An Untitled Canvas

Much like his art,the life of Vasudeo Gaitonde,India’s foremost abstract artist,is an enigma to those unable to see beyond the obvious

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Published:January 5, 2014 4:52 am

Who was Vasudeo Gaitonde? An artist of the 1950s Progressive movement,who veered away to find his own language of abstraction. An artist so deeply distrustful of labels that he refused to title his works. An artist who said he thought of a painting in terms of music: “I hear colours.’’ A son who snapped ties with his family and never looked back. Piecing together the life of India’s foremost abstract artist — and now its most expensive,after his jewel-like painting sold for Rs 23.7 crore at a Christie’s auction last month,the highest price an Indian painting has fetched — brings one up against many walls of silence and accounts of connections lost. Long before the art market began to realise his worth,Gaitonde had shut out the world,preferring the life of a recluse.

Born in Nagpur to Goan parents in 1924,Vasudeo was a few months old when his father,who worked in a printing press,shifted to their ancestral village Uscai in Mapusa,Goa,where Gaitonde spent the first five to six years of his life. The family — four sisters and a son — later shifted to Mumbai,where Gaitonde went to Gokhale High School on Grant Road and then joined JJ School of Art,graduating with a diploma in 1948. “In college,Gaitonde went through the usual rigour,painting figurative works,which are still around. It was only after graduating that he started experimenting with abstraction,the Indian kind that had a touch of spirituality to it. He began with calligraphic drawings,and then experimented with symbols and collages,” says Ranjit Hoskote,poet and curator.

There was nothing better than to be an artist in Bombay at the time,when the air throbbed with promise of greater marvels. The Progressive Artists’ Movement,founded in 1947 by SH Raza,MF Husain and Francis Newton Souza,and which was later joined by Tyeb Mehta,Akbar Padamsee,Ram Kumar and others,had broken with older traditions,and was forging an Indian modernism. Gaitonde,who was invited to join the group,was in the thick of those fiery debates.

He was a short,dapper man,as lean as his conversations. He worked out of a studio at Bhulabhai Desai Institute,a multidisciplinary institute in Mumbai,which was the hub of the Indian avant-garde. Ravi Shankar held music classes there and Ebrahim Alkazi rehearsed his theatre productions. “Gaitonde was surrounded by Husain,Mehta,Krishen Khanna and Raza,who all had studios there. Those conversations between the young artists shaped what he wanted to achieve,” says Hoskote.

But the path he was to carve for himself was different. While many of the Progressives looked to Europe for inspiration,Gaitonde’s first solo show was in New York in 1959,and then again in 1963,when he was offered a fellowship by the Rockefeller Foundation for a year. Delhi-based Progressive artist Krishen Khanna,who visited his friend “Gai” in New York a year later,remembers the two of them visiting the studio of the great American abstract artist Mark Rothko to see his brilliant black-and-white works. “Unlike many others,Gai did not take up abstracts because he could not get the linear proportions of figures right. He was exemplary in those too,but abstracts is what attracted him. Paul Klee and Rothko were his inspirations,and their influence lent a Zen-like,meditative quality to his canvases,” says Khanna.

An American critic once called his art “non-objective” and that description that resonated with him. In the early 1960s,he experimented with a new style,employing palette knives and paint rollers and even torn pieces of newspaper to create semi-abstract forms.

Gallery owner Arun Vadehra first met him at his house in Nizamuddin,Delhi in 1992,accompanied by a common friend. He said he was busy. “What was he doing,the friend asked. He said,nothing. He wasn’t afraid of that reply. For him,there was nothing wrong with doing nothing,” says Vadehra. “That idea of nothingness drew him to Zen philosophy. In his paintings,nothing was very important,” says Vadehra,who also says that he did not use an easel.

Gaitonde,though,was not keen on being slotted in either the figurative or the abstract camps. In an interview dated March 15,1964 to the The Illustrated Weekly of India,he had said,“I feel I should not wear any label. I moved away from academism to abstract vision because I wanted to develop my sense of pattern and colour…to paint with figures as subjects is a hindrance…my entire outlook changed when I came to know that the Chinese have no epics to boast — for the simple reason that an epic covers a long period of time. Any abstract feeling — love,courage,etc can be valid only for a given moment. One is not in love eternally even if the feeling is there. The ecstasy of the moment can’t be stretched over a long period. When I realised the significance of this thought,I abandoned my old attitudes,” he said.

From his friends,he demanded a great respect for his silence—and his many quirks. Mumbai-based artist Prabhakar Kolte recounts an instance when Gaitonde asked him if he liked music. “I said yes. He played a classical composition on this old record player,perhaps a Beethoven concerto. He played it thrice. He hadn’t asked me if I liked it,he just played it. Similarly,he hated explaining his art. He believed that an artist should understand another without any explanation,” he says. One of Khanna’s fond memories from his New York visit is of the walks they went on. “Once,in the 1960s,Gai and I walked the length and breadth of New York without speaking a word. That did not mean we were not communicating,” he says. Vadehra remembers Husain and Gaitonde sipping tea in silence at a dhaba in Nizamuddin. “Once,while walking in Connaught Place,Akbar Padamsee asked if he could join him. He said,‘Sure,if you keep your mouth shut’,” says Vadehra.

