Born in 1924, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde enrolled in the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai in 1945. The years he spent there as a student of painting, and later as an instructor, were instrumental in setting the course that his career would take in the decades that followed.
More than providing him with an academic foundation in Indian and Western art and nurturing his innate talent as a draftsman, the School proved a liberating haven for the young Gaitonde. In addition to the space it offered him to work, compared to the cramped quarters of his family home in Girgaum, the School also provided him with financial support in the form of a scholarship and general encouragement of his decision to be an artist.
Influenced by teachers like Jagannath Ahiwasi and his senior Shankar Palsikar, who would also go on to teach there, it was at this institution that Gaitonde began his explorations of light and colour. In particular, “it was thanks to the influence of Palsikar and Ahiwasi that Gaitonde paid great attention to Indian miniatures, among them the Basholi and Jain schools [...] This study would also prove invaluable when he wanted to forsake the figurative style of his early work and move towards a non-representational visual vocabulary in the late 1950s.” (M. Menezes, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde, Sonata of Solitude, Mumbai, 2016, p. 53)
Like other artists at the School, Gaitonde was also keenly “[...] aware of the similarities between the Indian miniature tradition and the work of 20th-century European artists such as Joan Miro and Paul Klee [...] In Gaitonde’s case experimentation in this mode continued till the mid-1950s when he made the break into abstraction, a move that would prove decisive and lifelong.” (M. Chatterjee and T. Lal, The TIFR Art Collection, Mumbai, 2010, p. 94)
In 1953, Gaitonde exhibited ten paintings with the expanded Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Bombay, which he had been invited to join a couple of years earlier by founder member Maqbool Fida Husain. Markedly different from the figurative works he showed with the Group the previous year, these works on paper seemed to challenge the potential of the line. Lyrically titled, they explored the musicality and versatility of the line in non-representational art.
In Gaitonde’s works of this period, “[...] there appears to be a new fascination with linearity. Gone are the landscapes and the scenes of Indian community life, replaced instead by surfaces that have an ancient fresco-like feel to them. This is particularly true in several of his works executed between 1952 and 1954. The richness of the background, whether in watercolours or in tempera, now forms a perfect foil to the finely delineated geometrical shapes that populate his works. Circles, crescents, triangles and rectangles speak of this newfound love of all things geometrical. Lines in black ink journey together in groups of four or five – at times running parallel and at others, diverging and spreading out like the folds of a handheld fan. Yet, there is a marvellous sense of discipline and control evident in the rendering of these fine black lines.” (M. Menezes, Mumbai, 2016, p. 83)
Executed in 1953, the year of the second PAG exhibition, this small-format watercolour perfectly illustrates this conscious step the artist took in moving away from the figurative and narrative in his practice. In the absence of the figure, it is his confident black line and palette that play the central role in this composition. The artist’s growing fascination with colour and masterful handling of pigment is evident both within the spare, almost architectonic forms at the centre of the painting, and in the subtle layering of the overall iridescent wash that encompasses them.
Gaitonde’s friend and fellow artist Krishen Khanna also took part in the 1952 and 1953 PAG exhibitions. Speaking about his colleague’s work from the period Khanna noted, “Gaitonde was a perfect draftsman, he was not slovenly; there are many painters who don’t know what the line can do. He was an impeccable painter, but he left that, it was a very conscious decision not to do that, to go to the non-figurative. He goes into painting itself. The painting then has its own language, its own resonance, its ups and downs, its own life, and that is what he lived.” (K. Khanna, V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life, New York, 2014, p. 21)