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Remembering the legendary Indian abstractionist artist V S Gaitonde

Dear V S Gaitonde,

I hope I could deliver this letter to you in person. As I sit down to pen my thoughts on your twenty-second death anniversary today, I am struck by the profundity and brilliance that your abstract art has brought to the world. Your life journey as an artist has been nothing short of a remarkable odyssey, an exploration of the depths of creativity and a testament to the power of artistic expression. As I sit on my desk in front of my laptop, listening to instrumental music in the background and pushing my limits to be able to browse more about you from the internet; my heart longs to have had an opportunity to be in the same room as you and be perplexed at the sheer aura that your artworks exude. I am sure I would have learnt a lot in your company.

Gaitonde at work in his studio at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1965; Photo by Bruce Frisch

From your early years, you demonstrated an innate curiosity and a passion for experimentation that would go on to shape your artistic trajectory. You were born in 1924 to Goan parents in Nagpur, Maharashtra and completed your art diploma at the prestigious Sir J. J. School of Art in 1948. Your journey, which began in the bustling streets of Mumbai, saw you navigating through various artistic styles and influences, ultimately leading you to the captivating realm of abstraction. Your ability to channel emotions, thoughts, and ideas into non-representational forms is awe-inspiring and has left an indelible mark on the art world.

One of the videos on YouTube said, that you were invited to join the renowned Bombay Progressive Artists' Group formed by F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, M. F. Husain, K. H. Ara, H. A. Gade, and S. K. Bakre in 1947, and the rest is history. I wonder what it felt like at that point to be in the camaraderie of some of the best names in the art industry and shape yourself to become one. The influence of your contemporaries, along with your travels and studies in Europe, nurtured your distinct style, setting you on a path of unparalleled creativity.

(L-R) MF Hussain, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, V S Gaitonde. Image Courtesy - Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation

But obviously, your journey was not an easy one. I read about your struggles with your father and how he disapproved of your work as an artist. Meera Menezes, an art writer got an opportunity to interview you in 1977 and described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. You were a man of few words, and infamous for not giving interviews. I now understand why there is so little about you in the public domain. The most detailed account of your life and works that I could lay my hands on is the book, "Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude" conceptualised by Jesal Thacker, art curator and authored by Meera Menezes. Very aptly titled. It provides the most detailed picture so far of your childhood and formative years as a feted artist.

A chapter in the book reads -

“As Vasudeo grew older, his passion for art grew more intense, bordering on an obsession. He would spread his drawing materials on the floor and paint for hours, forgetting time and place. Every so often, he would accidentally dip his brush into a cup of tea, lovingly prepared for him by his mother. However, he knew that his father disapproved of his interest in the arts and he painted only after his father had left for work.”
V S Gaitonde, Image Courtesy: Meera Menezes

Throughout your artistic journey, you defied conventions and charted your own path. Your steadfast commitment to abstraction, even during a time when figurative art dominated the scene, is a testament to your artistic integrity. You challenged the boundaries of what art could be, inviting viewers to explore the abstract realm with an open mind and heart. In the 1950s, your work was displayed at several exhibitions nationally and internationally. Your international presence also benefitted when you won the first prize at the Young Asian Artists Exhibition, Tokyo in 1957, followed by the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship in 1964. As your journey unfolded, you continued to evolve and refine your artistic language. The subtlety and nuance in your later works reveal a deep maturation of your artistic voice, a culmination of decades of exploration and growth. Your dedication to your craft and your willingness to embrace change, while staying true to your core vision, serve as an inspiration to aspiring artists everywhere.

V S Gaitonde part of the series in 1960s; Image Courtesy: Anil Rane | Guggenheim Foundation

But interestingly, you were averse to the concept of abstractionism and regarded yourself as a non-objective artist instead. Your exhibitions stand as powerful testaments to your unique artistic vision. I was particularly captivated by your retrospective exhibition held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2014. The way your works seemed to dance across the walls, inviting viewers to delve into the depths of their imagination, left an indelible impression. One piece that particularly resonated with me was "Untitled" from 1962. In 1971, you were awarded the highest Indian civilian honours, the Padma Shri and Kalidas Samman award in 1989–90. I cannot fathom witnessing the moment. The sheer fluidity of lines and the mesmerizing play of colours evoke a sense of meditative tranquillity. It's as if the canvas is a gateway to an alternate realm, a realm where emotions are woven into every brushstroke.

