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Indian artist V. S Gaintonde's biography explores his life

The first biography of highest selling Indian artist VS Gaitonde shows he could relish the colours of Indian miniatures as much as coconut fish curry

When we peer into VS Gaitonde’s horoscope, drawn by his father Santu, it appears like the usual hive of lines and words. It is remarkably unspectacular, until we learn that the father, learned in the matters of fate, predicted that his son would be a great success, provided he followed 'the right path'. "The right path, in those days, meant engineering, not the vagrant life of an artist," says Jesal Thacker, curator and founder of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation.

(Left to right) Sunita Shrestha, VS Gaitonde, Sharon Lowen and Jehangir Nicholson. Published in Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Mumbai, 2016.
(Left to right) Sunita Shrestha, VS Gaitonde, Sharon Lowen and Jehangir Nicholson. Published in Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation, Mumbai, 2016.

The story of how Gaitonde never looked back at his family in Goa, moved to Girgaum and studied at the JJ School of Art is a tale played on loop so often that it has become part of the Gaitonde lore. "There is more to him than the rebellion against his father," says Thacker, adding that both father and son outdid each other in stubborn resolutions.

Writer and curator Meera Menezes
Writer and curator Meera Menezes. Pic/Sharon Lowen

We are seated at Thacker's studio, Anurodh, a little further away from Mahalakshmi Temple, and turning the pages of a new book on the artist, titled Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude. We pause often, to look at photographs pooled in by a host of people — his peers from JJ, and artists Laxman Shrestha, Narendra Dengle and Krishen Khanna, who fondly address their old friend as 'Gai'. Researched by Thacker and writer Meera Menezes, who is also author of the book, Sonata of Solitude seeks to get up close and personal with Gaitonde. Over email, Menezes writes to us that with this work, she partly meant to “tease out the man from the myth and set the record straight by weaving together the narratives of those who knew him, placing them within an art-historical framework.” As the first comprehensive biography of this painter, who went on to posthumously become one of India’s highest selling artists, it is just the second book on Gaitonde. The first, written by Sandhini Poddar, was brought out as part of the 2014 retrospective, Painting is Process, Painting is Life, at the Guggenheim.

"We wanted to make Gaitonde accessible to the public. I recall how it was back in college to know about him, but have little material to read about him, his works or his life," says Thacker, who had been tinkering with the idea of this book, ever since an assignment, when in art college.

Gaitonde (extreme left) at JJ School of Art with his contemporaries. Pic/Vishwas Yande
Gaitonde (extreme left) at JJ School of Art with his contemporaries. Pic/Vishwas Yande

Work on the book has consumed the last five years, and for the researchers it has meant asking friends to share their letters from Gai, sometimes reticent family and mentors who pervaded Gaitonde’s life until his death in 2001. Menezes, luckily, could meet him back in 1997, while on an assignment for an art magazine, and a photograph from that interview appears at the beginning of the book. Looking back at that interview, Menezes, a curator and writer based in New Delhi, tell us, "I never thought Gaitonde would agree to an interview with me because he had declined to meet several art critics and journalists. But I persevered and was delighted when he finally agreed in 1997. Perhaps it was my Goan-sounding surname! I heard he was a recluse, abrupt and did not suffer fools lightly. I found him forthcoming, charming, with an impish sense of humour. Gaitonde could be a recluse but he could also be gregarious; he could be Spartan but he also had an appreciation of the finer things in life. Among other things, we also talked about the joys of coconut fish curry!"

Jehangir Nicholson, Laxman Shrestha and Vasudeo Gaitonde. Pic/Sharon Lowen
Jehangir Nicholson, Laxman Shrestha and Vasudeo Gaitonde. Pic/Sharon Lowen

The book begins like a bildungsroman, with robust anecdotes by the late artist’s sister Kishori Das, now in her seventies. What was of interest to us, is nuggets of his artistic transformation unearthed by Thacker and Menezes. There was a point when Gaitonde went from being a figurative artist to non-objective painter. In his works, you could see his interest in Basholi miniatures and the Upanishads as much as in the Swiss German artist Paul Klee and Zen Buddhism. It is an attempt to bring back to India a seven-figure-selling artist now embraced by the international art market.

Curator Jesal Thacker.  Pic/Atul Kamble
Curator Jesal Thacker. Pic/Atul Kamble

And what's an artist without those delightful tales of places he wandered in the city, his love for kanda pohe and bhaji at Velankar's, a now-shut restaurant near JJ, and Bombelli’s, an erstwhile iconic cafe in Breach Candy, famed for its cappuccinos.

The book, which was released last Friday at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), is part of a three-volume series on the artist. Both Menezes and Thacker shrug off any concerns if critics will think this is a populist choice for a biography. After all Gaitonde is the buzzword in international art markets. "The prices his works commanded at auctions did not influence my thinking about him in any way. We began this project in 2010 before his works commanded those stratospheric prices," says Menezes.

As we close the book, priced at Rs 5,500 and available on Bodhana's website (www.bodhana. org), we ask Thacker, cautiously, what the book has to say about Gaitonde’s loves, given the life of discretion that he led. There have been speculations in the art fraternity, and many a nosy person has wondered about Gaitonde’s bachelor life. “We have written about his relationships, but his love life had no great influence on his works. We want to respect that,” says Thacker.
We wonder what Van Gogh would have to say about that.

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