Hemant Sareen considers VS Gaitonde, an artist who represented the Indian Modern tradition, yet stood apart from it
On the third floor of the new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, among a galaxy of Indian Modern artists displayed in separate modular enclosures, hang some works of Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde. The largest of the three canvases is a largish yellow-coloured composition that draws one closer by virtue of its vacant appearance. On closer inspection one sees a discreet structure of black impasto ridges, their surfaces cracked with age, randomly appearing from beneath the layers of paint that make the yellow field. The glowing yellow with the brackish pentimento reminds the viewer of the earthy-toned frescoes in the Ajanta caves, or the blown-up details of a radiant Renaissance landscape, much like the one behind Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”. Around the black ridges, colour has assumed a light, translucent, semi-solid form. Gaitonde’s works are often ascribed with signature luminosity. Here, awash in the grey light of the poorly-lit space, the lambency is dulled but still evident; it seems to be the raison d’être of the painting.
Canonised yet languishing in bureaucratic bleakness, Gaitonde would have remained an obscure figure among scores of other contemporary artists, had it not been for the West-led globalisation that has yoked Indian Modernism into the connected narrative of the market and art institutions. Soon after New York’s Guggenheim Museum announced an upcoming Gaitonde retrospective in June 2014, a Christie’s India auction later in the year saw a Gaitonde—not much different from the one at the NGMA—going for 23 crore rupees, or $3.7 million. The ongoing solo at the Guggenheim, curated by Sandhini Poddar, adjunct curator at the museum, is a rare honour extended to an Indian Modern artist by one of the leading art institutions in the West.
What makes Gaitonde at once represent and stand apart from the Indian Modern tradition goes beyond his immersion into its shared language, or even his restrained aesthetics with its universal vocabulary—much like that of the minimalist Nasreen Mohammedi, whom Gaitonde had mentored. For many of his contemporaries, the language was just a tool to express something. For Gaitonde, the language became the subject: it was the expression. He did not attempt to use line and colour to create forms; his forte was the exploration of the relationship between line and colour. If he captured the essence of In- dian Modernism, it was by disengaging from its effusion, its gaiety and its materialism.
Gaitonde’s initiation into formal Modernism began with his induction in 1950 into the influential Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), which was founded by FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade and SK Bakre in 1947. He trained at Sir JJ School of Art, under the tutelage of its dean, the modernist painter Shankar Palsikar, who profoundly influenced his early figurative abstracts, and is probably responsible for Gaitonde’s strong feel for colour. In her book The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Yashodra Dalmia quotes the painter Krishen Khanna, one of the PAG artists: “They [Mohan Samant, Gaitonde and Palsikar] used to work in gouache and they used to rub cowrie shell on the colour to get the colour effect… [a] technique developed by Palsikar. So this would push one colour into another which would create interesting texture and colour nuances.”
Gaitonde left PAG in 1952, and soon the essentially loose, fractious group dissolved in 1954. As Souza would put it: “The mafia had disbanded.” Gaitonde’s leaving PAG coincid- ed with the most rapid phase of his personal and artistic evolution. It began with European avant-garde influences—especially of Paul Klee and Georges Rouault—percolating into his practice in the late 1950s. “Something in his [Klee’s] use of the line excited me; I gradu- ally came to identify myself in his work. I liked Klee’s imagination and fantasy; also Rouault’s broad planes and luminous colours,” Gaitonde told Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, the author of the Lalit Kala Akademi monograph on the artist,
published in 1983. Nadkarni further conjectured that the line from Klee that Gaitonde borrowed could have gone into the later colour field-filled hieroglyphics. By 1957, Gaitonde seemed to foresee his destiny as an artist. He had come to realise what it was he was trying to manifest through his paintings, and how the insights he had gained under Palsikar’s guidance into the medium of oil paints would help him realise that. Then, there was his deepening interest in Zen philosophy followed by a decluttering of his palette. He gave up watercolours and introduced the roller and palette knives; he gave up the easel to create the colour fields. Perhaps Palisikar’s spiritual guidance was now sinking in.
