In December, at Christie’s first auction held in India, when a mustard-hued, resplendent work of oil on canvas by Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde fetched 20.5 crore — an unparalleled auction price for an Indian artist — he made headlines. Before that, scholarship on and interest in Gaitonde’s art and life were limited. Around the same time, New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum announced its retrospective of the artist.

A work on display at the Guggenheim retrospective—Untitled, ink on paper, 1987
A work on display at the Guggenheim retrospective—Untitled, ink on paper, 1987

Gaitonde’s fame in India is largely posthumous, and the major body of his work has not found a large enough platform for public viewing. A contemporary of the Progressives, “Gai", as he was known to close friends such as F.N. Souza and Krishen Khanna, painted rigorously with a roller, and as such it is difficult to repair his works.

He is under-recognized and under studied, but mythologized in his country of birth. He is one of the most successful Indian Modernists at international auctions. His art defies categorization and can’t be understood merely as abstract or figurative art. In the most beautiful canvasses, his lines, swathes, colours intermingle to produce a deep, quiet and intoxicating expression of the self.

Poddar says the lack of bibliography was a challenge. She met various private collectors and visited public collections. “It was an opportunity to publish something substantial on him and bring a body of work together. We had to measure every painting ourselves, ensure the titles were correct. We found that the few books written on him are erroneous. So it was a mammoth undertaking, building a narrative from scratch."

Untitled, oil on canvas, 1963
Untitled, oil on canvas, 1963

After Poddar pitched the show to the curatorial team in New York, it took nearly two years before the show was decided. “We are committed to him as an unknown, someone who was such an important figure in his local art history but had not been valorized or studied and engaged on a global basis. Most big museums and art institutions in the West are now trying to achieve an in-depth understanding of certain artist protagonists from the non-Western world—taking up this revisionist history, of trying to fulfil gaps that have occurred in the canonization of art history," Poddar says.

Meanwhile, his reclusive partner Mamta Saran, with whom Gaitonde spent the last few years of his life in Delhi, is working on a book on the artist, and Mumbai-based Bodhana, a publisher of books on Indian art, is bringing out another book to be authored by Meera Menezes and edited by Jerry Pinto.

Painting No.1, oil on canvas, 1962

The Guggenheim show is a glimpse of the master—a repressed narrative finally finds utterance. Gaitonde’s legacy needs much more nurturing in the country of his birth.

V.S. Gaitonde: Painting As Process, Painting As Life, from 24 October-11 February at Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York. Click here for details.

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