Vasudev Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001), whose untitled painting became the most expensive piece of modern Indian art to be sold at auction when it went for Rs23.7 crore at Christie’s inaugural auction in Mumbai on December 19, was a bit of an enigma. Painting was his life, but he left behind (relatively) few finished works because he destroyed those that did not meet his exacting standards. He never married, though he came close. Apparently the lady involved went to Gaitonde’s house and expressed a wish to buy a refrigerator, reminisces a senior artist, at which the free-spirited artist did a quick rethink on the issue of matrimony. “Today it would be a fridge, tomorrow it would be a car”, chuckles the artist.
The tale could be apocryphal, but it’s a wonderful one and illustrative of the intellectual, single-minded rigour that gave his art that quality of meditative simplicity that so many critics consider Gaitonde’s hallmark. It is also one of the very few “human” stories concerning the artist who left his family behind in Goa when he moved to Bombay in the 1940s and never saw them again.
Consequently little is known of his early life.
The Gaitonde narrative begins in 1948, the year he graduated from Bombay’s JJ School of Arts.
But even here little is known except that he would listen with rapt attention the pravachans that J Krishnamurti delivered on the lawns of the premier arts school. That was also the year in which he, along with Kishen Khanna, was invited to join the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) by MF Husain. But Gaitonde wasn’t making the “abstract” works that he is now known for; his paintings of the time were still in the figurative mode, that is, they depicted recognisable shapes, but in a stylised fashion — part influenced by the local miniature and folk traditions, and partly 20th century artists such as Joan Miro and Paul Klee. (Lot no 1 in the Christie’s Mumbai sale had a small landscape from this period which sold for Rs9,825,000 — more than 8 times its higher estimate of Rs12 lakh.) “Klee was a very big influence, especially his book Thinking Eye,” remembers artist Khanna, who knew him intimately.
Sometime in the late 1980s Gaitonde’s health declined and he withdrew from the world. Around this time, poet and Illustrated Weekly of India editor Pritish Nandy visited the barsati in Nizamuddin in Delhi where he lived, and wrote an evocative article on how his only contact with the outside world was artist Ram Kumar, rather his wife who sent food for him every day. But Gaitonde recovered sufficiently and was painting by 2000 when art historian Yashodhara Dalmia visited him for research on her book, The Making Of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives.
The noteworthy thing about Gaitonde is that his reputation as one of the most significant artists of his generation was fixed quite early. He got the Bombay Art Society award in 1950 and the first prize at the Young Asian Artists’ Exhibition in 1957; won the JD Rockefeller Foundation award in 1964-65, and showed in New York in 1959 and 1963. In fact, the Gaitonde painting currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was bought from the New York show at Gallery 63.
And he has grown in esteem. The Christie’s auction is a high point, but Gaitonde, art market specialists feel, still has a long way to go. The solo retrospective that will open at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in October next year, they say, will finally open the eyes of the world to the unique alchemy of his brush and roller.