Two years after the Progressive Group emerged in the Bombay art world, Vasudev S. Gaitonde took his diploma (1948) from the J.J. School of Art. There was a recognisable spirit of revolt and experimentation in the air. The leading members of the Progressive Group, Souza, Raza and Ara, did not share a common style, and what bound them and their other colleagues ideologically was a very broad awarenessan awareness of the need to break away from the past, from a manner oppressively weighed down by academism. In the Western region, the JJ. School of Art was the only institution traditionally concerned with the task of teaching art. In the curriculam, academism no doubt played its part but the atmosphere was not wholly discouraging for those who tried to see new horizons. Gaitonde himself believes that some of the academic training which he received in the school positively benefited him. It taught him orthodox draughtsmanship, a discipline essential even for nonobjective artists. Gaitonde's co-students were also fired with the desire to break away from academism. Only time was to prove that this by itself was not enough, nor was it easy.
Gaitonde was on the fringe of the Progressive Group but he did exhibit in the first show of the Bombay Group a few years later. In a way this group was even more disparate than the Progressives. It included Hebbar, Gade, Samant, Palsikar and D.G. Kulkarni. When one uses the term "disparate", one must also emphasise that more than three decades ago the lines of demarcation between, say, Hebbar and Gaitonde were not as clearly drawn as they would be within a few years of this showing. One may call the binding spirit "vague" but one cannot question it.
The central characteristic of Gaitonde's artistic personality, it must be understood, is that he likes to stand alone. He is not an artist for groups. And so I suggest that his alliances in his early youth have no specific significance in relation not only to his later growth but also to his innate artistic being. In photographs, his favourite pose shows him with his arms crossed across each other, and there is as much intrepidity in his physical stance as in his eyes. This independent-mindedness was accompanied by a firm belief in his identity as a painter. And because of this firmness, Gaitonde isolated himself very early in his career from everything in his environment which he considered irrelevant to this identity as a painter. Gaitonde's growth over the years is marked by an increasing inwardness and a meticulous and wa.tchful consolidation of this identity. In this he is different from the vast majority of his contemporaries, among whom one counts agewise all the mode-rn painters from Husain and Ara downwards.
Even when, very early in his career, Gaitonde was painting figures, it is easy to predict his eventual journey towards the non-objective world. His The Red Ribbon (1951), which shows a young north Indian belle, is most attractively stylised. It uses few colours but the manner of painting makes for a vividness throbbing with life. But during this very period he was attempting a stylised figure. This first confrontation with a human figure-mostly female which every budding artist wants to stamp with his own identity must have entailed a typically painful struggle. Gaitonde had undergone the usual training in mural painting which follows the J.J. School diploma. He had also been fascinated by the Basholi and Jain miniatures. This influence appears to be particularly strong in a painting of three maidens in striking profile and backed by two distant peacocks belonging to the immediate post - J. J. period. The female figure changes very soon away from the influence of the miniature, as revealed in the picture of a fisher woman dated 1951.
Gaitonde had won the Bombay Art Society's Silver medal in 1950. The gold medal went to Shankar Palsikar, while Laxman Pai got the bronze. Gaitonde was very briefly in the company of these painters, as also that of Gade; but there was no interaction of any kind among muscular relationship between line and colour and explored the nature and concept of form, his compass had been limited. He had not tested his strength by handicapping himself, so to say, and tried to embrace a far greater purity of expression. This could be done only by suppressing some of the components of formal design which were too obvious and offered easy concessions. The break, when it came, had to be not only with any representation of a figure or a natural object but with this slavery of an effortlessly accessible form.
Talking to S.Y Vasudev in 1964, Gaitonde had some astounding revelations to make. "My enlire outlook," he says, "changed when I came to know that the Chinese have no epics to boast of-for the simple reason that an epic covers a long period of time and it is basically wrong to say, for instance thaI any age can be heroic ..... . Any abstract feeling-love, courage, etc.-can be valid only for a given moment. One is not in love eternally, even jf the feeling is there. The ecstasy of the moment cannot be stretched over a long period."
