Bombay Showcase

The master of abstraction

The Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, situated on 89 Warden Road in Bombay and later named Bhulabhai Desai Road, was a hotbed of creative activity. It was here that director Ebrahim Alkazi ran his theatre unit’s School of Dramatic Art and where Ravi Shankar established the Kinnara School of Music, in addition to providing studios to dancers and artists.

Headed by Madhuriben Desai, an archaeologist, art connoisseur and daughter-in-law of philanthropist and Congress freedom fighter Bhulabhai Desai, the institute was managed by a trustee, Soli Batliwalla, a man with communist leanings and a friend of Bhulabhai Desai’s son Dhirubhai. An old, two-storey family home was partitioned to offer much-needed studio space to Gaitonde and the other artists who worked there — Dashrath Patel, M. F. Husain, Prafulla Joshi, Madhav Satwalekar, Homi Patel, graphic designers Ralli Jacob and his wife, ceramic artist, Perin, and sculptors Adi Davierwalla and Piloo Pochkhanawala. Later Tyeb Mehta’s wife, Sakina, ran a little bookshop on the verandah. The artists who were lucky enough to get studios at the institute paid only a nominal rent of one rupee a day, and then only on the days that they came. There were apparently no locks on the studio doors, which allowed artists to drift in and out of each other’s spaces, exchanging opinions and ideas.

It was an atmosphere in which Gaitonde thrived. “Artists need to be in contact with other professions ... with music, theatre, books,” he stated. “You can’t stop thinking. You have to go out of your way to listen to music. A writer must know what painting is, what music is, not just Indian music but world music. A dancer must know what theatre is.” Alkazi, who worked at the institute’s terrace theatre, staged plays there, including his interpretation of Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Rex. The visual artists were often witnesses to these rehearsals and the sculptor Adi Davierwalla was so inspired by them that he fashioned a spectacular crucifix for Alkazi’s production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. One theatrical experiment involved placing a dramatic spotlight on Husain’s abstract work, The Voice, as Zul Vellani recited the eponymously-named poem, accompanied by a piano, and for which Rudy von Leyden provided instruction.

The Bhulabhai Memorial Institute was clearly a nerve centre where the variegated strands of artistic creativity conjoined to spark new ideas and energise both the Bombay art scene and the artists contributing to it. It certainly provided Gaitonde with a stimulating atmosphere. “It was the centre of cultural activity and it was very exciting to be there. One was not enclosed. Everything that you saw affected you — theatre, music, dance. It was full of colour, you know.” Jatin Das, who as a student got a small studio there for free, remembers the institute as a throbbing place. “The terrace was really sanctified. In this very simple terrace theatre many people did many programmes. Music, pantomime, theatre. The terrace had Marcel Marceau’s pantomime. Satyadev Dube and Alkazi did plays, Mina Chitnis, son of Leela Chitnis, was a close friend. Shabana’s mother, Shaukat bhabi, had acted there. Then there was Mrs. Mehta’s piano class.”

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Gaitonde’s favourite spot on the sprawling premises of the institute was a bench near the stairs, where he would spend hours watching the lapping waves and the setting sun in utter silence. Sometimes he was joined by Laxman Shrestha, a young artist from Nepal whom he had befriended. Shrestha remembers sitting with Gaitonde on several days gazing at the sunset. After one such session, the older artist turned to him and said, “You know Laxman why I like you? You know the value of silence.” Gaitonde’s equanimity could, however, also prove irksome to his friends, as Raza’s letter to Chhabda reveals. “Gai. For me he is a problem, though for him there are no problems. His placid, calm attitude exasperated me. Everything is alright. A compliment, a criticism, an abuse seem to leave the same effect. It is wonderful to see a man made so. But it is damn irritating. But I love Gai. In his work, he has real sensibility and intensity of pictorial thought.”

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The silence and stillness that Gaitonde sought also permeate his work. In his paintings, we begin to fathom the infinite expanse of space and time signified by the perceptual joining of the sea and sky, an imaginary touching that is entirely illusory, yet no less an embodiment of oneness. Kolte suggests that the horizon captivated Gaitonde’s imagination. “We experience this duality of simultaneously existing on the horizon and viewing the same, miles away from us. It was probably this play of experiencing infinity that pushed Gaitonde back into the womb of that imaginary, evasive line.” Jatin Das, too, recalls standing with Gaitonde as he watched the sea from the institute. At low tide, when the water retreated, it thrust the black rocks on the shoreline into sharp relief. Das is convinced that it is this combination of black rocks juxtaposed against a shimmering white sea that sowed the seeds for Gaitonde’s abstract works.

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The Bhulabhai Desai days marked a happy period in Gaitonde’s life on the personal front as well. One day he came home and announced to his mother that he had found a girl he wanted to marry. He had fallen in love with painter Prafulla Joshi, who was also working at the institute. She was tall, full-blooded, loud and outspoken, and it was natural that Gaitonde was attracted to her and her vivacity. His mother was delighted to give the couple her permission to marry, as she had given up all hope of finding someone suitable and willing to put up with her son’s foibles and stubborn nature. Prafulla ostensibly worked a sea change in him. As his sister Kishori recalls, “Bal’s relationship with the girl made a sea change in the way he behaved with people. He was no longer the aloof person that he was known to be. The girl had made him sociable.”

However, Gaitonde still zealously guarded his privacy and was notorious for cutting people dead, however eminent they might be. Laxman Shrestha recalls a famous industrialist once wanting to come in and see the paintings in his studio. Gaitonde slammed the door on his face. This was a great lesson for the impressionable Shrestha, who saw in his mentor a figure impervious to the blandishments of power and wealth. There were, however, other collectors

whom Gaitonde welcomed more graciously, among them Bill Chowdhury and his wife Eleonore. Recalling a visit to his studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, Eleonore commented, “Gaitonde had just started his abstract phase and we were enthralled by his monochromatic, luminous, dreamlike canvasses. It was in l962 that we bought our first Gaitonde, a fascinating abstract canvas, in shades of red, a work which was deeply moving and conducive to meditation”. Gaitonde was often invited to the soirées organised by the Chowdhurys at their home on Marine Drive. There, the couple would display their latest acquisitions and talk of matters of art. Gaitonde was quiet and reticent at these parties, keeping mainly to himself. He was not willing to wax eloquent about his works either. “When we asked him in the course of an evening, for example, about the meaning of one of his abstract paintings, he invariably replied: “I cannot talk about my work. I just paint. And it is up to the viewer to find something in the painting.”

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But Gaitonde equally loved watching Hindi films, a passion he shared with Husain. Both often went to the cinema together and both were great admirers of the film actress Mumtaz. Anthony Quinn was another favourite of Gaitonde’s and according to Sharad Palande, a student and friend, he never missed the opportunity of watching a film in which Quinn starred.

Gaitonde also frequented Bombelli’s in Breach Candy, a favourite watering hole for people from the advertising world and owned by a Swiss gentleman. With its al fresco forecourt, continental food and supposedly the only genuine cappuccinos in town, it provided the setting for many a Sunday breakfast for the artist. He was often accompanied on these jaunts by ‘Nicky’ Padamsee. Recounting his experiences to Akbar, who was at the time in Paris, ‘Nicky’ said, “I have never had such a peaceful breakfast. For several weeks, I never said a word and he never said a word. That was so peaceful about him. You didn’t need to talk.”

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Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude is the first of a three-part series authored by Meera Menezes and published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation; see bodhana.org for more details.

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