‘The progressives never happened. It’s a lie’

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Satish Gujral will open a new solo show of paintings, sculptures and drawings — Ascending Energy, Merging Forms — at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, on 7 April. Of the 60-odd works revolving around the theme of mechanisation and power, he’s most excited about his new monumental sculptures — up to 9- feet tall — in bronze and polymer.

Picking up from a conversation from last year, Gujral and his wife Kiran met Gaurav Jain at their Delhi residence. The artist is now a spry 85-year-old. He still speaks in a rhythmic voice that arches up as he ends a sentence, and his poetry-inflected chat often turns fast corners. He’s fond of metaphors and of old anecdotes and jokes. Ruminating on the decades that passed before his eyes and indignant about the insouciant lies in the art world that are becoming truths, Gujral spoke freely of new developments in his art, contemporaries like Akbar Padamsee and MF Husain, how criticism has become Page-3 culture and why the Progressive Movement never happened.

Excerpts from an interview

Satish Gujral at his residence
Artful talker Satish Gujral at his residence
Photo: Garima Jain

You say you observe politics but stay away from it. How do you balance being a citizen and being an artist?
Politics is a goggle. It makes you see things not as they are. Art sets you free from your prejudice, it liberates you. I like to know what’s happening, but don’t getting myself involved. I have no regret that I chose this path. I chose the path of the artist.

Which artists do you admire today?
It’s difficult. These things change. I admire those whose time has come in the new generation. In the new, there’s Rameshwar Broota. In my generation, I like Krishen Khanna and [FN] Souza.

Which artists do you think got stuck in a style, afraid to drop it?
In my generation, everyone got stuck. I admire their merit. They have merit but for this flaw.

What do you think of conceptual art?
Whenever something succeeds, a lot of rubbish gets on the bandwagon. Ninety nine percent stuff in every period is rubbish. Time is the judge.

What’s your quarrel with the Progressives?
The group of so-called Progressives — I’ve always said was a lie. [Akbar] Padamsee, considered a pillar of the Progressives, gave an interview in India Today recently where he asked who are the Progressives?

I never heard of them. I was there. In my generation, with me there were [SH] Raza, Souza, [VS] Gaitonde, etc. I respect them, but the Progressives never happened. Padamsee [too] said it.

‘It would be a slur to say Husain is modern European! He is Indian! He brought Indian miniatures into modern-day composition’

I remember exactly how it happened. A progressive artist group was formed in Calcutta — Paritosh Sen, etc. Many in the generation went to Paris, they brought an exhibit to Bombay around 1942. I and the so-called Progressives were there. That evening Souza went to the Communist Party headquarters in Bombay and, as I later learnt, he asked them for the manifesto of the Progressive Writers Movement (which was formed in early 1930s). Then published it word by word! He was able to recruit two-three artists to sign this manifesto. After that, they had a small exhibition. Nothing much happened. Souza and Raza left India soon after and forgot everything about it.

Then suddenly about 10 years ago, there was an uproar about The Progressives! Many Progressives emerged who were not even art students at the time! Padamsee says that he’s included in the book about seven Progressives, though he was only 17 years old then!

When Yashodhara Dalmia published her book (The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives), I asked her why she gave it that title. Modern art was not the Progressives. She said the publisher wanted the title. Modern art was brought to India in the 1920s by Rabindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore.

These artists did good work, but my challenge stands: in the book, why isn’t there any painting of these artists from those years in the 1940s? The proof doesn’t exist. This misunderstanding about the Progressives is there because no records were kept in those days. Everyone is [now] bugling his own horn. Soon we will be no more and this lie will become a truth! I admire Padamsee for rejecting it. What I hate most is when a fiction is stated as real. Tyeb Mehta graduated from art school in 1956. There’s Padamsee’s own statement. [MF] Husain I admire but don’t call him Western Modern. Gaitonde’s later work is very good, but in those days…

Man-machine A sculpture from Gujral’s upcoming show

What about Husain?
I believe in his merit, in his contribution to modern Indian art. But he had nothing to do with Progressives. The claim is they introduced modern European art — it would be a slur to say Husain is modern European! He is Indian! He brought Indian miniatures into modern-day composition.

How robust is our critical establishment?
There used to be critics like Charles Fabri, SH Vatsyayan, [Richard] Bartholomew. Kekoo Gandhy helped artists the most in Bombay. They were serious. But with commercialisation, someone emerges every day. Serious criticism is lacking now. National papers and magazines have stopped publishing about art. Now it’s all social parties and Page 3. People pay to get into Page 3. Anyone can write anything. At the 2011 Art Summit, a famous writer and gallerist said in his speech that if up to him, 70 percent of the work there would not be shown. Today, Keshav Malik and Yashodhara Dalmia are good, though she’s wrong on the Progressives.

How has the new money in Indian art affected things?
Right now, unless you have commercial backing, you have no chance to make it. Any gallery can make anyone overnight. I am 85, everything happened before my eyes. When abstract art came, anyone who drew four lines became an artist. People pay for their ignorance. Andy Warhol became a sensation because one tycoon bought a lot of his work.

You say you only exhibit when there’s something new to show. What’s new this time?
New [also] means consistent. My theme is Man, to tell of his greatness, his misery, his consistence, his backwardness. I don’t believe in ideas. An artist is a man of feeling. So certain events, objects, observations provoke a feeling in him. Now being an artist you want to see that feeling in form. And you sit down to paint. You don’t know what form it’ll take. Artists who first think of an idea and then paint it — I do not agree [with them]. Feeling comes first. Like the sound of the bullet follows the bullet. If it goes before, the target will run away!

You may just find something pertaining to you when you observe something. Long ago, I was sitting around a burning log, the fire started to change its shape. Now red, now pink, now grey. It was exciting. I wanted to do something with burnt wood. When my wife asked why, I quoted Van Gogh’s letter [to his brother] to her: “I want to paint red. I want to paint red. I want to paint red, with all the passion in my heart.” He didn’t say what he wanted to paint in red. So I’d to find a form for [the burnt wood]. This phase lasted more than a decade.

‘Serious art criticism is lacking now. National papers and magazines have stopped publishing about art. Now it’s all social parties and Page 3’

This has been a pattern. Once I noticed a group of buffaloes with bells around their necks. The texture of the bells excited me. Now I wanted a use for it, and my period of metal sculpture began, which also lasted more than a decade. I noticed recently that sculpture shows a certain play of light and shade, which by itself creates a feeling. So I followed that in my paintings. But my theme remained Man. I’ve gone from painting to sculpture to ceramic to collage and so on. Then a time came when I found that under the plastic arts, I’d done almost everything possible for me. So I shifted to architecture.

Now I’ve returned to sculpture and painting. In this exhibition, I’ve done sculpture in bronze and polymer — 8 and 9 feet high. Truly large sculptures are not done by artists unless by public commission, [given] the cost and the problem of selling them.

When we talked last time, you mentioned how you lost your childhood since your father gave you grown-up books to read as a kid. Do you, at 85, feel that in facing the lighter side of life, you’re trying to evoke that childishness now?
You’re very right. Human nature is strange. You don’t remember what you gain, you remember what you lose. My wife thinks I’m obsessed with the past. I have a strange memory, it comes in full graphic form. Sometimes it makes me unhappy, sometimes not. Life has gone through such changes, sometimes I look around and so much has changed, so much is changing every day, so much has happened. It was my younger days when Amrita Sher-Gil came to Lahore and we stood and hung her paintings. In Mexico, I made friends with Castro, who was a student. And so on. These people changed the world, and the world changed before my eyes.

Gaurav Jain is a Literary Editor with Tehelka
[email protected]

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