Indian Modernist, Artist of Mystery
Credit Shalini Saran
Last December in Mumbai, as part of Christie’s first auction in India, a painting by Gaitonde sold for $3.8 million, the highest price ever for a work of modern Indian art. The auction signaled the arrival not only of this singular painter, but also of an entire generation of postwar Indian artists. Almost every work in the sale of Indian modern art fetched a price that was triple its low estimate, said Deepanjana Klein, the Christie’s vice president for South Asian modern and contemporary art.
For Gaitonde, it helped that the Guggenheim show was on the horizon. Hugo Weihe, then Christie’s international director of Asian art, told his listeners that the painting they were bidding on might well be displayed in a major New York museum the following year. In the audience was Sandhini Poddar’s mother, Rashmi, an art historian and philosopher of aesthetics. (The Poddars, who are part of the prominent Marwari business clan, had consigned work by another artist.
“What have you done?” she texted Sandhini, who was in London, as the gavel descended on the record-setting amount. Her daughter wrote back, “This is nuts.”
Credit Lee Ewing
The sale price was certainly startling, but as mother and daughter knew, it could be explained. The growth of the Indian economy over the last two decades has swelled the fortunes of the Indian business class, and with it has come an increased interest in India’s art. The trade in Indian antiquities is tightly restricted; its most fervent collectors are outside the country, in the United States and Europe. Modern Indian art awaited discovery.
The leading Indian modernist painters belonged to the Progressive Artists Group, a loose clique of painters that formed in 1947 in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called). They borrowed the techniques and formal devices of avant-garde Western painting. However, as has happened over the ages, the imported aesthetic would change as it was synthesized in India.
Gaitonde was raised in Bombay and lived there until his move to New Delhi in 1972. In 1950, he joined the Progressive Artists, painting pictures that were heavily influenced by Paul Klee. “Klee was a great god here,” said Mr. Khanna, who affiliated himself with the Progressive Artists. “Everyone felt he had opened a whole new book in painting.”
Credit Anil Rane/Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
Gaitonde, who developed a deep interest in the teachings of Zen Buddhism, gradually eliminated all figurative representation from his work. He used a roller to build up thin washes of color in translucent complexity, and a palette knife to create contrasting patches of thick impasto. In 1964, he moved for a year to New York, where he could view actual paintings by Western artists instead of reproductions.
Mr. Khanna went with him to visit Mark Rothko. “We saw Mark doing his big paintings, the black ones,” Mr. Khanna recalled. “We were both suitably impressed — Gaitonde greatly impressed.” Although Gaitonde’s paintings don’t resemble Rothko’s formally, they inspire a similar meditative mood. “When you concentrate on the painting, you are sucked into the painting,” Mr. Khanna said.
In his later years, Gaitonde would apply cutout strips to his canvas and apply his roller over them until they hovered as ghostly forms. He created only a half-dozen or so paintings in a year. Although he could be adamant about his pricing — Mr. Khanna remembered once seeing the director of the National Gallery of Modern Art approach Gaitonde to suggest a discount, then walk away quickly in obvious defeat — he showed no interest in material possessions or commercial success. “After the work was taken away, he didn’t have any relationship with it,” Sandhini Poddar said. “He went on to the next idea.”
Credit Anil Rane/Collection of Ram Kumar
His dedication to his art and self-imposed absence from the persiflage of casual daily life obviously appeal to Ms. Poddar. “She lives in a world of abstraction, almost,” her mother said. “It’s not just the notion of silence, but the experience of silence.” In 2008, Sandhini spent 10 days in a silent retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Massachusetts. On her return, she shaved off all of her long hair. “She wanted to experience detachment,” Rashmi Poddar said. “One of the things she was attached to was her hair as a sign of beauty. So she cut it off. ” It has since grown back.
Sandhini gravitated to the orbit of Rashmi and other art lovers in the family. (A cousin by marriage owns two drawings and a painting in the Guggenheim show.) “When other kids were doing cartwheels, I was at the Louvre,” she said. She melded a passion for modern Western art with a devotion to traditional India. Earning postgraduate degrees in ancient Indian culture and Indian aesthetics from the University of Mumbai, she added a master’s in arts administration at New York University.
Coming late to art history, she draws on her interdisciplinary studies as a source of insight. Referring to the rich reds and yellows in Gaitonde’s palette and to his calligraphic forms, she said: “What aspect of the miniature painting tradition is Gaitonde taking? What part of the Zen tradition?” In her view, medieval Indian art and Eastern philosophy are as relevant as the Progressive Artists Group to an understanding of Gaitonde’s accomplishment.
Credit Florian Biber/Chowdhury Family Collection, Vienna-Mumbai
Before taking on Gaitonde for the Guggenheim, Ms. Poddar oversaw exhibitions there on two Indian expatriates: the sculptor Anish Kapoor and (in a show organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles) the printmaker Zarina. With an eye to enlarging its global profile, the Guggenheim is devoting more space to artists from outside the United States and Western Europe. More controversially, as part of its worldwide mission it is establishing a branch in Abu Dhabi. Like New York University, which built a campus there, the Guggenheim has faced criticism over the conditions for construction workers.
Acquiring art from the Subcontinent that will be displayed in Abu Dhabi, Ms. Poddar is aware that people from the region constitute by far the largest demographic group, but they are there mainly as temporary workers and may never enjoy the museum’s offerings. “You have a public to serve, but it is not a museum-going public,” she said. “It is not just enough to put the collection together. Abu Dhabi is so young. At the end of the day, the question is the same: Who are you serving, and how are you going to serve them?”
Positioning Indian artists within the overall narrative of modern art is another delicate challenge. In recent decades, many Latin American artists of the mid-20th century have been recognized as central to art history. Will any Indian artists attain comparable status? Rashmi Poddar, for one, is skeptical. “Much of it is derivative,” she said. “In Indian art, we’ve always had this love of embellishment and the decorative. Indian art has never been abstract.” Christie’s Ms. Klein, on the other hand, maintains that as more museums explore modern and contemporary Indian art — she noted exhibitions in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Diego — the scholarship will deepen, winning wider acclaim for artists. It is not only the scholarship that has a way to go. Within India, the conditions for displaying art are still so undeveloped that Sandhini Poddar was unable to find a financially stable museum that could accept the Gaitonde show.
Ms. Poddar lives in England, where she is engaged to marry William Sargent, the co-founder and C.E.O. of a company that creates special effects for movies, “Gravity” among them. She is also planning to return to school to get a Ph.D. She seemed confident about Gaitonde’s stature as a world-class painter, but when the topic turned to India’s place in the history of modern art, she became a bit less certain. Asked who stood on the same rung as Gaitonde, she hesitated. “I think he is rather exceptional,” she said.
The answer on India’s role in modern art is pending; happily, the scholarship that can settle the question has begun.