AN EARLY Partition-inspired painting of two men and a dog hangs on the living room wall of 84-year-old Satish Gujral’s New Delhi bungalow. More paintings and sculptures are scattered everywhere, giving the space the air of an art gallery.
The artist’s den, however, with its canvases in saturated colours and volumes of Urdu literature, is an intimate space. This is where Gujral spends free moments during his eight-hour workday, sharing meals, conversing or watching television with Kiran, his wife of 54 years and mother of his three children, whom he affectionately calls “my bridge with the world”.
“We met at an exhibition of my work. I’m deaf but right from the beginning, we could communicate very well. Her family was against the match so we got married in court in 1955, a year after we met. In all this time, we’ve only been separated for two days. She sucked the suffering out of my life,” he says with the romantic flourish of one who had read all of Ghalib by the time he was 12.
“After an accident at nine which left me paralysed for five years, and permanently deaf, my father thought he’d help me kill time by bringing me books. In those days, children’s literature did not exist in Urdu, the only language I had learnt by then. So he brought me books meant for much older people and unwittingly ended my childhood!” he laughs.
A keen conversationalist, Gujral is full of anecdotes about everyone from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who was a friend, to his brother, former prime minister IK Gujral. He lets slip vintage gossip about Trotsky jumping out of Kahlo’s bedroom window and running naked through Mexico City streets pursued by an enraged Diego Rivera.
He recreates the stifling world of 1950s Indian bureaucracy that almost stymied his chances of winning a scholarship to Mexico, talks about his encounter with Nobel prize winning poet Octavio Paz who was instrumental in his winning that scholarship, and reminisces about the Partition when he ferried kidnapped women and children across the border to his mother’s house in Jalandhar, which became the first Nari Niketan in the country.
“I saw widespread rape and murder on both sides. It went on for six months. So when I sat down to paint, the inhumanity of man to man became my first theme,” says Gujral, an atheist who hates all organised religion.
He attributes his longevity to his genes. It helps that he begins his day with a glass of milk and a bowl of fruit and has been a teetotaller and nonsmoker all his life.
Clearly, though, it’s the satisfaction he draws from his work that keeps him energised. “The day my creativity dies will also be my last day,” he says. “And since I can still create I do not think I’ll be going soon,” he laughs.