The gradual turning away from all representation—barring the anthropoid shapes in later works—had other philosophical underpinnings. Nadkarni mentions Gaitonde’s tendency to be alone and reflective while he was among other artists, including MF Husain, who availed of the studio facilities at the erstwhile Bhulabhai Memorial Institute in Mumbai—a thriving cultural hub that was also home to the Alkazi theatre unit and Ravi Shankar’s music school before it was demolished to make way for a high-rise building. The press figured it out as well; in the small avalanche of coverage triggered by the Guggenheim retrospective, there have been repeated references to Gaitonde’s interest in Jiddu Krishnamurti, and of course the image of Ramakrishna Parmahansa on the artist’s refrigerator in his Nizamuddin apartment in New Delhi. Yet the spiritual impulse underpinning his work was probably informed by Western influences like the ubiquitous Abstract Expressionism.
In 1964, Gaitonde went to the United States as a grantee of the JDR 3rd Fund, where he sought out Mark Rothko and visited his studio with Krishen Khanna. Gaitonde was already into the large colour fields by the time he met Rothko, whose monochromatic canvases aimed for transcendence via an almost neurotic withdrawal from the world. If Rothko’s spiritual expression was misanthropic and nihilistic, Gaitonde’s was contemplative. He appeared to be aware of the deep silence of nothingness (shunya in the Indian spiritual tradition); a silence that is neither an escape nor a withdrawal, rather an end in itself. It is also a silence that can be shared and experienced communally. Nadkarni quoted Gaitonde: “It is not that I have nothing to say through my paintings. I may not be making a statement. I don’t have to. But what I want to express I strive to say in the minimum of words.” This could also be Gaitonde’s explanation of the term “non-objective art”, under which he categorised his abstracts.
Any celebration of Gaitonde’s art often highlights this unique spirituality that he expressed through textured, iridescent canvases. His techniques were hardly unique to him, however. “Painters these days toy with the idea of making texture meaningful, the symbol significant and colour mystical. These are part of the vocabulary of [Indian] modern painting,” wrote the late critic Richard Bartholomew, who was a friend–philosopher–guide to a host of Indian Modernists in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet few of Gaitonde’s peers deployed those techniques as single-mindedly and with such conviction to an impersonal, transcendental spirituality, or more specifically, to the non-material and formless. The neo-tantrists like Jagdish Swaminathan, GR Santosh and SH Raza, who made their abstracts out of geometrical forms, pegged themselves squarely to a fleeting trend, a fixed time in art history. They became illustrators of a cultish spirituality. Their forms are modern, but the modernity is ambivalent as they might be perceived to be prone to religious or cultural reading; their transcendentalism is incomplete.
Gaitonde’s “spirituality”—seen as a broad-ranging engagement with formlessness and the opposite of materialism—could also have been a strategy to evade any association with the times or any specific form of Indian Modern art. “My entire outlook changed when I came to know the Chinese had no epics to boast of—for the simple reason that an epic covers a long period of time and it is basically wrong to say, for instance, that any age can be heroic… Any abstract feeling—love, courage, etc—can be valid only for a given moment,” Gaitonde told art critic SV Vasudev in 1964. The fall out of that epiphany resulted in Gaitonde becoming more cautious about his work being conditioned by any passing trend or form. It led to his eschewing any architectural element in his paintings and a shift towards a more rigorous adherence to his “non-objective art” credo right up until his death in 2001.
Gaitonde’s economy of visual elements, produced through a laborious process, seems more like an attempt to achieve a deliberate abstruseness. That was the hallmark of the Modern, be it Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Joyce’s Ulysses or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It is worth considering that he came of age when independent India was very young indeed. In that context, Gaitonde’s painstaking process and the difficulty of reading his work might serve as a metaphor for the struggle—both for Indian Modern art and the then “infant” nation—for clarity of purpose and true access to modernity.
Hemant Sareen is an independent art writer and photographer based in New Delhi. He has written extensively on Indian art and was a contributing editor and an associate editor at the Hong Kong-based ArtAsiaPacific.