Of course, the conclusion that the artist arrives at, viz., a canvas has to be very quickly turned out, as if in a great creative frenzy, does not quite obtain as a permanent key to Gaitonde's process of painting. For many years now he has painted with immense deliberation. But the quotation continues to remain valid. Gaitonde is not harping on only the ephemeral quality of life; I think he is also suggesting a reluctance to tie himself down to experiences which become cliches and which, because of set emotional patterns, lose their intensity and individuality. Gaitonde has foresworn conventional sentimental connections all his life. Though born of Goan parents (in 1924), he does not claim any specific links with Goa which, in turn, provoke that typical concept about a lover of nature, etc. He has kept all his passions for music and the theatre under the lid, as it were, of reticence-and Gaitonde does have the appearance of an intellectual literally simmering, with some unexplored thought. What is worth noting is that, in his years of maturity, the thinking which impelled him to paint in a particular manner became wonderfully identified with the end-product itself. Most of the questions he was asked and most of the answers which he gave belong to what may be called the middle period of his career. For a very long period, the painting itself has been the most convincing answer, and the viewer may search the canvas itself for questions both philosophic and artistic. The time when Gaitonde produced an "instant" canvas as if the discovery of an emotional truth would slip from his hands is long past. This is but proper because the nature of this truth itself has undergone a profound change; one may say that it has assumed a patina, arevelatory one.
If we dwell over much on the question of whether to call Gaitonde's work "abstract" or not, we shall be indulging in a fruitless exercise of quibbling. Suffice it to say that reviewers of his work continued to use the word for a long time and that there came a time when, in response to what he was painting, one began spontaneously to discard the word. In the beginning, when he plunged into the jungle of abstraction and started painting average-sized as well as slightly larger canvases, it must have been a painful journey for him. This stage of transition is most perceptively captured by the art critic of Thought (Delhi) in 1960 and, therefore, he may be quoted at some length: "Gaitonde's most impressive quality was the quiet tonal harmony of his semi abstracts. These arrangements possessed what might be called animation, a kinetic power that imparted movement to the delicately balanced configurations. If they were Paul Klee-like, that was no criticism; for Gaitonde governed their formulations with a feeling for form that was imperative. He managed to make each construction in colour an organ that had its own internal, harmonic life.
"In this exhibition there are two Gaitondes, really speaking-the researcher, and the artist who has returned to his placid beauties. The work of the intelligent researcher is written large on the florid, impasted constructions with colour, works that are chequered, cross-chopped and strung with a counterpoint red. These are eye palettes, no more, some sort of moulds .for the culture of colour. There are too many points of interest for a consummate enjoyment, too many props for the purpose to be articulate. "
It is worth speculating that the calligraphic drawings and the preoccupation with hierolgyphs which one places among his early work served as a sort of initial bridge for Gaitonde's stepping into the world of abstraction. This impulse was to guide him for a long time and, in actual result, cross the whole range from the elementary to the subtle. The logical culmination of this was one day to be the opening of the doors of Zen, doors of a perception which admitted the light with immense finality. On this long and arduous road, as Gaitonde dispenses with titles for his paintings, there are first works which continue to adopt the colour textures of the "Klee" period. Instead of the linear configurations, however, there are very bold triangular and parabolic constructions whose differing sizes maintain an exciting interplay. These forms appear to float and seek anchor and they are no doubt members of that same family of hieroglyphs which interested Gaitonde in the late fifties. There are also erect shapes which remained one of the stones at Stone-henge but in Gaitonde's paintings their identity is uninhibitedly one-dimensional.
Working with the palette knife, Gaitonde paints with a full consciousness of the role that light would play in the interaction of colours on his canvas. Sometimes this appears to work as an obsession. At least when one now looks at Gaitonde canvases of the early nonobjective phase they seem to be more explicit than they should be. Perhaps, that elusive moment of revelation had not struck him. To achieve something on the physical plane, with paint and texture and light, and simultaneously to sound something imperceptible beyond -it was some time before he was to realise automatically the significance of such a process. Reviewing his work in 1959, Richard Bartholomew calls him 'a quiet man and a painter of the quiet reaches of the imagination.' Gaitonde, during this period, is fast learning his craft, so to say. If in some canvases, the shapes which cross the painting horizontally convey the appearance of a fence-often a barbed wire fence full of pointed spikes-it is, indeed, the evocation of an apt image. What would have appeared like so much paint spilt on the canvas is held together with a singular determination and the entire canvas area controlled with supreme force. In the large, flat areas of colour (which may be called a thematic statement) one finds floating recurring forms which the artist has conceived spontaneously while organising his colours. As they run through the canvas, these forms are knit together by a very strong logic which works two ways : confirming an internal relationship endowed with a spinal quality and managing a confrontation with the area of pure paint.
It is worth emphasising that Gaitonde is gradually eschewing the accidental element in his work. The play of colour is always in control, with the vertebral forms serving as a disciplining factor. There is an evocative power in these paintings which operates on more than one level: there is a sense of atmosphere, there is an approximation of music and, what is most important, there is a throbbing mystery about the very process of viewing and responding as if one is sucked into some still centre of hitherto unknown experience. At this stage, Gaitonde was awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship and he could expose himself to contemporary art in Europe and the U.S. at a point in his career when such acquaintance would be broadly useful. Gaitonde has already exposed himself to a highly sophisticated intellectual routine. He was both himself a mature painter and was in a receptive mood. He absorbed this experience with a detachment characteristic of his attitude to life and art.
