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Archive for June 5th, 2008

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In the autumn of 1952 Molly Bower asked me to take a deaf Indian artist to specialists in hearing problems in New York.

 

There is a great deal of background behind that simple sentence – and some interesting consequences.

 

Mary Margaret “Molly” Bower was a one-time room-mate of my first wife, Terry Flambert, in Kelly Hall at the University of Chicago. At the time of the request she was living at 18 Christopher Street, about a block east of Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.

 

 

(I believe 18 is the doorway in the deep shadow of the tree. I remember it as unusually narrow with the odd little stoop without handrails. Both images from Google.)

Terry and I were living at the foot of MacDougal Street, about seven blocks away (see the post about Mama Savarese). Molly was the youngest of an unusual brood of six who were born in slightly separated pairs, boy-girl, boy-girl, boy-girl. The middle pair was Ted and Joan (pronounced Jo-ann). Molly and I remained good friends throughout her life. At some later time I will tell you of her very interesting career.

 

Ted was an architect who studied and apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, spending six years working on Taliesin West. Wright and Le Corbusier had a serious disliking for each other, and not just over architecture, which led to Wright sending Ted to observe the development of Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh. While there Ted became acquainted with a young painter, scion of a prominent political family, Satish Gujral. Later, Ted had his own architectural firm in Seattle for nearly fifty years.

 

Joan Bower went to Wellesley where her room-mate was Santha Rama Rau, the first Indian woman admitted to that WASP citadel (I am sure there have been thousands since). She is the daughter of Sir Benegal Rau who people of my age remember with admiration and fondness for his good work at the UN during the Korean crisis. Santha went on to write a number of popular travel books, novels and articles and her name is familiar to anyone who reads The New Yorker. She married Faubion Bowers, who had been Douglas MacArthur’s personal interpreter in Japan and became a well known expert on Japanese and other Asian theaters. Joan married Arnold Horwitt, a very successful writer of musicals (including Pins and Needles, Make Mine Manhattan and Plain and Fancy which featured Barbara Cook (see my post on the Janice studio parties)). Later Joan became an Episcopal priest, in Connecticut

 

Santha Rama Rau

 

Satish Gujral was born in 1925 in Jhelum in western Punjab. His parents, Avtar Narain and Pushpa, were both well known, both to the British and the Indians, as freedom fighters. That term, in this context, means they were active in trying to obtain Indian independence from the British Empire. Satish’s six years older brother Inder Kumar was also in the movement and was jailed and beaten in 1931 at the age of eleven for organizing a children’s resistance movement in Jhelum. The parents and brother were prominent in the Quit India Movement started by Mohandas Ghandi in 1942 and led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the India Congress Party. Inder Kumar Gujral eventually became the Prime Minister of India at a very turbulent time in Indian politics so that his administration had a brief life.

Inder Kumar Gujral 

At about age seven, Satish suffered a disease that left him completely deaf which, at that time and place, was a calamity both for Satish and for his family. His father spent a great deal of time and thought deciding how Satish was going to make his way in the world, eventually deciding on the graphic arts in which he had demonstrated both ability and interest. He was sent to a school in Lahore named Mayo, which was more designed for artisans than artists, probably in early adolescence. Nonetheless, it provided him with a wide range of knowledge of materials and methods which stood him in very good stead later. Fortuitously this school was near where his brother was in college and, because Satish didn’t like the food served at his own school’s hostel, he ate with Inder at his hostel and came under his leftist influence in social and political thinking. 

 

After leaving Mayo he went to the J J School of Arts in Bombay. This posed several problems for Satish. First was language. It was difficult enough for him to communicate in his native language, Urdu, but nearly impossible for him to follow the language used in classes. Fortunately, in several ways, Pran Nath Mago took him under wing acting as interpreter and tacitly influencing Satish’s thinking in the arts.

 

All through his adolescence at Mayo and now, in his early maturity at J J he was afflicted with disabling attacks in his legs which forced him to retreat to the family home. This was much more easily done when in Lahore than in Bombay. With a year to go at J J he suffered an especially serious attack, which pretty much ended his career there. (Author’s note: I have been relying on Satish’s autobiographical art book, The World of Satish Gujral – In his own words; UBS Publishers’ Distributors, Ltd; which in some respects is a difficult source. It is more concerned with the origins and evolution of Satish’s thinking in the arts and about the arts, especially their social and political roles, than it is with basic biographical data, such as dates. He never states what the disease was that cost him his hearing and he doesn’t say what the malady was with his legs, or whether it was the same one or not, but at one point he says the many surgeries on his legs caused the deafness(!).)  

 

Shortly after Satish recovered from the last attack, on August 14, 1947, India finally achieved Independence which came at the price of Partition. The horrors that ensued, mass murders of refugees from both sides by machine-gunning overloaded trains and other atrocities, are still vivid in many a survivor’s memories.  Like many another family the Gujrals found themselves on the wrong side of the new border, in the newly created Moslem nation of Pakistan. Satish told me that his family had to flee for their lives in the

middle of the night, leaving behind everything they owned. (I do not see any mention of this incident in his book, however.)

