No measure of V S Gaitonde's success can exceed the image credits of his paintings reproduced in the recently released Sonata of Solitude (Bodhana, Rs 5,500) that catalogue his success as India's most sought after and expensive artist at international auctions Christie's and Sotheby's. A Guggenheim retrospective, works at Museum of Modern Art in New York, Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, National Gallery of Modern Art and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, and in the collections of Kavita Singh, Gayatri and Priyam Jhaveri, the Chowdhury family in Vienna and Mumbai and several other unnamed collectors are a record of his sure climb to fame.
Which is why a lack of books on Gaitonde - Gai to his friends - has been disappointing and mystifying, an anomaly the first of three volumes in the Sonata series aims to rectify. American art critic G Roger Denson refers to renewed interest in Gaitonde's work from the point of "qualitative justice", an "overdue but accurate acknowledgement" of his "professed exaltation of modernist non-objective qualities". That task is left to Meera Menezes to carry through in this volume (the other two, written by Roshan Shahani and Narendra Dengle, and Roger Denson, on his practice, await publication).
Menezes confesses that writing the book was "akin to putting the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle together" given the paucity of information: "Gaitonde did not feel it incumbent upon himself to be more accessible." Indeed, their paths crossed but once, when Menezes interviewed him for Art India magazine, that occasion also providing the first instance when she saw his works in the original. While she makes much of her memory of that interview, Menezes had her task cut out for her. Much of the information about his early life is culled from Kishori Das, Gaitonde's much younger sister, and becomes recollective. She also interviewed his peers, the costume designer Bhanu Athaiya who was a student at Sir JJ School of Art, artists Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Laxman Shrestha, Nalini Malani, Prabhakar Kolte, Ram Kumar and dancer Sharon Lowen, and quotes extensively from critics' writings. This exhaustive biographical material, rare pictures and equally rare catalogues should provide at least some fresh fodder or his aficionados.
Gaitonde's father, Santu, was prescient that "the life of a painter was a life of penury". In the material collated for the volume are photographs of the artist in an unkempt studio-cum-bedsit strung with cobwebs and speaking of negligence. Though his paintings command a fortune, Gaitonde's own life seemed to have become particularly wretched following an accident from when on his reticence became famously reclusive - at least till he shifted to Gurgaon to live with Mamta Saran, his close friend, companion and confidante.
The book necessarily covers ground over Gaitonde's associateship of the Progressive Artists' Group, the fruitful Bhulabhai Desai Institute years, and Gaitonde's award of the Rockefeller fund fellowship, his interest in colour field painting, one of the streams of abstract expressionism (the other being action painting), which was all the rage in New York. Menezes's interest is more the person, less his art, and that tapestry provides rich fodder, even though some things remain unexplained; for instance, of his move to Delhi in the early 1970s, Menezes writes: "Gaitonde announced his decision to his family and told them that he would prefer if they never got in touch with him or tried to meet him again" without explaining the reason for such peevishness. Some other material - an exchange of letters between Krishen Khanna and Raza, for instance - seems to have been reproduced in original and transcript purely to bulk up the book, but who knows what fodder they might yet provide a future researcher.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated