Suraj Ghai, like any serious artist, is a product of his time. Born in Peshawar, he was 13 when India was partitioned in 1947. The family settled in Delhi as displaced persons where his doctor father hoped Suraj would become an engineer. After a half-hearted attempt at intermediate Science, he got admission to Delhi Polytechnic’s art department. He had found his passion; art was all that mattered to him.

He was lucky to find a mentor in the peerless Sailoz Mookherjea, artist and bohemian, who taught by example. Sailoz spotted the talent in Suraj and encouraged him. The pupil proved a quick learner and went on a two-year scholarship to France in 1961 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, the art of making frescoes and murals. On his return, armed with his newly acquired knowledge, Ghai tried to get government commissions for frescoes and murals, all in vain despite the constant support of  B. C. Sanyal, principal of the College of Art.

Ghai went to Banaras Hindu University and successfully revitalised a stagnant art department. The city and its hierarchies saddened him deeply and he produced some perceptive, dark, melancholy paintings; the kind that get under the skin.

He returned to Delhi in the late 1960s and has remained in the city since, teaching fresco and mural art at the Delhi College of Art as a contract lecturer despite being qualified for a permanent job. He has also lectured for a number of years at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

The Saturday art fair, a unique event that ran four years until 1980, was truly democratic in intent and purpose. Visual artists, poets, musicians—known and unknown—came every Saturday to participate in programmes that lasted from afternoon to sundown. The fair resulted from the public spirited efforts of Ghai and his friends. Nothing like it has happened in Delhi since.

His work—paintings,  drawings, designs for frescoes/murals, with the occasional graphic thrown in for good measure, is sensitive, sophisticated, sharp, witty, and acerbic, depending on the moment of their creation, his emotional and mental state.

Ghai is an artist difficult to pigeon-hole. His work is, in his own words, “semi-abstract”. He is quick to point out that the word “abstract” is erroneously understood as that which does not represent the physical world, when, it is in fact, an essence of it. He feels attached to the travails of the world and, in his chosen medium strives to recreate them. He sees the artist as being both the creation of his time as well as representative of its existential state.


How did you get interested in art?

Traditionally I belong to a family of doctors. After independence when we came to India, I was 13 or 14 years old. As everyone in the family was a doctor, it was natural for me to want to become one. I was a good science student too. The pressure was high but there were no good medical colleges in Delhi. With my father’s backing, I did get into the science stream in school. But after two days, I realised that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I decided to stick to Hindi, History and Geography.

I got into Delhi polytechnic and then discovered that qualifying from art school was important. So I took the exam and got into art school. I was already doing drawings at Humayun’s Tomb, sculpture also. I was selected in the interview. My life’s mission was defined the moment I got in.


Art became your life.

Everything then changed. All confusion was settled. I used to sing but gave up. For a year or two I concentrated on realistic art. Strangely, in one of the books on colour, I read ‘Modern artists are intelligent but behave like children.’ Modern art did not have a good image in India. Picasso was taken as a joke; only realism was favoured.

Six months passed, then I saw a portfolio of 10 prints by Paul Cézanne in the library and my opinion about modern art changed. I was clear that this art had depth.

Sailoz Mookherjea (my teacher) encouraged me after seeing my painting on Death (in memory of my sister). This was the beginning. I always had skill. Sailoz praised anyone who did well. I got a good start in college and those four years shaped me.


Let’s talk about the dancing peacock.

Sailoz used to get ₹180 as salary, was a junior teacher, and didn’t have a proper designation. He didn’t care about anyone. It was a design class and Sailoz told us to make a design in a square of a peacock. We were quite rebellious initially, thinking it was a silly idea. It wasn’t stimulating enough. But after some time, I got the feel of the peacock we were asked to paint in goauche. It was modern but good. In those days teachers would take a round of different classes, including Biren De, Sailoz and others. And they praised this peacock, Sailoz did so lavishly.

There was an exhibition in the east European countries and two or three works from different Indian art colleges were exhibited there. I was a first year student and the peacock and another work from the college were shown there. It was well received. Then appreciation just kept coming.


