IT IS unlike the multi-layered colour-field abstractions that defined the work of the reclusive genius. But, the diagonal lines running into each other to form squares that enclosed planetary positions that were to rule his destiny, perhaps held clues to the life of VS Gaitonde. Looking at his astrological chart, his father had predicted that his son “would be a great success if he followed the right path”. Only familiar with the image of a hungry artist, senior Gaitonde was certainly not referring to art. He probably dreamt for his son to become a clerk or an engineer.
But Gaitonde was to decide his own fate. Adamant on charting his destiny, he is reported to have declared, “The only thing I could do was painting. I was not fit for anything else.” The path was to bring him global acclaim. Ironically, posthumously. He died in 2001 in obscurity in Gurgaon — almost a decade after he practically forsakes the brush, following a car accident that affected his spinal cord, permanently titling his neck.
In the book Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude (Bodhana; Rs 5,500), which is among the handful of extensive publications on the modernist, art critic and curator Meera Menezes carefully charts his journey from the infant who keenly observed family members painting on the Saraswati temple walls in Uskai, Goa, to the artist whose work fetched an astronomical Rs 29.3 crore at Christie’s India auction in December 2015, setting a record for the highest selling Indian work in modern and contemporary art.
“It was a labour of love, there was no money involved initially. The research took really long, it should have come out in 2011,” says Menezes. The quest of putting together his story took Menezes and curator Jesal Thacker across India. Over five years, they travelled from his family home in Goa to his numerous addresses in Mumbai and Delhi, and also to his friends scattered across India. References range from catalogues and interviews to reviews, letters exchanged by him and rather sketchy essays on the artist who remained a recluse even though critics and artists hailed his work; MF Husain called him a “genius” and Krishen Khanna a “perfectionist”.
Explaining his reluctance to socialise, Menezes has close friend Laxman Shreshtha recalling the reason cited by Gaitonde: “Laxman, do you know why I don’t meet these people? They have not come to meet me, they have come to say I have been to London, I have been to New York, I have sold my painting for so much. I am not interested. If you have come to meet me, you should sit down with me.” Having interviewed him at his Gurgaon home in 1997, Menezes remembers his remark that he liked the interview because there were no personal questions asked. It seems paradoxical that what elevates the book is the nuanced balance between the personal and professional.
Parallel to his shifting oeuvre — influences ranging from Indian miniatures to Paul Klee, music, Zen Buddhism — the narrative details the life he led away from the easel, but which reflected on his canvas nevertheless, including his brief affair with Prafulla Joshi and his heartbreak when she married Dilip Dahanukar. We are introduced to his inner circle, comprising a handful. His sister, Kishori, 20 years younger, recalls how her brother “Bal” made sketches for his older sister’s school assignments, paint endlessly for hours, or dip the brush into his tea much to his father’s disapproval.
The constant tiff was to drift him away from family, even whisking his friends away from the Gaitonde home in Mumbai, opting to congregate at the nearby Velankar’s restaurant over kande pohe and bhaji. He was soon to whisk away friends from his life too, meeting very few. Others, decided to abandon him. Ram Kumar recalls trying to persuade friends to go and call on him. “Life is so tragic; after the accident, when people came to Bombay and I would say ‘let us go to Gai’ they said ‘why?’ Nobody wanted to go. Gaitonde was not well and nobody wanted to talk to a sick man.”
The artist, probably, never expected them. Years before, when he resided at Delhi’s Nizamuddin, there was no door bell to his home — people had to shout for him to open the door to let them in. Now, Menezes has attempted to open that door, through the book that gives a glimpse into the artist behind his artwork and records a lost chapter in the evolution of modern art in India.