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Gaitonde & Mohamedi at Bhulabhai Desai

Artists don’t exist in a vacuum. The feature looks at the works of two Indian artists who occupy a special niche in the art world. This feature looks at VS Gaitonde and Nasreen Mohamedi through different prisms.  


It looks at the artists through the lens of their interaction and influence on each other against the canvas of The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute. The institute was itself a microcosm of the vibrancy of Bombay, and hence, this feature explores their work in the context of the city that gripped both of them in her unique way. 

 
There are many Bombay’s that exist today, not only within the physical confines of the city we now call Mumbai, but also in the collective consciousness of the inhabitants who call it home, or who have lived and thrived here. The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute has a firm presence in one of those “Bombay’s”, alluding to a time of great cultural and artistic confluence. The Institute was the proverbial ‘melting pot’ of ideas and culture.

 Road where the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute once stood
  

The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute was situated on 89 Warden Road in Bombay. In the early 1950s, the institute became a dominant feature in the cultural landscape of the city. Today, the road where it once stood, has been renamed Bhulabhai Desai Road. Bhulabhai Desai, who was the benefactor of this important cultural space, was an eminent lawyer, freedom fighter, and congressman. The institute was aptly headed by his daughter-in-law Madhuriben Desai, an archaeologist and art connoisseur herself, and run by Soli Batliwalla, who was a trustee there.

 
One can easily understand and visualize why it was known as a hotbed of creativity. One would find sculptors, poets, artists, dancers, and theatre artists working, interacting, performing, and exchanging ideas. The most famous and known names of today worked out of the institute. In 1959, the first commercial gallery of Bombay was also started on the premises of the institute by Bal Chhabda. The terrace was akin to a stage where many performances livened up the evenings. The institute housed the renowned Ebrahim Alkazi’s School of Dramatic Art. It was the working space of several eminent artists such as V S Gaitonde, among others. Then, there was Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Kinnara School of Music.

 
Some notable artists such as M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Dashrath Patel, M. F. Husain, Prafulla Joshi, Madhav Satwalekar ,and Homi Patel worked out of the studios located at the institute. This feature talks about two of them, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) and Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990).

 
Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001)

Studying Gaitonde’s work provides a vital glimpse into Indian modernism. While Gaitonde was born in Nagpur in 1924 and spent his early childhood in Goa, his Goan parents moved to Bombay when he was quite young. The impressions that the city and the cultural mood of the times must have made on his young mind can be deduced. His family lived in Khotachiwadi, in a rented room in the ‘chawl’. Today, the structure is a heritage area.

 

UNTITLED (ABSTRACT)


What role did the city of Bombay play in his development as an artist?
Of course, the most obvious aspect points to a formal study of art. He studied at the famed Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art and graduated in 1948, though he continued to be a fellow there till 1950. Here he was exposed to Indian mural painting and miniatures, as well as the European masters. It was also here that through his influential teacher Shankar B. Palsikar, he adopted the latter’s unique methodology which involved a special watercolor technique that gave the paper an almost plastic-like finish. [1]

 
Bombay’s influence is of course deep and pervasive, just like the sea that surrounds her. The beating heart of this dynamic city lies in the constant buzz of new thoughts and philosophies. At the time, the “Progressive Artists Group” of Bombay, which included M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, and S. N. Raza amongst others, propelled a new type of modernism. 


As G.M. Butcher observed during the times,


“Bombay is one of the few cities in Asia where there is a lively temporary movement in painting. It is a mixture of the tensions of East and West, of contemporary versus academic, and of old and new-all precariously held together by a still uncertain nationalism”
and that

“Bombay's position as India's window to the West has always determined her peculiar importance to Indian life and culture”. [2]
 

 Garden by Gaitonde,1958, Lithograph on paper

 
It was precisely in this lively bustling moment that Gaitonde practiced his art in. That Gaitonde loved cinema, appreciated music, and was a voracious reader as well, somehow makes him fit into the vibrancy of the institute and also the city. A chapter titled, "The Bhulabhai Years" in one of the rare books that documents the life of Gaitonde (see 3), provides a glimpse into the multifarious cultural exchanges that took place at the Institute. It also highlights how Gaintonde was an active participant in the cultural experiences offered by Bombay, such as the cinema for instance. One can thus join the dots and observe how the city and the institute, by being ‘cultural nerve centers’, impacted his sensibilities.

 
1963, Oil on canvas

While the traditions of Indian painting were an inspiration, at the time Gaitonde lived and worked in Bombay, there was also a great influence of European modernists. The paintings of Paul Klee, especially in the use of lines and colors, as well as a certain expressiveness, also had a deep impact on him.