As a student, who left an impression on you?

Among the teachers, there was Bhagatji (Dhanraj, sculptor). After three or four months, Sanyal (Bhabesh Chandra, painter) came as principal. There were three or four students that I had a rapport with too.

After a year or two, Bhagatji started doing sculptures, especially linear sculpture. There was a play of lines and springs. They used to make sculptures on the college lawns. We had got the feel of modern art and I got tuned to it. Harkishan Lal (a fine painter and teacher) left to do exhibitions in Bombay, and later London and never came back to college. He had taken just one or two classes.


How did you get the scholarship to Paris?

This happened three years after passing out from college. I was active, doing exhibitions. I did give Sailoz’s reference but I think he had passed away by that time. I had a second class in my final year and didn’t get an interview call. I approached Sanyal Sahib who had left by then and was secretary at Lalit Kala Akademi. He assured me that nothing would go wrong the next time. The second time I applied I got a call. The interview went well,

Another interesting thing that happened during this time was that in the first six months Sanyal came to France. He had come for a talk on exhibitions, an exchange with France. He actually wrote a letter to Sunil Das, (a young artist already there) about his arrival in Paris, but Sunil could not go and sent me instead. I went to meet him at the hotel. He wanted to see the city. Sanyal and I spent two or three days exploring Paris, also going from one café to another. We walked around and it was good time. We explored the art scene and he even took me for a meeting with the head of the Louvre museum, to discuss the possibility of an exhibition of French art, in Delhi, as I could speak French.

I was studying murals and I told Sanyal that the bureaucracy wouldn’t let me get work in India. He was seriously offended and said, ‘I will see to it that you get a mural.’ The bureaucracy in India doesn’t let any person flourish, especially if you don’t have connections.

He did try for almost 15 years, but somehow it didn’t work out. It was not meant to be.

I studied mural and fresco under Aioujam. He was the last of the Fauves’, a pre-World War I group comprising masters like Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck. He was 55 or 60 and the entire studio was under him. I showed him my work and he said, ‘You are searching something between Matisse and Miro (Joan, Spanish painter).’ I had also started water colours and oil painting, influenced by Miro, a play of the subsconscious could be seen.


After returning from Paris, you went to Benaras.

Not immediately. That was after two or three years. In that period, I tried to get work related to murals. I also went with Mulk Raj Anand to Chandigarh. He liked a watercolor and asked me to make it into a 9X16 feet fresco. He got a sum of ₹1,500 sanctioned.

Mulk Raj Anand had come to Lalit Kala Akademi to inaugurate an exhibition and it was a Saturday. His assistant asked to me to come to Chandigarh on Monday and take the cheque. But I didn’t have any practical experience in those days. I kept thinking that the mural cost was ₹5,000 and the work would take three months; the money was too little.

Twenty years later, I came to know that people would take the initial sanction and begin the work. When it got stuck, the government sanctioned more to complete it. Some even put in their own money to begin.


You were the only one trained in those days.

Gujral (Satish, painter, sculptor, muralist, architect) had gone to Mexico, went to Diego Riviera. Mural traditions were held in high esteem there, and he got trained properly. Husain’s (M.F.) was more a name than technique.


What did you learn from the Paris art scene?

It was fantastic, like no other city in the world. Over there, everyone goes out in the evening—to the cinema, theatre, music concert, or an art gallery. It is an old, old city, almost like Benaras, with small alleys, but has an artistic atmosphere. Even Corbusier and other prominent people stayed in Paris, despite the vertical buildings. Architecturally, Paris was considered a slum.

Students sat in cafes, selling their small painting or graphic-print. Thousands of prominent people would be walking or just sitting around, but no one was bothered. No one would bother about a Picasso show. Over 30-40 exhibitions were inaugurated daily but there was never any crowd or brouhaha. Around 3,000-4,000 artists were living in the city at the same time.

There was an interchange of ideas among people. My landlady would tell everyone with pride that I was an artist.


What about murals?