That suspicion of wordiness,of anything that could dilute the intensity of his mind and beliefs,extended to his work. “It’s not that I have nothing to say through my paintings . I may not be making a statement — I don’t want to…I am not wedded to any dogma or belief or narrow loyalty…I am first and foremost an individual. I cannot subscribe to any collective thinking and I will not acknowledge any thought that does not appeal to my reason. Emotions (are) intrinsically individual in their impact and revelation. And what I seek to portray,being true to myself,remains personal. (So) I can only hope for a certain understanding by others. That is the reason why I don’t caption my paintings and why a single colour dominates my compositions,’’ he said in the interview to The Illustrated Weekly.

Through his life,Gaitonde remained completely impervious to the pressures of the marker and the opinions of others. “But he always knew the worth of his painting,” says Khanna. “Once the National Gallery of Modern Art wanted to bargain with him for a canvas priced at Rs 17,000,he refused outright. Even in New York,when we were showing at Gallery 63,the Museum of Modern Art tried to negotiate with him but he didn’t agree.”

In an apartment in Borivili,Mumbai,a 70-year-old woman pores through newspaper clippings and photos of the famous brother she lost touch with. Kishori Das,younger to Vasudeo by 20 years,last saw him in 1971 when he left for Delhi,ostensibly because the rent at Bhulabhai Desai Institute had gone up. He left no address.

He did not have a congenial relationship with his father,who wanted his son to be a doctor or an engineer and who withdrew all monetary support when he decided to become an artist. That bitterness,along with a misunderstanding with his mother,was what probably drove him to cut all his ties with his family. Unable to breach the wall he had created around himself,Das reconciled to glimpsing his life through newspaper clippings she collected over the years,from the announcements of his various shows and interviews to the obituaries. “We learnt about his death days after he had passed away in Delhi. No one from the family was there,” says Das softly.

“I remember him working on his canvases,and discarding one after the other as he rejected most of them. I would collect them and since they were thick,I would use them to make houses for my dolls. How I wish I had preserved them,” says Das. The shift to Delhi,she says,was prompted by another reason. “He had liked a girl,but she married someone else while he was away in the US. He decided to get away. The heartbreak also changed him as a person,” she says.

Gaitonde never married and in Delhi,he set up home at a barsaati in Nizamuddin,very much the artist in a garret. The few writers who visited him spoke about its dusty interiors,and the immensely reticent resident of the place. Goan artist Theodore Misquita,who met him in Delhi in 1991,described him as a “hermit,impassive to the mundane world around him.”

Khanna,though,has less dour memories of his friend who loved music,both Indian and western classical. “He lived frugally and his tastes and indulgences were largely literary. He read the biographies of Jesus Christ and Francis of Assisi among others. We generally worked through the day and would catch up in the evenings over a drink or dinner. He loved fish. We would often eat at Karim’s in Nizamuddin,” says Khanna. Vadehra too remembers an artist with a passion for cinema,and a love for the actress Mumtaz,which he shared with MF Husain. Of the latter’s works,Vadehra says Gaitonde would say: “Husain’s paintings are best seen upside down. They become abstract.”

In the last six years of his life,Gaitonde stayed with a close friend and researcher,Mamta Saran,at her house in Gurgaon.

A road accident in Delhi in the late 1990s was a huge setback,after which he cut down on his work,and completed very

few canvases. He died there in 2001. “He lived very modestly but never complained. He didn’t receive much monetary returns for his work during his lifetime,but he got immense respect from his peers and the

art world,and that’s what mattered to

him,” says Saran,66,who is working on a book on the artist she hopes to release

next year.

The art market began to value the worth of a Gaitonde only after his death. In April 2002,at a Bowrings auction in Mumbai,a 1962 untitled oil-on-canvas sold for a “record-breaking” Rs 23 lakh. From then on,the prices kept smashing the records. In February 2005,an untitled abstract from 1972 was bought for Rs 92 lakh at an Osian’s auction by Kito de Boer,one of the biggest collectors of Indian art. In 2011,another work sold for Rs 4.4 crore. The first great Gaitonde retrospective is to be held in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum this year in October.

“It’s a pity that all the hype and money came Gaitonde’s way only after his death. Just like the other Goan,Souza,Gaitonde died relatively penniless with no celebrity status. Much lesser artists sold for ridiculous sums in which you could buy ten Gaitondes. During his lifetime,I don’t think his canvases sold for more than a few thousands,” says Vivek Menezes,Goa-based photographer and writer.

For Gaitonde’s cousin Shantaram Walavikar,74,who once lived near the Gaitondes in a Girgaum chawl in Mumbai,he was always the aloof,uncompromising artist. “Once he had struck a deal to sell four canvases to a company. The manager asked him to make some changes in his work. He just picked up the canvases,tore them and walked out.”

Who then was Vasudeo Gaitonde? “An artist of great significance and impeccable integrity,” says Krishen Khanna.

For all the latest News Archive News, download Indian Express App

  1. No Comments.