Striking anomalies abound when it comes to the life, career and oeuvre of the spectacular abstractionist V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001). His paintings have continually broken records at auctions for Indian painting—most recently, 29.3 crore for an untitled, shimmering gold canvas at Christie’s in Mumbai last December. But these are rare occasions when his artworks emerge into the public gaze. Mostly, they remain hidden in private collections. Thus, the artist’s reputation has burgeoned in a cloud of mystery.

The compendious and overdue Sonata Of Solitude by Meera Menezes (“conceptualized by Jesal Thacker") outlines many other curiosities about Gaitonde. Born in—and proudly claimed by—Nagpur, the artist spent almost all his life working in Mumbai and Delhi, but persisted in calling himself a “lazy Goan". He cultivated a reputation for asceticism, aloofness, and being a living embodiment of Zen. But there are wonderful photographs of a badass bon vivant with a glass of Scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other, with Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen, his beautiful young American girlfriend, smiling happily next to him.

It is these photographs, plus invaluable early catalogues, letters and an extraordinary cornucopia of reproductions of Gaitonde’s paintings—more than 60—that above all else make Sonata Of Solitude an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the birth and development of modern and contemporary art in India, even beyond the masterly career of India’s foremost abstract painter.

Sonata Of Solitude is the first volume in the Sonata series on Gaitonde, but steps boldly into the vacuum. Menezes has an advantage over almost every other would-be biographer or writer on this topic: She actually met and interviewed the artist in 1997, recalling “an impish figure with a brown woolly cap". She notes “Gaitonde’s reclusive nature gave birth to several myths about him and the few known vignettes of his life have been blown up to create an often misleading impression of who he really was."

Ironically, one of the biggest myths about Gaitonde is probably that he was inaccessible. In reality, like his lifelong friend and crucial member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, Francis Newton Souza, he was just not very tolerant of small talk or prattle and prized his daily routine. In effect, he hid in plain sight.

Menezes quotes the artist telling abstract painter Laxman Shreshtha: “You know why I don’t meet these people? They have not come to meet me. They have come to say I have been to London. I have been to New York. I have sold my painting for so much. I am not interested. If you have come to meet me, you should sit down with me."

In contrast, when the much younger Goan artists Subodh Kerkar and Suhas Shilker visited New Delhi in 2000, they were determined to visit their senior and ventured to call despite their apprehensions. Kerkar dealt a masterstroke. “I have brought recheado-masala stuffed mackerel from Goa," he said. “Come right now," said Gaitonde, and a scheduled 45-minute meeting stretched for hours as the artist relished a conversation in his native Konkani about artistic influences, Zen and the Western classical music that he loved, and which came to have a subtle but indelible impact on his paintings.

There is one flaw: The book suffers for lack of an index, a basic and necessary requirement for a volume filled with such rich and marvellous biographical detail. That lacuna should be filled in future editions, and should certainly be corrected in the other two Sonata volumes.

But that is probably a forgivable quibble considering the evident care that has culminated in a volume that brings one of the pre-eminent cultural figures of the 20th century out from the shadows, restoring Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde to vivid three-dimensionality.

Vivek Menezes is the founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts And Literary Festival.

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