Archiving a master

Georgina Maddox | Updated on January 20, 2018

Vasudeo Gaitonde   -  Meera Menezes

Sonata of Silence; Meera Menezes, Jesal Thacker Bodhana; Raza Foundation Non-fiction; ₹5,500

Sonata of Silence; Meera Menezes, Jesal Thacker Bodhana; Raza Foundation Non-fiction; ₹5,500

Meera Menezes attempts to create a definitive record of the life and works of VS Gaitonde, one of India’s most important abstract painters

Book-length writings on the late Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) have been few and far between because of the reclusive nature of the abstract painter. Sonata of Solitude, a new book about Gaitonde’s life and works, may go a long way in filling this gap. It has been produced and researched by Jesal Thacker (director of Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation), and authored by art critic Meera Menezes.

Despite “willing himself into oblivion”, Gaitonde’s genius has been acknowledged over the years. An unbeaten record at Christie’s of ₹23.7 crore in 2013, followed by his 2014 solo exhibition at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, have made Gaitonde a much sought-after artist. Sonata of Solitude traces the artist’s journey, delineating his major influences, from Wassily Kandinsky to Paul Klee and the writings of Helena Blavatsky.

Following are excerpts from a conversation with Menezes.

VS Gaitonde was known to turn away journalists. How did you manage to land the interview with him in 1997 (that, according to your introduction, was key material for the book)?

In hindsight, I think it was perhaps my Goan name that raised his intrigue! I was persistent and plain lucky that he chose to give me an interview. I had no idea when I interviewed him (for Art India magazine, in 1997) that I would be writing a book on him. When I met him he was wearing a little cap and thick-rimmed glasses. At the time, I was surprised to find him laidback and accessible. I had expected him to be withdrawn and foreboding. Instead, we talked about our common love for Goan fish curry before approaching his work. He also liked that I didn’t ask him any personal questions. That was 20 years ago and I may have asked him different questions had I interviewed him later. As it turned out, this interview was an important springboard for the book. I was excited when Jesal Thacker approached me to do the book, but it took longer than we expected. It was envisioned as a one-year project, which we began in 2011, but it’s been in the works for five years now. It was difficult to research with my full-time job. Collecting information on Gaitonde was not easy.

Tell us about the process of bringing the various elements of the book together.

Besides my own research, we have contributions from Krishen Khanna and the Raza Foundation. Khanna generously opened up his archive to us. We have images from Kishori Das, who contributed rare photos of a young Gaitonde, while Sunil Kaldate, who was instrumental in creating the only documentary film on Gaitonde, contributed images and anecdotes. The book also features many images by Werner Dornik, who was present during the 1997 interview. Jesal Thacker contributed a lot of research as well, while Pablo Bartholomew gave us access to the estate of his father, the art critic Richard Bartholomew.

Who is your ideal audience for the book?

Ideally, we would like the book to be accessible to all, which is why we didn’t go down the art jargon path. We wanted to separate the man from the myth and provide archival material for scholars of art. However, it is difficult to write about abstract art, since figuration lends itself to narrative and social causes. The social relevance of his works was of no particular interest to Gaitonde.

One of his most significant thoughts was: “A social and humane cause may serve the cause of painting but that is not the purpose of painting. We painters and musicians do not express through words. But because of the increasing number, as well as propaganda of art critics and writers, what we want to ‘say’ remains unsaid!”

Would the book have been possible if Gaitonde’s work had not acquired top prices at the Christie’s auction or the solo exhibition at the Guggenheim? To what extent, would you say, is commercial success important?

As I had stated earlier, the book began in 2011, which pre-dates the Christie’s auction and the solo at the Guggenheim. While commercial success is important, the intent of the book was to bring all the existing photographs, catalogue essays, important works and influences of the Master together in one book. Many people have the misconception that Gaitonde stopped painting in the 1980s after his accident. It is true that he did not put brush to canvas for a while, but he was constantly painting in his head and he made a significant amount of black-and-white drawings. The book also brings attention to his love for the Japanese Zen Garden and Chinese landscape paintings, both of which played an important role in his formative years.

There has been criticism that abstraction as a movement has lost steam. What do you think?

I don’t think we can say that internationally there has been a death of abstraction. Some may feel that artists have exhausted the possibilities, but it can take many forms. Even in new media, the video works of Nalini Malani and Akbar Padamsee, hint at the many unexplored dimensions to this movement.

Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer

Published on May 27, 2016

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