 
His work as an abstractionist is probably born of a result of his internalizing all these myriad influences and experiences, distilling it into a very special and unique sensibility. “Gaitonde was the 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 then goes into the painting itself. The painting then has its language, its resonance, its ups and downs, its own life, and that’s what he lived. He was very consistent with that at a time when a lot of critical opinions asked what has he got to offer?
“He only has a sensibility to offer,” artist Krishen Khanna is quoted to have said. [1]
 
In an essay titled “V.S. Gaitonde, The Thinking Eye”, (see 13) Dr. Ashrafi S. Bhagat, traces the development of Gaitonde’s abstractionism. His unique language of abstraction was something that he arrived it. As she explains, “he was initially a figurative artist and abstraction was the result of the process of working with colors and through a slow elimination of figurative elements from his work”. Soon enough, nuances, lines, movement, textures, and the play of light become more prominent in his work.

 
If one observes the evolution of his career, especially during the Bombay phase, one would also notice there is a shift to a more monochromatic palette with ink or ink and wash on paper. The influence of Zen Buddhism and the principles of calligraphy also find their way into the work. He used the roller and the palette knife to achieve a different textural effect. But above everything else, one notices that his works have an intensely sublime and meditative quality about them.

 
 Serigraph

As he painted away at his studio at the Institute, it seemed as if this was the place that offered him a complete concoction of creative influences on one hand and the gift of silence on the other. While the pulsating atmosphere of the institute provided a lot of creative fodder, there was also another kind of input, stillness ,and deep calm that this locale provided - the sea. Indeed, as the aforementioned book outlines, whilst the vibrant cultural activities seemed to have influenced him, he was also an inward-looking person. And, as you will read ahead, he did seek out many moments of solitude at the Institute, gazing at the sea.
 
Indeed, as the extract below indicates, the institute which was located right opposite the sea did offer him the space, both mental and physical, for silence and contemplation.


“Gaitonde’s favorite spot on the sprawling premises of the institute was a bench near the stairs, where he would spend hours watching the lapping waves and the setting sun in utter silence. Sometimes he was joined by Laxman Shrestha, a young artist from Nepal whom he had befriended. Shrestha remembers sitting with Gaitonde on several days gazing at the sunset. After one such session, the older artist turned to him and said, “You know Laxman why I like you? You know the value of silence.” [3]

 
This silence and stillness found their way into his work, as was bound to be. The exact impact on his work is best described by Prabhakar Kolte:


“We experience this duality of simultaneously existing on the horizon and viewing the same, miles away from us. It was probably this play of experiencing infinity that pushed Gaitonde back into the womb of that imaginary, evasive line.” Jatin Das, too, recalls standing with Gaitonde as he watched the sea from the institute. At low tide, when the water retreated, it thrust the black rocks on the shoreline into sharp relief. Das is convinced that it is this combination of black rocks juxtaposed against a shimmering white sea that sowed the seeds for Gaitonde’s abstract works,”. [3]

 
Indeed, the impact of this contemplative streak on the viewer and an observer is aptly chronicled in the words of Jesal Thacker, who says,

“Vasudeo Gaitonde has laid his own paths like that of a resolute yogi or a reductionist that is seeking attainment through self-effacement. Has the realization been attained or the self been effaced are questions still pertinent, but what is certain is that the canvases evoke a sense of aesthetic enlightenment onto the viewer capturing the gaze into an internalized process that takes you through your own journey of conscious awakening” [12]

 
In 1971, Gaitonde received the prestigious Padma Shri Award from the Government of India. This was also a year that marked his move from Bombay to the national capital, New Delhi, where he would now reside. There was also a marked change in his approach and technique. In an essay by Sandhini Poddar [1] she quotes Gaitonde’s friend artist Ram Kumar to illuminate the fact that Gaitonde missed the sea after he moved out of Bombay. The images of the waves crashing against the shores must have probably been a fixture in his mental landscape long after he left the island city.
 
Gaitonde’s sensibilities also impacted other artists who also had a studio at the Institute. One of them, very significant in her own right, was Nasreen Mohamedi.

