Meera Menezes vividly remembers the time in 1997 when she interviewed Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde. It was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. The legendary modernist painter was reclusive, a man of few words, and infamous for not giving interviews. On that day, Gaitonde spoke unreservedly to Menezes about his art, but his lifetime of reservedness hamstrung her as she returned years later to write a biographical account of his life.

“There’s very little on his life in the public domain,” said the 50-year-old art writer. “I had very little to go by when I started work on this. He was not an accessible man. Writing the book was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.”

Somehow the jigsaw came together, as Menezes and curator Jesal Thacker went about their research. The result, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, provides the most detailed picture so far of the childhood and formative years of the feted artist.

A chapter in the book recalls:

“As Vasudeo grew older, his passion for art grew more intense, bordering on an obsession. He would spread his drawing materials on the floor and paint for hours, forgetting time and place. Every so often, he would accidentally dip his brush into a cup of tea, lovingly prepared for him by his mother. However, he knew that his father disapproved of his interest in the arts and he painted only after his father had left for work.”  

Sonata of Solitude, released in April, is the first in a three-part series of books conceptualised by Thacker. The remaining two parts, along with a documentary on Gaitonde, are slated for release later in 2016.

“This is something I have been meaning to do for some time,” said Menezes, who started working on the book in 2010. “I wanted to create a better understanding of the man, his artistic trajectory and his seminal contribution to the idiom of Indian contemporary art.”

Charting the trajectory proved arduous. Such is the aura around Gaitonde that it became difficult to separate the man from the myth. Born in 1924, he grew up in Bombay and attended the JJ School of Art. In the late 1940s or ’50s, he joined the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group formed by FN Souza, MF Husain and others. He received the Padma Shri in 1971, and until a few years before his death in 2001 he lived in a single-room flat in Delhi.

“It was a challenge to get interviews with those who knew him in different phases of his life,” recalled Menezes. “Close friends who were acquainted with him in both the Bombay and Delhi phases of his life, are few and far between. And many of them are no more.”

In her introduction to the book, Menezes writes: “Gaitonde did not feel it incumbent upon himself to be more accessible, either in his personal life or in his art. His taciturn manner could prove intimidating to those who did not know him...”

However in the course of her research, a different Gaitonde emerged. One with an “impish” sense of humour, someone who enjoyed the good things in life, good meat, the opera and a fine-tailored suit. “This process opened my eyes to stages of his artistic career, but also to the man he was with his close friends and family,” said Menezes.

“It was this attitude of non-attachment that informed both his life and his work,” Menezes writes. “Just like he freed himself early in his artistic career from the fetters of line and form, he strove to detach himself from the entanglements and entrapments of a worldly life. His sublimation of the self was expressed in his restrained and refined palette and served to imbue his works with not just a lyricism, but also a mystical dimension.”