partition. I answered that I am not a journalist, I am artist, a poet who tells only of his own experience, not of others.
Any interesting anecdote you would like to share with us?

The most interesting anecdote was my encounter with the great Frank Lloyd Wright, as a student in Mexico. This one expression by him, in his response to my question, which I have recounted above, got engraved in my mind.

You are a painter, sculptor, muralist, architect, designer, writer-all par excellence. Even within these domains, you have experimented with various forms, materials, styles and created compelling works. Most people can't excel in even one of the fields in their lifetimes. How have you made this possible? What is your message to the youth today? 

My message to those gifted with creativity is – creativity has no name, no medium. Creativity is to give expression to the spirit of something you have observed. You may choose by doing it in the form of a building, a line of poetry, or a painting.

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