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Many shades of a reticent artist

Shilpa Raina, April 29, 2016, DHNS 19:21 IST

Modern master

The world woke up to the artistic genius of VS Gaitonde when his abstract landscape fetched Rs 23.7 crore — a world record for modern Indian art — at Christie’s India debut auction in December 2013.

This was followed by a retrospective at Guggenheim Museum in New York in October 2014 that celebrated his luminous body of work and the artist, in particular. But much before this, around 2010, an idea was taking shape back home to document the life of this reticent artist whose reclusive nature had given birth to several myths about him and created misleading impressions of who he really was.

Five years on, the idea converted into the book Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, a three-part series that chronicles his growing up years in a chawl in Bombay (now Mumbai), estranged relationship with father, influence of miniature art and Zen philosophy in his oeuvre, an unexpected heartbreak, and his tryst with spirituality. It also highlights his preoccupation with figurative art in the early years of his six-decade old journey.

Dotted with interesting vignettes from artists like Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Nalini Malani and Ram Kumar, and his friends and acquaintances, this 250-page book also features rare pictures from his early life and handwritten letters exchanged by Gaitonde,
popularly known as ‘Gai’.

“It has been a real struggle to gather information on many aspects of his life to create a comprehensive picture of him. It was difficult to piece together his early childhood since he did not encourage his artist friends to visit him at home,” Meera Menezes, art writer and critic who has penned the book, tells Metrolife.

Helping her find missing pieces of this jigsaw puzzle was Jesal Thacker, founder of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, who conceputalised the series on Gaitonde and has published it with The Raza Foundation.

“I turned to both primary and secondary sources of research in the course of writing this book. This meant going through a lot of archival material, whether newspaper and magazine articles or books on art history,” she adds.

Menezes, in the first book, has focused on the draughtsmanship of his figurative works, his encounter and deep engagement with the work of Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, domination of geometrical forms in his later works and his slow graduation towards abstractionism.

In the introduction, she mentions that one of the reasons for writing this book has been to “create a better understanding of the man, his artistic trajectory and his seminal contribution to the idiom of Indian contemporary art... it also sets the record straight by weaving together the narratives of those who knew him”.

He, unlike his contemporary M F Husain, guarded his privacy fiercely and didn’t take kindly to intrusion. One of the anecdotes in the book sums it up perfectly: “Once, a well-known artist wanted to tag along with him on one of his walks in Connaught Place, he was told that he could do so, provided he kept his mouth shut”. His outspoken nature did build a wall of misconception around the artist which Menezes hopes to shatter.

“One of the myths is that he was taciturn, silent and forbidding, but I found he had an impish sense of humour,” she tells Metrolife.

“Another myth is that he did not care about his appearance and was frugal but I discovered a man who could be Spartan, and yet he loved the good things in life — the opera, a good meal at a restaurant and a finely tailored suit. He was an aesthete in the true sense of the word,” she adds.

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