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Saturday, August 11, 2001

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Grand Old Man of art passes away

By Gayatri Sinha

NEW DELHI, AUG. 10. Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, widely acknowledged as India's most committed abstract artist, passed away early this morning. He was 76.

A reclusive artist who met few people at his Gurgaon residence, Gaitonde had been ailing for several years. He was committed to his own highly distinctive style of abstraction even in the face of continually altering values in Indian art.

A graduate from the famous J. J. School of Art, Mumbai, in 1948, Gaitonde remained committed to a fairly solitary vision even within artists' groups. He joined the Progressive Artists Group as an associate, like Krishen Khanna and Tyeb Mehta, in the early 1950s. He was also part of the Bombay group and exhibited with K. K. Hebbar, Mohan Samant and S. B. Palsikar. Several of his early works were executed in gouache and were figurative in nature. However, as an artist, he rapidly chartered a solitary course.

In 1964-65, he was awarded the highly coveted JDR 111 Fund to work and travel across America, where he witnessed the apogee of the American interest in abstract expressionism. In his own painting, he moved from the figurative forms of his early works to non-objective art. He also acknowledged the meditative influence of Zen on his painting which organised paint texture and seemingly abstract form on canvas in a manner that seemed to liberate rather than hold the evocations of paint.

Gaitonde was chosen for the Bombay Art Society award in 1950. In 1957 he won an award at the Asian Artists exhibition for his work `The Bird and The Egg'. During the 1950s Gaitonde worked in the famed Bhulabhai Institute where Alkazi's theatre unit and Ravi Shankar's school of music and dance were also housed. Several of the young contemporaries had their studios, such as Nasreen Mohammedi, Piloo Pochkhanawala, and MF Husain in this productive space, and it was here that Gaitonde's art underwent its formative period.

He was also part of the launch of Gallery 59 -- sponsored by the artist Bal Chhabda -- where he also had a solo show in 1961. Periodically, over the next few years, he continued to exhibit with the Progressive Group.

Gaitonde adhered to abstraction as the purest form of painting. As he said in a 1983 interview with the artist S. G. Vasudev, ``My entire outlook changed when I came to know that the Chinese have no epics to boast of -- for the simple reason that epics cover a long period of time and it is basically wrong to say, for instance, that 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 if the feeling is there. The ecstasy of the moment cannot be stretched over a long period.''

Gaitonde's teasing translucency of paint, and seemingly shifting forms that inhabit space with apparently random interest, were the mainstay of his nearly five decades long career. Critics have given his works a range of interpretations from a purely formalist language to metaphysical readings. However, in the dogged fidelity to an idea and its execution, Gaitonde's standing in Indian art is unique, as is his contribution in plotting the graph of one stream of Indian modernism.

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