Zen and the art of silence

V.S.Gaitonde’s first posthumous retrospective is a testament to the influence of Mumbai in his work, says Zahra Amiruddin

August 09, 2019 10:10 pm | Updated 10:10 pm IST

A soft patter can be heard in the corridors of a historic Mumbai museum, as rain bounces off stonewalls and concrete. The sound is almost indistinguishable, like a buzz in the background. Inside a gallery in the museum, the sound takes on a different form. The walls speak in solemn voices, whispering in hues of blues, greys, and patches of yellow. The conversation exists between paintings by non-objective artist, V.S.Gaitonde (1924-2001), whose first posthumous retrospective is on display in the city.

Artistic introspection

Thirty-two works by the renowned artist have been curated in a show titled The Silent Observer, which explores his oeuvre from the 1950s to the 1990s. Fondly known as ‘Gai,’ by his peers F.N.Souza, and Krishen Khanna, who were collectively a part of the Progressive Art Movemen – the seemingly complex artist was rather simplistic in his beliefs. His comfort with silence, and long periods of introspection, became synonymous with his art.

The show brings together various facets of Gaitonde’s artistic style through three city-based collections. Works from the Jehangir Nicholson collection, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and the Pundole Art Gallery, make up a significant portion of the exhibition, along with three paintings from the Darashaw Collection and the Glenbarra Art Museum, Japan. The show has been carefully put together by Kamini Sawhney, curator at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF), and Dadiba Pundole, who was closely associated with Gaitonde until the artist’s death in 2001.

An urban artist

Like many who came before and after him, Gaitonde’s practice was heavily influenced by Mumbai, where he studied and resided until the late 60s. Born and raised between Nagpur and Goa, the modernist refined his art at the J.J. School of Art in 1948, and later went to New York on the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1964. On returning to ‘Bombay’, Gaitonde hired a balcony studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute for a daily rent of one rupee.

Sawhney recounts instances where Gaitonde sat on a bench outside the Institute for hours on end, staring out at the sea. His blue paintings are testament to these experiences, with distinctive elements of the shore, rocks, and a perceptual horizon lingering in the distance. Standing before them, one feels the waves settling over the chaos of the city, drowning it in silence. As Pico Iyer states in his essay for Bombay, Meri Jaan, “a Bombay changeless as the sea,” Gaitonde’s paintings depict an intangible coastline, with a consistent blue, representative of this changelessness.

Changing oeuvre

When studying at the JJ School of Art, Gaitonde was largely inspired by figurative work. He immersed himself with miniatures, to explore their tonality and composition. The exhibition showcases his shift into linearity and symbolism in the mid-1950s, introduced through the work of Swiss-born German artist, Paul Klee. Gaitonde’s untitled works brim with swathes of multiple colours, heliographics, calligraphy, and shapes, and are characteristic of non-objectivity (he was against using the term abstract). “He also disliked naming his paintings as untitled, because that too became a title of sorts,” Sawhney shares.

Together, the figures in Gaitonde’s paintings seem as if they’re dancing to the tone of a bittersweet symphony. His work exemplifies his passion for Western classical music that he shared with Pundole, and abstract artist Laxman Shreshtha. The artist strongly believed that the interaction with various artistic practices were a stimulus for creating his own. He closely associated himself with musicians, theatre personalities like Ebrahim Alkazi, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, ceramists, sculptors, and dancers, who explored their art under one roof, at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute. When the art hub closed in the late 60s and Mumbai progressively became unaffordable, Gaitonde, along with other artists, made the move to Delhi.

Notes from the past

As Sawhney and I walk past a wall that displays the artist’s calligraphy paintings from the 80s, she points out the burn marks on the edges of the multiple canvases. Since they seem deliberate, they’re easy to miss, but are significant to Gaitonde’s time in the Capital. An animated Sawhney shares how these works were rescued from a blazing fire at Gaitonde’s partner, Mamta Saran’s flat in the city. The artist, who had at that time, suffered a major spinal injury, was quick to save the works before they were incinerated. “After being knocked over by a rickshaw in the 80s, Gaitonde was unable to paint on large canvases. These smaller works changed to incorporate a lot more calligraphy and symbolic elements,” elaborates Sawhney.

Gaitonde’s immersion in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism also played a role in his art. Pundole recounts the days when he visited the artist’s studio and was often privy to a completed painting hanging on the wall, and a canvas with a flat coat of uniform pigment on his easel. “He would contemplate that ground colour for days, maybe weeks, until he was ready to put paint to canvas,” shares Pundole adding how Gaitonde was only interested in the current piece he was working on. “He was not concerned if the others remained or not,” he emphasises.

Even though the illusive artist gained recognition and fame only after his demise in 2001, he was consistently celebrated by his peers. M.F.Husain hailed him as a genius, and Shreshtha regarded him as one of the most captivating individuals he had ever come across. In 2013, Gaitonde’s untitled minimalist landscape was auctioned at ₹ 29.3 crore at the Christie’s India auction, and set the record for being the highest-selling Indian artwork in modern and contemporary art. And yet these are all tangible pieces with price tags. These are works that are available for public consumption. The mystery lies with the ones, which Gaitonde created in his head. As Pundole recalls him saying, “I paint every day, I have limited energy now and can’t waste it on putting paint to canvas. But I paint every day.”

V.S. Gaitonde, The Silent Observer , is ongoing at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS until November 3.

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