In Delhi, murals are given to any celebrated artist. They made wire murals which are basically iron and steel rods cast in a design, and are just decorative, nothing else. 

But fresco is an ancient technique. If you see lime in its semi-solid state, that is worked upon. The process is due to calcium oxide turning to calcium carbonide. The result is   marble-like; the drawing becomes a part of this and does have a painted feel. Fresco has a crystalline look.


Egg white or egg yolks are added to this.

Those are used in Fresco-Secco for delicate things like eyes or decorative items. These can be painted on top of the work.

Ajanta is partly old style (working on the wet lime wall surface) fresco and partly secco. They probably used gum, cheerh gondh or keekar gondh. There are different kinds of gums to keep the powder together until it becomes a layer.


In Shantiniketan (at Hindi Bhavan)… Binod Behari Mukherjee’s fresco is in the old technique.

It is the ancient technique, the oldest method. Fresco has permanency. The Michelangelo versions, they are slightly different—these were highly developed with colour intensity.

The plaster is polished with a special spatula and then colour is put on without gum and then pressed. The paint goes in and the water comes on the surface. And then you add more colour and press. This way the intensity increases.

You paint till you see how much colour you need. There is a certain level and then it becomes part of the mortar. The colour intensity is more. You must use a brush that doesn’t scratch the surface. One must not add a very thick coat of colour as that won’t let the water come up. Michelangelo murals have that.

We use the old technique. In India, these frescoes can be seen in temples. They are called arish. A drop is put and a round stone is used to press. It gives a polished effect.


Your painting has great variety. How did you develop it?

I try to avoid repetition. I might repeat after two or three years to revive something but there is always something new that you experience daily. Normally after a painting or two, I am satisfied. The newness must be there.

Sailoz always said that every painting should be new. But all his paintings seemed to be the same. Somehow, they retained his dominating personality. Colour was dominant in his paintings. He liked colour, reds and yellows.

I read in a book that painting is also about intuition. Crochette and Dewey talked about intuition. Dewey said ‘abstract art may be devoid of poetic intuition’.

I was always inclined towards abstract art, and thought this was wrong. But later I realised that statement was right. There was no poetic intuition in abstract art and I realised later I was not an abstract painter. I did abstract work for a group show but that was just an exercise. Force of expression was not there. Sailoz was alive then, and did not say anything. He disapproved quietly.

Abstract can have many meanings in English, such as non-figurative, brief, but essence is there. Extract the saar.


How did you evolve as a painter? How did your sensibility change with the different types of work you did, over time?

I paint the experiences of life, my political thinking, meeting people, capturing the essence of experiences. In this painting, this is the Benaras I saw, not the one that is seen today. That is the crowded Gadolia Chowk and those are the high buildings, another short uphill street and another chowk. The rickshaw pullers keep shouting. It is this scene that I captured. Their constant monkey-like chatter as they come from other towns and can’t do any other work. There is pressure, you can call it a political meaning also, some oppression of the buildings.

I saw a ghastly side of Banaras. I had not seen that kind of poverty in life. I can’t forget that as we began to have a snack a body would be taken for cremation on a rickshaw. By the time we would finish, another one would be on the way to the ghat. All this crept into my painting and psyche.

Husain did say Banaras was spiritual. But the ghastliness I saw, that is not there in his work or even in the work of Kishen Khanna and Ram Kumar. My point is that people there are decent and affectionate. But there is great poverty as well.

The ambience of Banaras University is very different from the ambience in the city. Among the artist groups there are undertones of jealousy and politics. But the city is not like that. The university works on power logic, living under the umbrella of power without any sensitivity, like bureaucracy. I don’t think anyone can see it clearly, but it’s there. City life was more sensitive.


How did your work evolve?

As you can see, this painting was on the emergency of 1975. The instant feeling was of anger, but when Indira Gandhi announced the 20-point programme, there was some relief among the public. The main tyrant was Sanjay Gandhi. But the Emergency made me angry.


The painting is almost serene.

I thought she was complacent and that throne you can see, where she is sitting with flowers, self satisfied and the dead bird is the reaction after the judgment. Not much of a comment, but it’s what I felt.