 

Last August (2007), sixty years after the event, the legacy of misery from the Partition was still evident and the rancor over Kashmir is a threat to peace in the entire region, if not the world. 

 

At this point Satish’s narrative talks of the paintings he was doing while recovering in Shimla. As far as I can make out, this is his first mention of Shimla and his first mention painting while on his own. He wonders whether the paintings, which were very violent in their imagery, (I saw photographs of them – I’ll have more to say about them later) were engendered by his experience during the Partition holocaust or were the product of some inner rage which would have manifested itself whether there were outside stimuli or not. He decides that the latter was the case.

 

Satish states that toward the end of his years (how many?) in Shimla he became acquainted with Charles Fabri, a Hungarian émigré who was the arts critic for The Statesman and, it appears, was a major taste-maker for the Indian art world. Fabri told Satish he should go to Mexico to study the muralistas which was inspired, no doubt, by the similarities between Satish’s work and that of Orozco and Siqueiros. He further told Satish of a grant being offered by the Mexican government at the newly opened Mexican Embassy in New Delhi. Somewhere, somehow during this span Satish met Ted Bower who, among other things, worked on teaching Satish English. He consulted with Ted on the advice Fabri had given about applying for the Mexican grant. Both Ted and Satish’s brother were apprehensive about his prospects both in applying and, should he get the grant, managing in yet another language and alien culture. Ted wrote to Santha Rama Rau in the U.S. After some further complications in the application process Santha unexpectedly showed up in New Delhi with no less than Octavio Paz, who was at the time the Cultural Attache to the Mexican Embassy, in tow. Satish was awarded the grant.

 

Just before his trip to the US and Mexico Satish had his first one-man show in New Delhi which was praised by Fabri and another prominent critic S. H. Vatsyayan who also wrote the introduction for the catalog. Satish says, “Overnight, they transformed me into a celebrity.”

 

Which brings us back to the start of this post.

 

I took Satish to several places to see if anything might be done about his hearing and, as I knew would be the case, he was told nothing could be done at that time. At the end of the week Terry, Molly and I took Satish to Grand Central Station and waved good-bye as his train slowly pulled away from the platform. The trip by train from New York to Mexico City was an entire week in duration. I find the very thought of what must have been a rattling ride to be mind numbing – I can’t imagine how he felt by the end.

(Added 4/5/09: Terry sent me a note containing her recollection of Satish’s departure:  My last visual memory of him is his “talking” intensely to a rather lovely young lady before boarding the train with her.) 

From his book.

 

*****

 

Quite coincidentally, about a year later in October of 1953 Terry decided that we should move to her home town, San Francisco, to which I somewhat reluctantly agreed. In order to help with the travel expenses, it was agreed that I would take my mother to Mexico for about 6 months and at the end she would return to New York and I would go up to San Francisco. My mother was a dragging anchor much of the time but I had an interesting and often very enjoyable visit nonetheless.

 

After we had been in Mexico City for a couple of weeks, having moved from the Hotel Maria Cristina to a casa de huespedes in a residential district (Guadalquivir 19 – all the streets in that section were named for rivers), I decided to try to find Satish. I went to the Palacio de Bellas Artes because I understood they had an art school where all the big names were teachers. I found some class studios, asked the people I found there if they had seen Satish, “a hindu with a big black beard and a blue turban” and on several such visits just got blank looks. Finally a young woman said she thought she had seen such an individual and that she thought he was in a class taught by Diego Rivera. I asked where I could leave a message inquiring about Satish and she said, “Why don’t you just call him up?” Did she know his number or where I could find it? “He’s in the book.” I found a phone directory and sure enough, there was Diego Rivera’s name at an address in the Piedras Negras neighborhood, a rather toney residential area built on an old lava bed, hence the Black Rocks name. I called, Rivera answered and after I gave the name and description he denied ever seeing such an individual. I was stumped. The only line of search I could think of had just dead-ended.

 

Not long after that there was an announcement in the newspaper of a retrospective exhibition of Mexican art, from pre-columbian times to the current day, opening a day or two later at the Bellas Artes (a note on this exhibition: it was absolutely huge, the whole museum was given over to it, and it was perhaps the finest show of its sort I have ever seen. A small part was set to travel to a number of museums in Europe and the US over the next five years, ending, I believe in the Met in NY). We went to the opening day and there in the cupola covered antechamber, looking at a painting, was Satish.

