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It was after seeing a reproduction of painter V.S. Gaitonde’s work that art critic Meera Menezes got interested in knowing the man in person.
It was after seeing a reproduction of painter V.S. Gaitonde’s work that art critic Meera Menezes got interested in knowing the man in person. Little did she know then that she would end up writing a book about him 20 years later. The book Sonata of Solitude is the first in a three-part series dedicated entirely to the modern master.
“When I saw his work for the first time, I was immensely fascinated because his work broke away from the figurative and narrative genre of painting that was displayed by his contemporaries,” Meera recalls.
The author managed to convince the reclusive artist to agree to an interview. “When I made my way to Gurgaon in 1997 to interview Gaitonde for the magazine Art India, I elated that he had even consented to speak to me — for he had the reputation of being a recluse, someone who would seldom meet journalists,” says Meera.
But after meeting the artist, all her inhibitions ceased to exist. “I was completely taken aback, because he didn’t come across as the formidable person I had imagined. Except for his thick glasses, nothing was severe,” she says with a smile.
After 20 years, when Meera started working on her book, she realised how little about the painter was available to the public domain. Weaving together little pieces of information and clues made her feel like an “investigative journalist and an archaeologist” all at once.
The author says, “Someone would give me some lead or some contact and then I would go trace him or her, and at times I had to make a whole out of seemingly unrelated pieces.”
As Meera mentions in the book, for her, “writing this book has been akin to putting the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle together.” And she persisted. “Because I was convinced that it was of vital importance to document the life of this important artist who seemed to have willed himself into semi-oblivion. For wasn’t he the man about whom the country’s celebrated artist, Maqbool Fida Husain, had said, ‘I am only popular but Gaitonde is a genius’.”
In the book, Meera points out several aspects that needed “a deeper excavation, but “to cross-check the facts, we had to speak to people whom he knew. But there were very few who knew anything about him. Also, many of them have passed away. Moreover, when you ask someone to recall memories that old, usually the rendering is hazy, which in our case made it even more difficult to research.”
The biggest challenge in the whole process, Meera says, was to maintain the fine balance between the man and the artist. She says, “For an artist, life plays out on his canvas. For me it was a challenge to maintain a balance and weave a story out of all the information that I had.”
Excerpt from Sonata of Solitude: A penchant for the good life
Unlike the picture that is often painted of him as austere, spartan and reclusive, Gaitonde was a bon vivant with a penchant for the good things in life — a view endorsed by Krishen Khanna: “Gai lived for something which was very immaterial in a sense. Yet he was not an old fuddy-duddy who wouldn’t talk, or wouldn’t joke or wouldn’t have fun. He liked his drink and he liked good food.”
When Gaitonde had money, nothing but the best would do. He was one of the few artists who insisted on traveling from Bombay to Delhi in first class air-conditioned comfort — this at a time when it would have cost just as much as a plane ticket.
One of his favourite haunts in Bombay was Fredericks, an expensive Chinese restaurant in Colaba, which subsequently burned down. Accompanying him on his jaunts was Laxman Shrestha, who vividly remembers Gaitonde in his Sunday best — an expensive raw silk jacket from Burlington’s (a shop in the Taj Mahal Hotel) — to go out for lunch and a film.
For the young Shrestha, this was a rare and memorable treat, more so since it was done in a style he was unaccustomed to: “He used to take me by taxi and I used to think ‘My God, an artist taking me by taxi!’ Then he used to take me to the balcony seats in a movie hall.”
Shrestha recalls Gaitonde being fascinated by filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel and the manner in which they framed their shots. His insights into these films offered the younger artist a completely fresh perspective. But Gaitonde equally loved watching Hindi films, a passion he shared with Husain. Both often went to the cinema together and both were great admirers of the film actress Mumtaz. Anthony Quinn was another favourite of Gaitonde’s and according to Sharad Palande, a student and friend, he never missed the opportunity of watching a film in which Quinn starred.
Gaitonde also frequented Bombelli’s in Breach Candy, a favourite watering hole for people from the advertising world and owned by a Swiss gentleman. With its al fresco forecourt, continental food and supposedly the only genuine cappuccinos in town, it provided the setting for many a Sunday breakfast for the artist. He was often accompanied on these jaunts by ‘Nicky’ Padamsee.
Recounting his experiences to Akbar, who was at the time in Paris, ‘Nicky’ said, “I have never had such a peaceful breakfast. For several weeks, I never said a word and he never said a word. That was so peaceful about him. You didn’t need to talk.”