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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

The making of VS Gaitonde: A new biography sheds light on the reclusive artist

A biography on the legendary artist VS Gaitonde (known to friends as Gai), offers a glimpse of his formative years

books Updated: Apr 21, 2016 14:41 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
At Sir JJ School of Art, August 15, 1947 (VS Gaitonde to extreme left)
At Sir JJ School of Art, August 15, 1947 (VS Gaitonde to extreme left) (Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude)

A biography on the legendary artist VS Gaitonde (known to friends as Gai), offers a glimpse of his formative years

When I don’t paint, I am not a painter. I am just an ordinary human being.” This quote by late modern artist VS Gaitonde features on the flap of his new biography, titled Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude. It sums up the ethos of the artist whose works continue to fetch astronomical prices: in December 15, 2015, an untitled oil painting by him fetched Rs 29.3 crore at Christie’s India auction, setting a record for the highest selling Indian work in modern and contemporary art.

Yet, despite the significance of his oeuvre, there is little documentation about the late artist who studied at the Sir JJ School of Art, was a member of the Progressives Artists’ Group, and was bestowed the Padma Shri in 1971.

Kudaldeshkarwadi chawl in Mumbai, where VS Gaitonde grew up (Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude)

A personal connect

Art lovers can take heart though. The biography, which released last week, highlights stories from his childhood to his formative years and his struggles. Envisioned as a three-volume biography by different authors (only part one is out so far), it will also include a documentary on Gaitonde.

Read: We check out Colaba’s latest art gallery: Akara

While the book involved five years of painstaking research, the authors — art scholar Meera Menezes and Jesal Thacker, founder of Bodhana — have been fascinated with Gaitonde’s works for even longer. Thacker recalls how during her college years at Sir JJ School of Art, she first came across a painting in a catalogue that sparked her interested in Gaitonde’s work. For Menezes, it was an interview she did with Gaitonde in 1997 for an art magazine that had a great impact on her.

Woman with Kite, watercolour and ink on paper (1953) by VS Gaitonde (Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude)

“I had heard he was a recluse. (But) I found him forthcoming and charming — certainly not the dour, stern man I had expected to meet. There are several anecdotes in the book about his sense of humour and how he loved the good things in life,” says Menezes, referring to Gaitonde’s fondness for the opera, finely tailored suits and a good meal at a restaurant.

The book mentions how Gaitonde’s earlier works were figurative, and he was influenced by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. Eventually, he evolved a non-objective style of painting.

On his own terms

While Gaitonde is known for his interest in spiritualism and Zen philosophy (he attended discourses by Jiddu Krishnamurthy and read the teachings of Ramana Maharshi), Thacker admits she discovered a new perspective to the artist while researching for the book: “He was not a mystic but a man who led his life by his own whims and necessities, irrespective of his family and friends.”

Painting no. 1, Oil on canvas (1962) by VS Gaitonde (Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude)

The project had its fair share of challenges as Thacker and Menezes found it difficult to procure information. “The years of interviewing his family and friends to get the right stories about him have been a struggle. Procuring the images of paintings and photographs involved time, money and perseverance,” says Thacker. Gaitonde reportedly made only four to five paintings a year which he sold directly to buyers, something which makes it tough to find an archive of his works.

Untitled oil on canvas works by VS Gaitonde that sold for record prices (Rs 29.3 crore and Rs 23.4 crore) at Christie’s in 2015 and 2013 respectively (Christie’s Images Limited)

While his contemporaries like SH Raza and MF Husain are better known, Gaitonde’s trajectory veered in a different direction. “His journey was different only because he chose to live in isolation and interacted with a chosen few. He did not paint to earn but lived on his work,” says Thacker.

Reading list

Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude, authored by Meera Menezes, researched by Jesal Thacker, published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation. Price: Rs 5,500. Available on

First Published: Apr 20, 2016 00:00 IST