One hears comments on Gaitonde’s work: “It’s like the grain in a block of wood,” “….like smoke,” “….like disintegrating leaves,” “….an old wall in that has suffered graffiti, “- and more interestingly, “that red painting, it’s like exposed blood and bones and tissue; there’s an element of passion an, somewhere….” A painter once commented on Gai’s sense of structure: “His work does not look constructed. It’s more like the result of some natural occurrence.

The painter has arrived, in one sense of the word. It has not been easy. Sometimes he sits surrounded by his canvases and looks at them. To him this is just as important as painting itself. He has no favourites among them. And he no longer feels the need to comment on them. One returns to the canvases:

They are sensuous. Each is unified by a single colour. The colour glows; it becomes transparent; it clots. It is this play of pigment, as it is absorbed physically into the canvas, that directs the eye. Texture is structure. How he achieves this texture is the secret of the Gaitonde style. The rest is simple.

The paintings do not gain from being shown consecutively; one does not lead into the next. It is more as if they were parallel essays under a single directive. All these paintings share an uncompromisingly vertical format. They cannot be seen from any other angle. In the application of the colour itself there is an order. This is hieratic, but implicit. It is never insistent. The colour settles and congeals into a series of approximate horizontals throwing the compositional weight somewhat lower than centre and balancing the left and right of the canvas like the arms of a scale. This order is almost deliberately obscured by the distribution of near-random forms across the surface. These topographical or hieroglyphic forms themselves are made to dissolve into the field like enamel in an encaustic.

The effect in these paintings is organic and frequently, but not always, quietistic (‘wood-grain’, ‘smoke’, ‘rotting leaves’….’blood’). The viewer is left with a feeling of refined sensuality. People frequently speak of Gai and Zen in the same breath. There is nothing “mystical” in the ordinary sense either in the work or in the painter’s intention. Where he does come close to the recent American preoccupation with colour-field as to Zen. Yet, just as Nasreen is not concerned is not concerned with optics in the western sense, so Gaitonde’s consistent regard for formalism distinguishes his work from the looser side of painters like Bhavsar or Olitsky.

Nasreen and Gai are two Indian painters whose work automatically separates itself from the mainstream of Indian abstraction at this time by a certain quality of objectivity, a sense of restraint and a degree of technical finish.

While most abstractionists in this country start by breaking up a given object into planes or by an attempt to fracture the picture-plane or to impose on it a set of symbols, they do not. They accept space. For both, disciplines space-use means rhythm. From this point on, Nasreen has moved into a tighter vocabulary of liner geometry, while Gai increasingly identifies himself with open-structuredness.

Both coincided with keen interest in the modulations of tone carried by a single surface. Nasreen has now broken this down almost chemically to black and white. Gai continues to explore the luminosities and densities of colour. As a result he retains his hold on the relationship between colour and the strong psychosomatic pull it has on the viewer.

Important to the work of either artist is their personal understanding of the relationship between Random and Order: how far is the painter in conscious control of the work or to what degree does the medium itself determine what is being said. As Nasreen moves into fuller control of what she is doing, Gai’s greatest strength (and weakness)lies in the nature of his intuitive relationship with “controlled accident”. Yet there is a qualifying factor in this difference of emphasis. Nasreen’s use of mathematical proportions operates in so far as it uncovers new problems, new mysteries. So for Gai: the Romantic rather than the Classicist, more earth-bound than ascetic; his consistent values of professionalism and mastery obtain as he gets closer to the pictorial effect that he is moving towards.

The continual work of laying on pigment, dissolving it, stripping it off, and overlaying (like a process of nature) comes to a natural close as the pigmentation comes to a natural conclusion. The painter is at the controls, he decides when the painting has arrived at its capacity to articulate, yet he registers this intuitively: “Like music, I know when it is at an end.”

