Portrait, V. S. Gaitonde.  Photo Shalini Saran

V.S. Gaitonde: A primer

An introduction to the most valuable modern Indian artist at auction, a reclusive thinker and philosopher who largely eschewed material needs

Who? Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001), more commonly known as V.S. Gaitonde.

What makes him so relevant? The Guggenheim’s New York retrospective, which ran from October 2014 to February 2015, brought Gaitonde’s work to an international audience, and followed on from Christie’s debut Mumbai auction in December 2013, in which a Gaitonde work, Untitled (1979) — a golden yellow landscape in oils — sold for 237 million INR ($3.8 million), a world record for modern Indian art. Gaitonde’s Untitled (1970) sold for £962,500 (against a low estimate of £600,000) in Christie’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale in London on 10 June 2015.

What prompted the Guggenheim show? Sandhini Poddar, curator of the V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life at the Guggenheim, was deeply moved by Gaitonde’s work and its ability to invite meditation and contemplation. ‘This feeling’, she says, ‘stayed with me, and I could recall it whenever I wanted to go to a place of silence.’ Poddar had previously worked on shows dedicated to Indian expatriates Anish Kapoor and Zarina.

OK, tell us more about him… V.S. Gaitonde grew up in Nagpur in the western region of India and studied at the J. J. School of Art. In 1947, he was invited to join the Progressive Artist Group (M. F. Husain and S. H. Raza were also prominent members) and went on to become one of its leading figures.

What was so progressive about his work? We asked Arun Vadehra, a close friend of Gaitonde’s and whose gallery represents his work, to elaborate. ‘Gaitonde is perhaps the boldest artist of the Progressive generation,’ he told us. ‘In choosing the abstract form in art, Gaitonde took the road less travelled, especially by Indian artists of his generation, and devoted his skill to pursuing the art of painting as painting in itself. A visceral phenomenon of colour and technique was all that was needed. This uncoupling of the consciousness of subject away from the canvas took deep courage.’

Would it be fair to describe Gaitonde as an abstract expressionist? ‘Gaitonde never wanted to be called an abstract artist,’ maintains Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s International Head of South Asian Art. ‘His mostly monochromatic paintings have a depth that engulfs you in silence and stillness.’

And we understand those same qualities of silence and stillness were also evident in the man himself… Gaitonde was indeed a man of few words: a deep thinker and philosopher who largely eschewed material needs.

Did he mix with his fellow artists? He was reclusive, but for the few contemporaries that did spend time in his company, Gaitonde was to have a lasting impact on their art.

How so? ‘Everyone revered Gaitonde as a master,’ says Arun Vadehra. ‘Even though many of his fellow artists may not have mimicked his style outright, the traction of Gaitonde’s purity stayed with them.’

Did Gaitonde’s practice evolve over time? His later paintings differ from those he painted in the late Forties and throughout the Fifties, chiefly due to impediments resulting from a car crash in the 1980s which forced him to change the way he worked; unable to paint large canvases, he took to creating small works on paper.

Who collects his work? Gaitonde’s works reside in numerous museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (the first Western museum to purchase one of his works, in 1963) the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai. According to Deepanjana Klein, ‘95 to 98 per cent of Gaitonde’s collectors are of Indian origin, but his works are also sought out by Western collectors who got to know him during their tenure in India in the 1960s.’

Will his prices rise further? The Guggenheim exhibition will certainly have helped, added to the fact Gaitonde only produced five or six paintings a year. ‘Collectors are keenly aware of the finite body of great works available,’ says Klein. ‘The prices will only get higher as it gets harder to source his works to bring to the market.’