What he saw did not create any trauma for him; on the other hand, he feIt confident of the road he had already taken and, one may say, itching to get back to work. In the middle sixties we find him already poised for the most meaningful achievements of his career. In every way it was a decisively revolutionary thrust forward.
The new phase has displayed sustained growth and vitality during the past 15 years. There has rarely been a false move. Each canvas is a vast, translucent, pool of paint, a reminder that the materials available to the artist themselves surrender the maximum of values. We would be tempted to quote McLuhan and say that "the medium is the message" except for the fact that, in these paintings, the medium is not separate from the so-called content which that famous modem thinker believes to be sidetracked in any contemporary projection of the media. At this stage, Gaitonde works very meticulously with a roller. The canvas looks like an ocean; to carry the simile further, it is as if we are looking down on the mildly lapping waters of the sea near a pier and, in the half light, gazing at things surfacing or floating in the water. The motifs in these canvases literally surface in the pool of paint, and they convey a variety of associations. While we are on the subject of half-lit sea water near the docks, it is as well conjuring up the rakish painter hero of Joyce Cary's "The Horse's Mouth". He is crazy about surfaces which he wants topaint, and so we find him always looking with glee at virgin surfaces. Ultimately, his desire grows so irrepressible that we find him gloating over the vast, rusted, surface of a tramp steamer's side.
Many of Gaitonde's canvases possess that mystery, that tension between a translucent surface -red, blue or brown - and the motifs which lurk on the same canvas but from some distance.
There is a logical connection between the calligraphic exercises and the flourish of hieroglyps in his early work on the one hand and the character of the motifs in the new canvases. Gaitonde was already steeped in Japanese motifs long before his interest in Zen began to feature in his creative impUlses. His sketches and drawings are full of exercises in this direction, and one admires not only the architectonics of these hieroglyphic designs but also their genuineness. Such patterns are now meaningfully deployed in the paintings. They also perform a stylistic function by organising the formal ·' tensions in the available space and by quietly dramatising the interplay of light, texture and space. A conscious-· ness of space developed naturally in the painter. Writing many years ago, Shamlal said : "Even in Gaitonde's abstract (sic) canvases, don't the large red or mauve or blue surfaces remind us in some vague way the intensity of outer space, and the circles and squares which break up this surface of strange planets?" But Gaitonde has already moved further from this stage and he deals with the canvas itself as an arena of space, so that filling it, lighting it up, forcing it to yield a moment of revelation akin to music that becomes a manifold challenge. And talking of music, this is exactly how I visualise Gaitonde's painting, tuning up his canvas, working on the strings susceptible to two complementary disciplines and creating a sound which is unique, complete and spontaneous.
The role of Zen in Gaitonde's art is likely to be exaggerated. He is not the type of painter to wait for. either, and emotional influence or a philosophy to propel him. If we study Gaitonde's work over the past three decades or so, it is not difficult to detect a certain logicality in the direction taken by his art. It was inexorably moving towards a state of contemplation. H was not that he discovered Zen but that there was an inevitable meeting between a way of thinking and a mind continuously exploring its relationship with the external world. About Zen it is said that it leaves "the open ~pace to be filled in by the mind". But it does not set the mind thinking; it only causes itself to poise on what it knows. Zen believes that the humblest of things, when meditated upon, can give rise to . the most astounding intuitions, even in a moment. A bit of crumpled string or paper, or the edgc of a leaf, 'can inspire the greatest intuitions of understanding or of beauty. From this point of view, one may venture to identify the mysterious motifs, the highly personalized hieroglyphs, in Gaitonde's canvases with manifestations of such intuitions. What appears to me more important is the fact that Gaitonde has consistently moved forward during this long and major phase of his career, inching as it were his way forward through subtle mutations. Only occasionally has one found him trying a manner with some tentativeness, as when he had started "framing" the canvas surface itself with broad swathes of colour. One is tempted to call his canvases monochromatic but that can be quite misleading, considering the luminousness of his colours and the variations, they are subjected to. Another convenient phrase for describing his painting is "spiritual"; and it goes with "peace". But it is not distinctive enough and, besides,Gaitonde'S canvases have a very strong physical, often sensuous, identity which one would like to connect with his personality. We have no dearth of contemplative painters pouring out pseudo-spiritual visual schemes on to canvas ; and one would not like to see Gaitonde in the role of a rishi whose painting is not impassioned, not materially dynamic before it approaches one's soul.
I believe that pictorial art and non-objective art progresses in alternating waves. Gaitonde has stood like a rock in the sea of fashion. His achievement is as real as it is historic.