So far his visual sensibility has been absorbed in the action of the painting. Now it takes over and finalizes. He takes his time about this. He lives with the painting; views it continually: “When your work takes over and obsesses you, all things become the work….”

Yet infrequently it happens that the surface fails to assimilate its elements. The painting looks unfinished though the painter decides otherwise. In certain other paintings there is a conscious attempt to frame the event. Or, as in a brown on yellow painting of late ’74 unnecessary “cohesion” on a surface that is already absorbed in itself. Why? Is this under-working or over-working a failure in timing merely; or is the painting making additional demands on the painter?

Gai is one who has finely trained his instincts and put them to work for him. But an instinct is not infallible. One is likely to learn as much about what he is after from his failures as from his successes. The painter is the same. The act of painting is the same. The formal ingredients are the same. The difference lies in the personal chemistry that makes an integral unity out of one painting and not another. This accounts for the sense of inevitability in his best work: one cannot visualize it in any other form that that in which it has been presented. When this collapses, so does the painting.

He is a solitary man aware of the odds. His mastery of colour itself comes from the will to struggle and overcome, to insist on a weakness till it becomes a source of strength; as an art student he had felt dissatisfied with his grasp of colour. He tackled the problem characteristically through extensive study of the miniatures and by repeated exercises of his own till he has mastered it to his own satisfaction. Profoundly aware of his strength and fragility he uses himself hard. His dialogue with the canvas is intimate and private till he decides to relinquish it for public viewing. Each day moves its allotted rhythm: the morning walk, the long private hours at the canvas or reading and viewing the evening drink.

He is gregarious, extrovert, even epicurean. He enjoys the human situation of the streets. He delights in films, concerts, good music, companionship. He is a metropolitan. Yethe is solitary.

It may be true, as someone pointed out recently, that most serious artists tend to experience a climacteric after a certain term of maturity. This frequently takes the form of compensation. The sensualist, aware that he has little time left, turns monastic and his work becomes again the driving force. The disciplined painter or writer may burst into increasingly open structures, loosen up, be ready for public recognition after years of personal privation.

With Gai, however, there seems to be a certain balance and a certain conscious consistency. He enjoys the good things of life, yet about his painting he is single-minded. All that he has done leads into what he is presently at work on. He is not prolific: the nature of his work and the kind of concentration he gives it inhibits this. He does not speak in technical terms of what he is doing. Indeed he barely speaks of it at all. There is an almost arrogant dignity in all this. Yet there is also an underlying logic.

He was one of the first painters in India to take to pure abstraction. (He had the advantage of training in a cosmopolitan city of India at a time when the country was becoming culturally self-aware. But this does not explain it. Gai’s discoveries were always personal discoveries. And he took responsibility for them through his formative years on.

His notebooks of 1952 and onwards indicate his basic stance. His line is elegant: untrammelled and precise. Already there is the move towards freedom within laid-down parameters, a search for rhythm. Through cluster-studies of motifs, he returns to the same subject or format, playing its variations, opening it out till he has exhausted it to his personal satisfaction. These motifs take off from natural objects, landscape, primitive and calligraphic signs.

A recent show of ink drawings of the early sixties (at Pundole’s) indicates the fluency that he could achieve through wash and calligraphy. They are understated and bold. Simple. Serial. Sympathetic to the reaction of ink on paper. By the mid-sixties he had arrived at a recognizable and individual painterly style. The classic mid-60s format consists of a rich single-field colour slashed by a horizontal in heavy impasto. Heroic. Resonant. Before the end of the decade he was to expand his range of subtle colour effects, opening up the colour itself. He would also play more intimately the physical relationship between canvas and field. Space would become increasingly ductile… The paintings themselves would show greater willingness to combine into integral statements.

For Gaitonde, art starts in intensity that moves steadily towards refining itself. The objectives, the quality one searches for comes by accident, unsought. All one can do is to apply oneself to master the craft, master one’s own sensibility, to work with almost stoic indifference and to wait on the time.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1975
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