 
Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990)

  

 
Mohamedi was a native of Karachi in British undivided India. However, due to an unstable political environment, the family moved to Bombay, more specifically, she and three of her siblings, intending to move back when conditions resumed normalcy. The cosmopolitan nature of Bombay and a family environment that encouraged education cemented her early outlook. The deep influence of post-colonial French literature, the works of Albert Camus, and the poetry of Sufi mystics resonated deeply with her. (See 4) Her formal instruction in design was at The Central School of Art and Design in London in 1954. Her father traded in photographic equipment and when she joined him in Bahrain in 1959, she also developed a keen interest in photography. When she returned to India, she settled first in Mumbai, then Delhi. Finally, she moved to Baroda, where she became a faculty member of the Fine Art Department of the M.S. University in 1973. She died in 1990 from Parkinson's disease.

 
An artistic confluence

Mohamedi secured a studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in 1959. The cosmopolitan nature of Bombay would have been a natural fit for this widely-traveled artist whose abstract art always showed signs of appeal to a wider international audience and sensibilities. It is here that the story of an artistic exchange begins. The words confluence and exchange are very relevant here. The fact that the institute was a melting pot of different forms of expression such as art, music, and theatre, and also the fact that this was a microcosm of Bombay itself, would have been ideal for both Gaitonde and Mohamedi. After all, both were themselves stirred by much more than art.
  

Nasreen Mohamedi's studio at Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute.
 

Gaitonde at the time was developing his forms, that he later termed ‘non-objective abstraction’. The visual economy seen in her works also points to her mentor’s influence, as well as probably signal a mental process where there is a sense of being engaged in some kind of artistic abstraction. 


Mohamedi’s non-objective works from the early 1960s show the influence of her mentor Gaitonde. “In Gaitonde's almost monochrome canvases and their watery ambient spaces interrupted by areas of turbulence and surface distortion, there are correspondences with Mohamedi's oils, her collages and her works on paper from the early 1960s”, quotes a critic. [5]
 
In fact, in an anecdotal article (See 6,) the author, an art connoisseur recounts his experience of amusement where he mistook an unsigned Mohamedi work for Gaitonde’s, albeit with a nagging doubt that it was similar to Gaitonde’s oeuvre, but not his painting. It is a well-known fact that Mohamedi left a lot of her art unsigned. What is intriguing about this particular incident is that a viewer, in a brief glimpse fathoms a similarity in spirit between the works of the two artists. While critics and writers have indeed documented specific influences that Gaitonde had on Mohamedi, it is interesting to get a perspective from a viewer. What is that intangible feeling of likeliness between the two? Does it point to shared sensibilities? In this case, does it point to a similar internal process that led to this abstract art? Such is the feeling that points out to the influence of a mentor on the mentee. Of course, she sought to further refine her works, through her abstraction, and indeed this minimalist signature became more pronounced over time. Yet, the meditative quality of her abstractions echoes the stillness that is evident in Gaitonde’s work.
 
Of course, many art writers have explored the specific thread of Gaitonde’s influence on her, and more so in the specific context of the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute as it was here that they interacted. “In her move towards rigorous pictorial abstraction that dovetailed with her interest in philosophy, it was with V.S. Gaitonde, an older contemporary of hers at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in Bombay, that Mohamedi developed what Deepak Ananth describes as an "elective affinity". This affinity would be evident in her approach to the few canvases she painted, yet, ultimately Mohamedi settled on exploring the possibilities of the line on paper, choosing as her focus this fundamental gesture of mark-making,” writes Brinda Kumar [10]
 
An artist is not separate from her immediate environment. Another interesting perspective to view her work is also through her studio, which was indeed highlighted by a posthumous retrospective held at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi. “A highlight of the exhibition is the reconstruction of Mohamedi’s studio, which includes a low-hanging light, a desk designed by the artist, and implements of various kinds. Even classical Indian music was a feature of her working environment; playing here, it suggests a blurring of art and life. This also is apparent in her tightly cropped black-and-white prints of wet sand, road markings, and other urban architectural sites, which give us a glimpse into how the artist experienced the world: as repetitive forms of lines uncannily hovering somewhere between representation and abstraction,” writes Alpesh Kantilal Patel, in a paper referring to the large-scale retrospective. [9]

 
Mohamedi - Her Abstraction

By 1973, when she moved to Baroda the abstraction was not very popular in the general art scene in India. Rather, a figurative narrative style was slowly growing. However, for her, abstraction took her into uncharted territories and her commitment to abstraction just grew stronger, and she developed a ‘singular language of and on her own’. [5]
  
 

Watercolour and ink on paper

An article in the Indian Express points to the spirit of her work which is best described by this line, used by the artist in one of her diary entries- “Maximum out of the minimum”. It summarizes this penchant for lines and abstraction beautifully- “Her lines, it appears, ran in tandem with her own life — with age, the shades became lighter, the lines minimal, until one could sense the evanescent ripples slowly fading away into the blank page,”. [7]
 
