Satish Gujral: a tribute to the life and works of a pioneering Indian artist

Gujral died in his home in New Delhi last week at the age of 94

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It takes just one look at the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi to recognize it as an exceptional architectural work. With its unadorned red-brick domes and arches, the structure resembles a fortress carved out of exposed bedrock. There are no unnecessary embellishments, everything is where it should be. It seems honed out of its natural environment, yet it is otherworldly. Fantastical.

Designed by Satish Gujral, the embassy was constructed in 1984 and was selected by an international group of architects as one of the finest buildings of the 20th century. The design and the award cemented Gujral’s reputation as an architect.

But Gujral – who died at the age of 94 on Thursday, March 26 – was also a prolific painter and sculptor, celebrated for his versatility across mediums. He was hailed by art critics as one of India’s first modernists, one who defied genre and the boundaries of artistic discipline.

He was born in Jhelum in 1925 in pre-partitioned India. His hearing was impaired when he was eight years old, after an accident which saw him falling into a river in Kashmir and developing meningitis. He turned to art after he was refused admission to a number of schools due to his impaired hearing.

In 1944, Gujral moved to Bombay, where enrolled in the Sir JJ School of Art. However, he was forced to drop out a few years later due to a recurring illness. In 1952, he left India for Mexico, where he would go on to study with the likes of with Diego Rivera and David Sequeiros.

It would prove to be a turning point for his career.

From 1952 to 1974, Gujral organised shows of his sculptures, paintings and graphics in a number of cities around the world, including New York, New Delhi, Berlin and Tokyo. His showcased works, which dealt with the 1947 partition of India and the corresponding agony of its immigrants, catapulted Gujral to international recognition.

In 1999, Gujral was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, which is India's second-highest civilian honour, given to those for “exceptional and distinguished service”. In 2014, he was honoured by the Ndtv news channel with the Ndtv Indian of The Year award.

Gujral’s family announced his death on Friday, March 27. His nephew Naresh Gujral, who is also a member of the parliament, told Indian media that the artist “passed away peacefully in his home. He died of old age.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the death of the artist with a tweet.

"Satish Gujral Ji was versatile and multifaceted. He was admired for his creativity as well as the determination with which he overcame adversity.”

Modi said that Gujral’s intellectual thirst took him far and wide “yet he remained attached with his roots. Saddened by his demise.”