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The divine apparatus

Satish Gujral’s latest exhibition is sure to invite the usual comparisons to his earlier work — but will it finally put the debate to rest, asks Pragya Tiwari.

THE RESIDUUM of truth in every legend is cradled in a stock of stories. One story they love to tell about Satish Gujral involves him rejecting the artistic ideology of the Progressive Artists’ Group to embark on his quest for an original idiom, modern in bearing but traditional in derivation. In a career that has straddled more than half a century, never has the idea of this quest manifested itself more literally than in his latest exhibition — Tryst With Modernity and Tradition — showing at Mumbai’s Cymroza Art Gallery until March 31. Tryst, with its unmistakable connection to Nehru’s pronouncement of the birth of a nation, also recalls, however unintentionally, the era that heralded the quest.

The exhibition, his first since 2009’s Time’s Whirlwind, features 34 painted canvases, 12 paper sketches and 15 sculptures. The paintings are versions of each other, luminous with an Indian palette of bright earthy colours. The imagery shows man with his machine bearing idols of Hindu gods. Gujral’s commentary lies in the interaction with these elements.

His pictures carefully prop open the curious ways in which we live, among beasts and gods, in many ages simultaneously, never pricked by the paradoxes of our condition, forever adapting, embracing, habituated to life spilling onto the streets — people defecating, praying, gossiping, hawking, eating and sleeping in plain view, framed by peeling posters of gods, films, products under garish, makeshift illumination. The absence of divinity is made acute by the presence of idols that are never more than themselves.

The paintings have a subtle element of the absurd but no sense of shock or desecration. His contemplative, composed tone is in keeping with his bid to simply show, not worry about the way we are. As a tender portrait the pictures are pitch perfect because Gujral has his hands on the pulse of how things carry on. And repetitions work up this atmosphere. But they also restrict the ambition of his observation.

For all their synapses, these pictures are not provocative. They do not critique or question our journey. Nor do they have the emotional charge to haunt you with their vision in the way his earlier works on Partition could. But if we miss that passionate involvement, we must understand its absence through the artist’s mind and how it negotiates with the present climate, which we have helped to shape.

“I never believed in religion, but respect its strength and hold on people,” says Gujral. Change has been the leitmotif of his work but he does not indulge it for its own sake —“I am inspired by what I encounter, an object, a social or cultural change, not by lust for variety. As long as such changes will continue I will continue to change.”

Awareness of the past, he believes, is the “hallmark in Indian character and has helped our culture, its endless continuity”. His observations are those of an outsider in this age of technology who has engaged with it on his own terms. He sees his journey away from the angst of the early years as inevitable evolution.

Our preference for his early work then might be nothing more than nostalgia for a time other than this. In the gallery, buyers dripping diamonds and glazy handbags amble with the staggering price list in hand (roughly Rs 4 to 50 lakh a piece), mobile phones pierce the tranquility, agitated voices chatter about the closing figures of the stock market, and a decisive young turk bargains over a few lakhs for a sculpture. In the wider landscape of this upscale gallery, Gujral’s art is perched precariously like his idols on man’s machines.

Originally published in Tehelka

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