To study the thorough commitment to abstraction, one needs to notice her work carefully. For instance, she used lines not only where one would expect them to be used but also where one would probably expect a more curvilinear approach. “Close inspection of Mohamedi's drawn lines reveals the painstaking, time-consuming process of their making—tremors of intent slowly congregate in previously unseen calligraphy created solely with straight lines—perhaps heeding the ancient Muslim ban on figurative representation while, like Arabic calligraphy, resonating with the subject signified by its accumulation of written marks. Mohamedi navigated the paper plane with rulers, set squares, pencils, brushes, pens, ink, and a specially designed compass. She diluted her ink to different tonalities and applied the ink to the pen with a brush. She also alternated ink and graphite lines. Several weeks might readily be consumed by a single drawing as it became a meditation upon its making. "One creates dimensions out of solitude," states a diary entry from the "3rd of September, 1967," says Kertess. [8]
 
Mohamedi’s legacy goes beyond her exceptional art. She maintained personal diaries and these are probably the richest sources of information about her inner life and her deliberations on her work. For example, in 1971, she noted down a quote by Albert Camus into her notebook. It read, “A spectacular virtue that leads to denying one’s passions. A higher virtue that leads to balance them”. But what is noteworthy, as Gregory Galligan explains (see 11), is her own response to it. rather, her own dialogue with Camus if we can put it that way. She writes in her diary, “I watch the world around me with greater clarity, detachment, and understanding of the inner balance”.

 
Then there is the legacy of her photographs which today command attention as her artworks do. Both these she may have never intended for public viewing, something we could expect from an artist often did not date or name her works.  The photographs, to an observer will be reminiscent of her drawings. They were probably a kind of study which informed her art. They were probably indicative of a process of thought captured in between the genesis of an idea and the final artwork. They do provide a fascinating insight into her work and her thought process as an artist.
 
For example, Kreuger 8 describes a 1971 shot from the old Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri in northern India as a fine example of Mohamedi's use of photography. The ‘idiosyncratically geometrical composition’ echoes some of the paintings from the same period. Another black-and-white photograph captures a diagonal vision of wool threads in a loom, again hauntingly similar to her art. In a nutshell, as Kreuger mentions, “Nasreen Mohamedi would occasionally allow her art to become dramatic, even theatrical, but she would never betray her ethics of making the maximum of the minimum, nor compromise her purified vision of drawing,”.

 
Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute- Immortalised in time

 
Today, if you go looking for Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute you will see in its place a huge modern complex. Is it ironic that gated property has a tall wall, that looks imposing? It is a contrast to the times where ideas and thoughts must have flown across this very land at the speed of light. As you stand with your back to the building you will notice that there is a pleasant garden that might break your view of the sea. But at that time, one would have seen the rockery . Gaitonde would have had an unrestricted view of the sea, though even today you can see the sea beyond the park and hear the waves lashing out at the shores. The institute is no more. But as they say, the spirit lives on. The creative energies that the institute harnessed have been crystallized and captured in nostalgia, for those who seek access to that time, to that “Bombay”. The institute is true, immortalized in time.

 
References

1. See (V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life ) the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York organised a major retrospective of the artist’s works, titled V S Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life.

2. Butcher, G. (1957). Contemporary Painting in Bombay. College Art Journal, 16(2), 109-118. DOI:10.2307/772629

3. Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude is the first of a three-part series authored by Meera Menezes and published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation. 
4. Terracciano, E. (2014). Fugitive Lines: Nasreen Mohamedi, 1960-75. Art Journal, 73(1), 44-59. 

5. Watson, G. 2009. Nasreen Mohamedi: Passage and Placement. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry, (21), 28-35. 

6. Why Nasreen Mohamedi never signed her works - A rare canvas work by Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi reveals a fascinating anecdote at Sotheby’s New York auction preview in New Delhi by Rahul Kumar Published on : Mar 10, 2020, STIR. 

7. Celebrating Three Decades of Nasreen Mohamedi - IndianExpress
8. Kertess, K. (2009). A DETACHED JOY. Art on Paper, 13(5), 72-77. 

9. Nasreen Mohamedi at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

10. The Elegant Complexity of Nasreen Mohamedi

11. What Geometry One Finds On the Beach - Art Asia Pacific May-June 2007 

12. Encountering Gaitonde by Jesal Thacker

13. VS Gaitonde - The Thinking Eye

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