Untitled, oil-on-canvas 1968, 70" x 49.60"; Signed & dated in Devnagari. Image Courtesy: Christie's Images Limited

India, until very recently, was not very welcoming of abstractionism and considered it as an un-Indian style, and not artistic. I yearn for you could be present today to see the South-Asian art market expand and witness the record-breaking sales that were long overdue for an artist of your calibre. After more than a decade of your demise, art collectors across the globe are longing to buy your work. In 2013 at Christie’s first auction in India, your mustard-hued abstract from 1979 hit a record high for being the highest-selling Indian artwork in modern and contemporary art at the time, sold for over Rs. 20 crores ($3.28 million). Again in 2015, for Christie’s third auction in India, an untitled work of yours from 1995 was bought for a staggering price of Rs. 29.3 crores ($4.4 million), breaking the previous record. Very recently in 2020, at the Pundole’s September auction, your untitled 1974 oil-on-canvas was sold at a hammer price of Rs. 32 crores ($4.35 million), making it the most expensive Indian artwork as of then. From an art investor's point of view, you became famous for breaking your own records, a rare achievement in the art world. In keeping up with the tradition of breaking records; this time, in March 2021 at the Spring Live auction at Saffronart, you set a new record for an Indian artist for your 1961 oil-on-canvas, selling for Rs. 39.98 crores ($5.55 million). I remember, sharing it on my Instagram page in the Art News Section of the week. The most expensive Indian artwork at the time, the abstract flaunting viscous blues was inspired by the Arabian ocean. It was one of the last few horizontal paintings you created before switching completely to the vertical format.

As time passes, your art continues to captivate generations. The auction records your works have set speak to the timeless value of your artistic contributions. Your legacy extends beyond the canvas, serving as a bridge between the tangible and the intangible, the known and the unknown.

As I delved deeper into your art practice, I got an insight into how you built up your canvas surfaces rather rigorously with rollers and palette knives. And then layered the canvas in multiple coats of white to intensify the reflective index of overlaid colours. This is pure genius! You held on patiently for this base to dry and then moved on to opaque colours to add the next layer. You had a unique technique to drop blobs of paint directly on the canvas, which would integrate or separate into distinctive patterns. I now acknowledge why viewing your work is an "experience". Your artworks are truly perceptive, I can discover the flow of colours and see between the layers before actually conforming to one pattern. The rationale is your interesting mindset for colours to be exclusive to an individual painting, and not apply the tones and repeat them in others - marking your approach to art as an efficacious experience that could resemble no repetition. Though you have long periods of drying time between the various oil paint layers in your paintings; you produced a significantly lesser number of paintings in your lifetime, committing to only five to six in a year. A perfectionist in every sense! Such is your aura that I find it difficult to separate the man from the myth.

V S Gaitonde with his work; Image Courtesy: Meera Menezes

I find myself grappling with the concept of abstraction, seeking to convey emotions and ideas through a language that transcends the tangible, I wonder how you attained an incorporeal state and expressed it through your paintings. I respectfully bow down to your brilliance. Your friends and contemporaries recall you repeatedly getting up to play records of Beethoven and Mozart during discussions. Those who got the opportunity to interact with you, remember that you spoke very little and intervened in the conversation with long pauses that gave a window to introspect and connect with the higher self. As I was reading more about you, I pondered what were your thoughts and perceptions about your artwork. I am definitely contemplating the chance that in a sea of opinions and perspectives, you solely wanted to offer your viewers an island of absolute calm. The best part that I find in your works is that they are meticulously detailed yet I am submerged in an atmosphere of nothingness; provoking and igniting my search for meaning. I am left to experience art and life as is. Your ability to translate the complex fabric of existence into strokes of paint is a gift that keeps on giving, inviting us to ponder the mysteries of life and our place within it.

I marvel if you believed in Stoicism. A firm believer in the stoicism ideologies myself, I feel a heavy amount of influence in your work. I attribute your interest in Kandinsky’s ideology of emotive art, and a penchant for classical music seems to have stirred up a synesthete effect. Your claim to hear colours while painting stands true when seen from this viewpoint. I also find your interest in calligraphy and ancient hieroglyphs seep into your canvases. The way you embraced silence and solitude, allowing your innermost feelings to flow onto the canvas, is a testament to your unwavering dedication to your craft. It is as if each brushstroke and every colour choice was a reflection of your inner self, a glimpse into the recesses of your soul.

In the 1970s, you moved to the country's capital, New Delhi; specifically to Nizamuddin East where you built your terrace studio. This was the best time in your art career, you attained the zenith in producing a body of work that exceeded the definition of abstraction and crossed the transcendental boundaries of colour and a painterly expression of silence. But, not long after that, you were limited to paper sketches due to an unfortunate accident in 1984. The year I was born, in 1998 you announced retirement, three years post which in 2001 you succumbed to death. What a twist of fate! A true master of abstraction, when asked why had you stopped painting, you wittily replied “If one is fortunate, painting continually happens within oneself.”

V. S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1962, Ink and watercolor on paper, 21 6/8 x 30 inches (55.9 x 76.2 cm). Collection of Kiran Nadar, New Delhi © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Photo: Anil Rane

In retrospect, we celebrate not only your creative genius but also the profound impact you've had on the artistic landscape of India and the world. Your work continues to provoke thought, spark conversations, and inspire generations of artists and art enthusiasts. Your legacy is etched not only in the strokes of your brush but also in the hearts and minds of those who have had the privilege to experience your art. Your legacy extends beyond the canvas, serving as a bridge between the tangible and the intangible, the known and the unknown.

With profound respect and admiration,

Radhika Maheshwari


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