You have had an inclination towards drawings as well. 

I never used to keep my drawings in the earlier days. They were mainly the starting point; my planning stages and I noted my ideas and then threw them away.


An inclination towards satire is also seen in your work.

Satire was there from the start in my work. I saw the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and it started from there—long noses, which I also had. For painting you need to keep a lot of things in mind such as colour, other elements but in drawing the sensitivity of line and therefore expression, must show easily.

Drawing has a freshness painting does not have. Drawing expresses the original impulse of emotion but in painting one needs to work hard. It is easy to exhibit drawings also. And I did regular shows of satirical drawings.


What about return to portraiture?

Not many people know that Amar Pal and I were the best at portraits. I made a classic one of Kiran Gujral. Biren De sent us to make portraits in people’s homes. During the time of the Saturday Art Fair, years later, from 1976-80, we introduced live drawing, on the spot sketches.

I taught as a guest lecturer for `30 per lecture per week. I have worked in difficult times. Actually, how it started is that the college was on strike and the authorities could not control it. They called teachers from outside. Initially, P. N. Mago (alumnus of Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay) was against me. The college would call artists from Bombay. But they did not like it (Delhi College of Art students being taught by Bombay artists).

The college called me for teaching fresco and mural techniques. Graphics had picked up with Jagmohan Chopra and Somnath Hore. 


How did the Saturday Art Fair start?

By that time the college post was over. Mago had retired. I was approached by Balbir Singh and Anand Dev who wanted to do an auction and support the cyclone relief drive for Andhra Pradesh. I agreed. A one-day auction was booked at Triveni. Then both disappeared.

Anand Dev reached Mirdha Sahib for help. He was head of Lalit Kala and a Congress minister as well. We asked J. Swaminathan (a well-known artist) to help get George Fernandes to inaugurate but he did not help. Eventually we managed to get Fernandes’ wife. Swaminathan and Husain, the entire group, did not support us.

We managed to raise `43,000, a big sum in those days. And took cheques, no black money.

We thought that auction was a good idea took and decided to hold it once a month in Triveni to stabilise the prices. Shridharni also jumped at the idea. Umesh Verma and Broota were also there.

We would collect some 30 paintings. In fact, B. C. Sanyal would come home to give his paintings. Every month 10-15 paintings would be sold.  Sometimes we had to bid too, as there were not enough bidders.

Viko Soni (avante garde theatre director), gave O.P. Jain the idea of starting a cultural organisation, which he did. He spent a lot buying paintings. The auction flopped despite Jain’s support, so we closed after that.

Then we thought of a street show. Anand Dev we tought to roam around with ladders advertising our paintings, but I told him not to do anything so drastic!

Then it struck us that we would be harassed by the municipality and the police. So we asked Mago for help to make it official. He refused to talk to NDMC.

Sanyal was making a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the college of art and jumped at this idea. He signed the petition, then principal Bishwanath Mukherjee signed, too. We also got Richard Bartholomew, secretary of Lalit Kala Akademi to sign it. We approached Chabra, president of NDMC, but he did not agree.

I backed off, but Kaushik (an artist friend) did not. He asked Chabra, if we sit with two paintings in the park, would it be an illegal act? Chabra thought a moment, and said ‘no’ and then gave his consent.

We planned the fair on New Year’s Eve. It was then just an art fair, and had not become the Saturday Art Fair. We created an open forum for poetry, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, graphics, And were supported by the Times of India, The Statesman and The Indian Express.

We got a huge crowd and the press liked it. Chabra was also impressed with the public support. There were no hassles after that and then it evolved into the Saturday Art Fair.

The fair started when Janata Party was ruling at the Centre. Then Indira Gandhi came back and on the pretext of Asiad, she shut it down. Intelligence officials questioned me for over an hour. CBI head Rajinder Kaul realised that no harm was being done and got to know me a little. He was a well-read and sensitive man, mainly aligned with Sanjay Gandhi.


How do you see art today?

An artist captures the essence of his times. He represents the society and the era he lives in.