Some of V.S. Gaitonde’s finest works were painted in the 1960s, when he embarked on his experiments with abstraction. Painting in White from the collection of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, is typical of this period. The work is rendered in subtle and muted hues of white and beige with a horizontal swathe of contrasting colours running across the lower half of the canvas. Outbursts of smudged paint in blue and shades of brown arise from this axis, spilling above and below it. An outcrop of colours in a similar palette floats gently on the upper half of the painting while below this horizontal stretch is a dark circular form in the lower left hand corner of the painting. In several of Gaitonde’s works in this phase of his career one finds a similar horizontal band of floating forms or heavy impasto juxtaposed with a circle of colour.
Gaitonde’s deep interest in Chinese calligraphy and Japanese haiku painting manifests itself in his works from the early 1960s. Painting in White, like some of his drawings from this period, shows influences of Chinese ink painting with its refined yet bold brushwork. There is also a sense of Zen aesthetics that permeates this painting. Gaitonde discovered Zen in the late ’50s after which he forsook the figurative form, turning to a non-representational mode of painting instead. His engagement with Zen gave him a deep understanding of nature and his early forays into the realm of abstraction were evocative of both sea and landscape. One is tempted to read into this painting the rippled reflection of the sun and the landscape in a pale sea, especially in the light of the fact that Gaitonde had a studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, Mumbai, when he painted this. Here, he would sit on a bench for hours in silence contemplating the setting sun and the sea. When the tide went out, it would throw the black rocks of the shoreline into sharp relief against the sparkling white waters.
Despite the possible references to the landscape, Gaitonde’s works have primarily been about the play of light and colour. Abstraction, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the aesthetic, liberated him from depicting temporal matters. He chose to focus instead on light and line, texture and tactility, opacity and translucence, and on the evocative possibilities of colour. In this work, emotion and sensation are conveyed by the delicate use of paint. Using a restrained palette, the artist has explored the possibilities of colours, as a musician would the notes of music in an extended alaap. Here, colour also serves as a vehicle to reach the spiritual. The slow build-up of layers, the attention to tone and texture, the harmonious play of colours are all orchestrated together to convey a meditative mood.
All his life, Gaitonde disliked his works being described as abstract paintings, preferring the term “non-objective painting” instead. As he once told me in an interview in 1997, “I don’t like to use the term abstract to describe my work. Painting is painting. Every human is a human being whether Hindu or Christian. It doesn’t make a difference.”