Those who knew the late master modernist VS Gaitonde well, thought of him as supremely confident — to the point of being arrogant — about his work. “He just was…,” says auctioneer and gallerist Dadiba Pundole. “In fact, he’d often say, in third person, ‘When Gai shows, Bombay comes to see’.” Recalling an incident with his father, gallerist Kali Pundole, who became the artist’s sole representative for more than two decades, Dadiba shares, “He [Gaitonde] had a show at the Taj Art Gallery during the Emergency period in November 1974. Nobody showed up on the evening of the opening and he was livid.” Gaitonde’s pal, artist, collector and filmmaker Bal Chhabda, the only visitor, made an SOS call to Dadiba’s father Kali, who ended up buying all the works. “It wasn’t a moment of magnanimity. He just responded to the show and decided to buy all of it,” says Dadiba. “Later that evening, Bal, Gai and my dad went out for a drink. Gai dropped a bomb — he said to my father, ‘Now, that you’ve bought the show, from tomorrow, you manage it’.” Kali, who was already committed to being at his eponymous gallery in Fort, put artist Adi Davierwala’s daughter Zarine to the task. “Gaitonde told me he was terribly bored, and he was only too happy for me to sit there. It was an absolute joy for me. He even gave me Rs 500 and a drawing at the end of the exhibition,” she remembers.
Nearly five decades later, Gaitonde’s 1974 show is back in the reckoning. Two works from 1974 broke records this month. On September 3, an untitled oil on canvas (60 x 40 inches) by him fetched a record-breaking Rs 32 crore on the hammer at Pundole’s auction, “Looking West: Works from the Collection of the Glenbarra Art Museum, Japan”. Gaitonde’s work not only set a world record for the late artist, but also for Indian art as a whole. Then, on September 17, another work from 1974 — an untitled oil on canvas (70 x 40 inches) — sold for Rs 30 crore on the hammer, thus making it the secondhighest bid for any Indian painting. The painting belonged to the estate of theatre personality and etiquette expert Sabira Merchant, who had bought it from Kali in 1975. She recalls: “Back then, Kali rang me up and said there were a few paintings by Gaitonde he thought that I might like. And I absolutely fell in love with two — a green painting from 1974, and another yellow geometric work from the same year.”
Incidentally, the yellow geometric work was the same painting that made it to the Sotheby’s India auction last year, which went unsold on the hammer. “For me, the decision to buy the works was spontaneous,” says the 78-year-old actor. “I just loved it so much: the construction and the colours of the paintings. I remember telling Kali Pundole at the time that it was hard for us to afford it. But Kali let me pay for them in instalments.”
Much later, Gaitonde revealed to her that the green painting was part of the exhibition at the Taj Art Gallery in 1974. Going by Pundole’s records, Gaitonde had exhibited works from 1974 only at the Taj Art Gallery. Perusing through the archives, Dadiba shares: “As per our records in the Taj show, there was one painting from 1972, two works from 1973, and four to five works from 1974. The 1977 show at Pundole Art Gallery included artworks created between 1975 and 1977.” So, while the record-breaking work from the Glenbarra Art Museum could well be from the Taj show, Dadiba cautions, “I cannot confirm it conclusively.”
Unlike many artists of his generation, Gaitonde wasn’t trying to answer the larger questions of life through figurative works. Although he was briefly involved with the Progressive Art Group and the Bombay Group, and deeply inspired by Swiss-German painter Paul Klee, by the late 50s, he had veered away from figuration and towards non-objective art. To many, in the ’60s and ’70s, Gaitonde’s canvases began to resemble his American contemporary Mark Rothko. But he didn’t appreciate the comparison. Writer Meera Menezes, who has authored the biography, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata Of Solitude, published by Bodhana Arts Foundation, says: “If in the sixties, his work was evocative of the sea and horizon, with their swathes of colour interrupted by hieroglyphic forms along a horizontal axis; in the seventies, you see the emergence of clearlydefined forms in his works. The paintings are also evocative of ancient frescos, weathered by time. Public recognition found him in 1971, when he was awarded the Padma Shri.”
Due to injuries sustained in a serious accident in 1984, Gaitonde stuck briefly to making ink on paper drawings in the mid-80s. It was only in 1989 that he returned to working on larger oils-oncanvas. Auctioneer Dinesh Vazirani estimates that unlike his contemporaries MF Husain, FN Souza and SH Raza, who have a large body of work behind them, Gaitonde must have created “roughly 400 paintings in his life.” His non-prolific career, which stretched over four decades, was marked by periods of productivity and spells of comfortably doing nothing. “It could be because of simple demand-over-supply economics that his works command the price they do,” says Vazirani.
Fellow modernist and a friend of the late artist, Krishen Khanna, has followed the two recent auctions closely. He reflects: “While Gai was confident of his work, he would have — as I have — been surprised by the prices his works are commanding today. But knowing him, he would hardly have bothered…” To Gaitonde, the sadhana of painting mattered more. “Gaitonde had no attachment to his work once it was completed. He was more bothered by the process than the painting,” says Dadiba.