Portrait of a recluse

Different strokes
Last Updated : 11 June 2011, 13:16 IST
Last Updated : 11 June 2011, 13:16 IST

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He is arguably the finest and the best known abstract painter of India. He is credited to have played an important role in establishing the foundation of abstraction in India. Yet Vasudeo S Gaitonde (1924 – 2001) never considered himself to be an abstract painter.

For him, in fact, there was no such thing as an abstract painting. He preferred that his work be called ‘non-objective’ instead of ‘abstract’.

Gaitonde, who received his diploma from the J J School of Art, Bombay in 1948, associated himself in the early 1950s with the Progressive Artists Group formed by
Francis Newton Souza, S H Raza, M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta and others.

He immersed himself in both figurative and abstract art, taking a fascination to the work of Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky and Georges Rouault. Paul Klee was a personal favourite: “Something in (Klee’s) use of the line excited me; I gradually came to identify myself in his work. I liked Klee’s imagination and fantasy…”

He was also influenced by Indian miniatures and confessed to copying them. “Their vivid, vital, vibrant colours attracted me. Soon, to study the colours more closely, I started eliminating the figures and just saw the proportion of colours. I experimented with this because figures can bind you. I just took patterns instead. This step marked the beginning of my interest in colour.”

In 1956, his work was featured in the Indian art exhibition held in east European countries. A year later, he won a prestigious award at the Young Asian Artists exhibition, Tokyo for his work, ‘The Bird and The Egg’.

A major turning point in his artistic career came when he received the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1964. It allowed him to travel and work across America where he came face to face with abstract expressionism. The trip was significant in many ways in his artistic development. He completely moved away from figurative art and began probing non-objective forms intensely.

He gave up his paintbrush and opted to use a roller and palette knife to construct intricate layers of colours and textures in his painting.
His works began showing Zen-like meditative restraint and minimalist strains. As he developed a unique and personal artistic vocabulary, he became a pioneer of non-representational modern Indian art.

His later influences included Zen Buddhism and Jain philosophy. He was also captivated by the poetry of Saint-John Perse (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960).

Slow and meticulous

Instead of the fast and furious method employed by many of his peers, Gaitonde preferred a slow, meticulous and labour-intensive process which involved applying layers and layers of paint on canvas; the deliberately unhurried pace impacted his productivity. In terms of numbers, by one estimate, he painted no more than 300 canvases in his whole lifetime. “If I paint any more, I’ll be repeating myself,” he reportedly told his friend and fellow-artist Ram Kumar.

“From his earliest works, executed in a small-format because he had no room to paint, to the last few canvases he completed before his health began to deteriorate, Gaitonde’s oeuvre represents one artist’s enduring efforts to transcend conventionality and find sublimation through art,” say Minal and Dinesh Vazirani of Saffronart. “In always striving for perfection and not allowing any painting he considered flawed or incomplete to leave his studio, Gaitonde’s output remained minimal.”

Gaitonde’s paintings are hailed for their mysterious forms and striking colours and textures. Containing delicate symbols, calligraphic motifs and hieroglyphs, they appear to be spontaneously rendered but still reveal amazing precision and control. Silent and subdued on the one hand, vibrant and complex on the other, his work underscores the depths of magical space within the borders of the limited canvas.

Gaitonde himself considered his work to be ‘a play of light and colour’. He saw a continuum in his work with every painting holding the seed which would germinate in the next.

Critics have observed how his works seem to straddle the duality between density and weightlessness and between form and formlessness; how he had the power to make simple objects to turn into spiritual elements; and how his paintings invoke a concealed and obscure description of the real world.

On his part, Gaitonde believed that painting was a struggle and that the artist needed to have a thinking mind in his creative process. “A painting always exists within you, even before you actually start to paint. You just have to make yourself the perfect machine to express what is already there.”

At the same time, he stressed that the painter also needed to be in control and decide when the painting had arrived at its capacity to articulate. “Like music, I know when it is at an end.”

Solitary figure

Gaitonde was known to have been an introvert and a loner by temperament, a non-conformist by nature. He is said to have isolated himself very early in his career from everything in his environment which he considered irrelevant to his identity as a painter. A solitary figure who shunned the limelight, he was regarded highly by his peers as an icon of artistic integrity.

Husain still calls him “the most important painter of our time”, while Laxman Shreshtha, himself a leading abstractionist, considers Gaitonde as his guru.
Gaitonde, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1971 by the Government of India, suffered ill health for several years before passing away on August 10, 2001 at the age of 77.

His works have attracted enthusiastic biddings at national and international auctions, particularly after his demise. Osian’s art auction on February 10, 2005 saw Gaitonde’s 1972 abstract painting receiving a record bid of Rs 92 lakh. At Sotheby’s auction held on September 17, 2009, another of his red “Untitled” works (1975 / 65 x 40 inches) got sold for $602,500. His ‘Blue Abstract’ (1965 / 40 x 50 inch) came up for auction at Christie’s auction (New York / March 23, 2010); it was sold for $554,500, overshooting its higher estimate of $350,000 by nearly 60 per cent.

Published 11 June 2011, 13:16 IST

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