EDITORIAL : Breast Beating in the Times of Economic Flourish / Editor-in-Chief – Johny ML
In this editorial JohnyML, citing the life and times of V.S.Gaitonde, points out the need for the art collectors extending their philanthropic grace not only to the dead artists but also to the living ones while they really want to ‘live’.
In retrospect, modernism in anything should be seen not only as a possibility of hope but also as a lack that brought in major binaries under which the rest of the entities made colourful formations of survival and existence. Right from politics to films, from literature to art and from culture to agriculture, these binaries were visible as if those were inevitable models which defined power to aesthetics and organisation to labour. Such disparate entities one could cite in order to speak of the crushing weight of modernisms that had once helped people to dream, but today seen from a vantage point of time and space, they look preferential and partial. The binaries of modernisms need not necessarily be oppositional in views and positioning; they could operate from within the same field and at the same time express two different qualities. And it was almost like fate that the people of those days had to accept those given binaries without much criticism. These binaries used to multiply depending on the spatial, social, cultural and political spheres hence one could see how the lighter versions of these binaries were in operation in the local and regional levels. Take the dominant examples of the former USSR and the United States of America. While this binary ruled the world, at the regional level replication of the same was happening as in a parallel mirror reflection.
One may wonder why we had very few artists during those days of modernism. We speak of Souza and the name Husain tumbles out immediately. We speak of Raza, Tyeb Mehta’s name is immediately mentioned. Today, V.S.Gaitonde’s name is brought in as another binary to match with any name uttered from the Modern progressive groups. Apart from those few names, didn’t we have any other artists in this country, such a vast country with so many different languages, dialects, cultures and habits? Even if we talk about the economic activities that had been centered in and around the urban areas, in those spaces too, were artists limiting themselves to a meagre handful? Where were the others or to put in different words, where have the other artists gone? How have they vanished from our art history? Historical dispossessions are not automatic for historiography is not done by history itself. It is written by somebody and those somebodys were responsible for obliterating the other names from history forever. The names of the artists that we hear today, well deserve the accolades that they receive from their successive generations. But at the same time we cannot say that they were the only artists active in those days. Historiography in this sense had become a slave to the economic interests of that time. However we do breast beat for a poverty stricken artist like V.S.Gaitonde or Tyeb Mehta, we should know that in their lifetimes too their works were brought into the economic stream or were collected by those people who knew that their investments would not go wrong.
The difference between contemporary art and art of the modernist period is that contemporary art could dispel the lacunae in modernism. It could first of all break the binaries that have been ruling the roost for quite a long time. This collapse of binaries happened as we started hearing the names of a lot of artists not only from the urban centres but also from the regional towns and rural areas. Contemporary times, equipped with better economics, better infrastructure and above all better communication facilities through information technology revolution facilitated the establishment of more galleries both in real and virtual spaces and also it brought in a lot of interested people in various capacities to the field of art. History also freed itself from the shackles that it once wore, responding to the demands of the time and started taking a very liberal approach to art and artists. Social networking sites, online magazines and blogs have helped in forming a new historiography around art and also helped in collapsing the binaries that once ruled the art scene.
While attending a book releasing function at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, I found how the modernist binaries could be resurrected once again so that the pageant of struggle from those days could be used as a provenance to substantiate the market value of those paintings done by a modernist master. The occasion was a catalogue release; titled ‘V.S.Gaitonde- Painting as Process, Painting as Life’ and written by curator and historian Sandhini Poddar, published as a part of the retrospective exhibition of Gaitonde at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This book establishes the credentials of Gaitonde as an international artist or artist with an international stature (who is not less than Paul Klee or Kandinsky) who preferred to be known as a ‘non-objective’ painter. The text argues it well though it fails to acknowledge the stream that became stronger in non-objective painting in South under K.C.S.Panicker than in North. Though it looks like a contemporary effort to collapse an erstwhile binary in art history, it looks one sided that abstract art in India, as the books says, originated as a Bombay and Delhi-centric art style.
One may also wonder why Gaitonde is so important at this stage. Is it because the auctions of Indian art have become so boring that in every auction you see the usual suspects making the suspected amounts of money unfailingly? Is Gaitonde this season’s flavour or is he going to stay? He is going to stay we know but why Gaitonde is an interesting question. It is quite deceptive to listen to artists and art collectors speaking of Gaitonde’s poverty stricken life especially in 1980s and 1990s. By 1972, the artist was already a Padma award winner. His works have already been in circulation not only in India but also in international museum shows. And Gaitonde’s works were being collected. If he was getting money, then we should ask, where did the money go? If he was not having money then we should ask how much the collectors were giving him? Nowhere in his biography does it say that he was a spendthrift who splurged on material things. On the contrary he was a Zen follower. What had caused his poverty? He was a recluse, his friends including Ramkumar vouch for him. He did not speak much, was interested in poetry, music, literature and cinema. As Ramkumar says on record, Gaitonde was at one stage given a pension for destitute (indigent artists’ pension) and his funeral was not attended by many. Some senior members in Delhi’s art crowd, who knew things firsthand tell me that Gaitonde was not treated well by the galleries either. His exhibitions were sparsely attended. In fact he was not a name during the last two decades of his life.
Then I should say, this sudden interest in Gaitonde should be a guilt trip or a celebration of convenience. Vasudev Gaitonde did not die in a nationalised economy. He died in a liberal economy. He lived a decade more after India was liberalized. In 2001, if the artist died like a neglected human being, then the celebration of Gaitonde just after thirteen years of his death must be seen with a fair amount of skepticism. I do not doubt anybody’s intentions behind this exhibition or publication. My only doubt is why was Gaitonde poor and neglected if his works were already in major shows and were collected by major collectors? Why the philanthropy of the great collectors did not come into play in those fall days of the artist? In 2001, I believe most of the senior artists in Delhi were leading comparatively comfortable lives. Interestingly, as an art critic I had already spent almost seven years in Delhi. Not on a single occasion I had heard anyone mentioning Gaitonde’s name. His death did not make much of a ripple in Delhi’s art scene. At least I do not remember it did. But that may be my problem. However, my attempt here is to say that today with the clutches of the modernist binaries over, we should be able to bring up better historiographies so that artists are not forgotten or later on revived for wrong reasons. Today someone remembering the bad days of Gaitonde does not in fact add any value to the artist or to the person who speaks about it. We have to accept that we all have failed in saving the grace of that artist while he was living. It is a demand from an art historian and critic that the present day art collectors should extend their philanthropy not only to the works of art and the general scene of culture but to the artists who live and at times fall into bad times.
Editor in Chief