New light on VS Gaitonde
A three-part series and a documentary film that try to separate the myth from the man, India’s highest-valued abstract painter
It was in 1999, while studying at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, that curator-archivist-researcher Jesal Thacker first “experienced” a Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde painting. “We had been given the daunting task of examining any one modern Indian painter and the entire batch was flipping through books and catalogues in the library,” she recalls. It was while going through page after page on figurative art that she stopped at a lustrous orange-yellow painting by Gaitonde. “It just had textures—no form or composition—and intrigued me immensely. I wanted to know more about him but there wasn’t much literature available, except for a book by Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni,” says Thacker.
This sparked off a quest to unearth information about the enigmatic artist, who died in 2001, and resulted in Thacker setting up the Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2005, in a bid to research, archive and publish material on prolific but undocumented artists like Gaitonde. It also led her to accomplish a long-cherished project: the three-part Sonata series that traces the life and art of Gaitonde. The first in the series, which was released in Delhi recently, is titled the Sonata Of Solitude and features a preface by friend and contemporary Krishen Khanna, a contribution by New York-based art critic G. Roger Denson and a biography by art scholar Meera Menezes.
The series is a collaboration between people who in their own individual capacities have been trying to separate the myth from the man that was Gaitonde. While Thacker was collecting articles on him in Hindi and Marathi and meeting his friends and contemporaries, like Laxman Shreshtha and Prabhakar Kolte, Menezes had embarked on a similar quest in Delhi. “In 2010, when I expressed my desire to do something on Gaitonde, I was told by (art curator) Yashodhara Dalmia that Meera had met Gaitonde in 1997 and would be a good person to meet regarding this,” says Thacker.
The two exchanged notes and Menezes began to pen down stories—from his childhood to the formative years at the Sir JJ School of Art, his struggle with expenses, his ambition and decision to settle down permanently in Delhi—setting these within the framework of art history.
As Thacker began to unearth material about Gaitonde, she developed the focus of the Sonata series, and decided on three volumes and a documentary. “I wanted a conceptual and comparative approach,” she says. The second in the series, Sonata Of Light, is authored by Roshan Shahani, an art critic and research writer on Hindustani music and cinema, and Narendra Dengle, an architect. It places Gaitonde at a watershed moment in contemporary art. “I felt I had to plunge into the ocean of possibilities that the largely abstract work presented to the viewer. For instance, in the study of directions and movements of paint layers, washes and ink drawings, I was persuaded to grasp meanings that emerged about stillness and a passing of time, and about infinitely changing aspects of space and the conscious mind,” says Shahani. Gaitonde, she says, dealt with colour like a scientist—considering everything from texture and weight to translucency and saturation.
In her observation, Gaitonde’s exposure to Western modernism, Indian and Zen philosophical tenets, among other things, led him to configure questions for himself in his art.
Sonata Of Light, along with the third volume, Sonata Of Consciousness, which has been authored by Denson, will be released over the course of the year. “In college, we thought that abstraction comes from the West, but (Denson) is demystifying that and taking it back to the indigenous traditions,” says Thacker. One will also get to see a documentary, Reeling A Sonata, made by Thacker, which features interviews with family and friends like Khanna and A. Ramachandran. The two volumes and documentary are slated to release by December.
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