 

He told us what happened after he left Grand Central. The train ride was uneventful, he made friends of some the other passengers and generally found the trip to be not unpleasant. When he got to Mexico City he expected some sort of greeting party – not a brass band, mind you, just someone to tell him where to stay, how to get started at the school and so on. There was nobody there – nobody. It would seem that the problem was in lack of continuity in the Mexican government. Satish had been awarded the grant in the last months of the Aleman regime. Between the time Satish was given the grant and his arrival in Mexico a new president was elected, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines; no one in the new administration knew anything about the commitments of the old administration. I cannot remember if he told me how he even found a place to stay that night much less how had managed through the long process of getting the government to recognize his existence and legitimate claims. He did tell me that other art students had supported him with loans and probably shared quarters. In the book he mentions a Canadian expatriate, Arnold Belkin, who was Siqueiros’ student before Satish. Perhaps he helped sustain Satish during that anxious time.

 

When I mentioned the call to Rivera, Satish said he had been in his class for about a week. When Satish told Rivera his colors looked like they came from a candy box, Rivera threw him out of the class, which accounts for Rivera’s “faulty memory”.

 

Satish invited us to visit his quarters, his studio, which we did a few days later. I do not know where his place was; I do remember a long cab ride on Insurgentes, but which direction, north or south, I do not know. When we got there we were confronted with a very large house, a single residence, in which a large number of students were quartered. The stairway was so large that two students were housed on the first landing – there was ample space between their cots to proceed up to the next floor where Satish had a garret-like room.

 

He showed us a number of paintings showing the same sort of vehemence I had seen in the photographs of his work in India. To me they suggested Orozco, who had died before Satish ever got to Mexico, but I am not qualified to make such distinctions. He was very excited by a discovery he had made and thought it might make him rich: he was mixing dry poster paint powder with acrylic resin. The colors were brilliant, more resistant than oil paint to fading or changing because the colors were sealed in by the plastic so air couldn’t get at the pigments. By varying the amount of powder to resin he could get rich textural effects, from impastos to glazes and so on. Unfortunately, as history unfolded, the big commercial paint producers all came out with acrylic paints in a tube and beat Satish to the punch.

 

His studio was a classical garret shape: a long narrow room with a dormer window high up on one of the long walls. Out of curiosity I pulled a chair under the window, stood on it and on tip-toes looked out the window. What I saw was a big surprise. There was a very large swimming pool, with a two level diving board at one end, a row of cabanas running along the length of the pool on the side opposite the window and around the width on the right – at least a dozen in all. “Satish, what is this place?” “Don’t you know? This was Miguel Aleman’s private bordello when he was President. He kept it filled with sixteen-year-old girls.”

 

(There was a lot of public interest in Aleman’s sex life, whether real or purported. The landlady at our boarding house asked me “Why is the national flag like Maria Felix’s panties? Because both are raised and lowered by presidential decree.” Maria Felix was an extraordinarily good-looking woman, a movie star with an interesting ‘private’ life. I’ll go into all of this in a post about my Mexican visit.)

 

*****

 

That was the last time I saw Satish. About a decade later there was a big spread in Life magazine about the flourishing Indian arts. Satish was given two whole pages – he truly was a celebrity by then. Subsequently Satish became internationally known for an architectural achievement – the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi.

      

 

In his book, in the section regarding Mexico, there is a lengthy discussion about the conflict between the muralistas and Rufino Tamayo. Both camps are used metaphorically to stand for different ways to achieve a truly Mexican art. It so happens I became familiar with this subject in Cuernavaca in my discussions with some young intellectuals (included were two poets, a painter and an architect). The muralistas painted Mexican subjects, matters of historical or political or social importance. Tamayo tried to evoke an intrinsically Mexican mode of expression in colors, forms and emblems. I was in the Tamayo camp and the locals, who sometimes got rather sidetracked, saying Tamayo’s time in New York and Paris made him un-Mexican, were in the muralistas’. This sort of debate was going on in India at the time as well – as it was in many a newly freed nation trying to throw off the colonial cultural yoke.

 

One last note about Satish’s book and his early work: I mentioned that he felt that his smoldering rage might have expressed itself in his paintings whether or not there had been the atrocities consequent on Partition. None of those paintings are shown in the book and I cannot find any on the Web. Clearly, he has disowned his own past in that regard – did he destroy the paintings?

 

About two years ago I asked Molly Bower Kux’s three children, Sally, Leslie and Brian, all of whom followed in their parents’ footsteps as Federal Civil Servants (both were in the State Department, Dennis Kux is a retired ambassador; Molly worked for AID until her death), if they knew Satish, if their mother’s connection was through Ted or Joan, and if their uncle Ted was still in touch with him. Sally said, “I do know of the Indian artist to whom you refer below, although I don’t know the connection.  I think you are right that it might be through Ted.  I think Dad saw Gujral’s brother when he was in India some months ago.” Leslie wrote: “I met Satish when I visited Dad in India in 2001.  I actually went to a fancy party at his house.  He and his wife are very charming and nice.  I think Ted may have seen him in NY the next year.  I can’t remember the story of how he and Ted hooked up, though.”

 

A more recent photograph of Satish

Seated: Molly Bower Kux, the author, Sally Kux. Sally was a doctoral candidate in Russian language and literature at Stanford; the young man was also.

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