A tranquil pilgrim's tale

Last Updated : 10 July 2010, 10:48 IST
Last Updated : 10 July 2010, 10:48 IST

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In a newspaper interview a couple of years ago, Jehangir Sabavala spoke about the booming art scene in India and compared it to his early years.  “I have seen days when my works would sell for Rs. 75 - 200 and I’d be considered successful for that! I’m fortunate to have come a really long way from there, not only in terms of finance but also international acclaim.”

The 88-year old Parsi painter from Mumbai has indeed come a very long way. Last month, his landscape painting titled ‘The Casuarina Line I’ was on offer at the Saffronart's summer online auction. Part of a series of three paintings made by the artist, the 29 x 49 inch acrylic on canvas painted in 2002 showed a dusky view of a desolate but serene landscape of upright trees, translucent green water and a dark sky.
The pre-sale estimate for the work was $88,890 – 111,115 (Rs 40,00,000 – 50,00,000). When the bidding concluded, its value had gone up more than three times of that estimate. It was sold for $374,900 (Rs.1,68,70,500 ), supposedly to a buyer of Indian origin.

Sabavala has had a long and remarkable tryst with art. His first solo show was held almost six decades ago in a room at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay; fellow artist M F Husain and a few carpenters are believed to have helped him put up the show.
His most recent exhibition in India was in Mumbai organised by Sakshi Gallery in 2008. Last year, the indefatigable and stylish artist who is currently battling lung cancer, had his show ‘Ricorso’ at Aicon Gallery, New York. Earlier, in 2005-06, the National Gallery of Modern Art had organised his retrospective exhibition at Mumbai and New Delhi.
Born to Bapsey and Ardeshir Pestonjee Sabavala (a qualified barrister from the Inns of Court, London), Jehangir Sabavala’s art education was exceptional. After initial training at the Sir J. J. School of Arts in Mumbai in 1944, he went to Europe and studied at the Heatherly School of Art, London (1945-47), and the Academic Andre Lhote in Paris (1948-51).  In 1957,  he attended a course at the Academic de la Grande Chaumiere (Academy of the large thatched cottage), Paris.

In 1954,  the Venice Biennale selected his art; this was the first time an Indian painter's work had been given so much prominence outside the Asian sub-continent. Winner of the Padma Shri award in 1977, Sabavala received many honours including the Lalit Kala Ratna in 2007.

Limpid tones
Sabavala’s art, with its apparent impressionist and cubist inclination, has always had lyricism and serenity. While landscapes and seascapes are his forte, his still life works and figure paintings have also been admired.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sabavala never seemed to have any interest in loud themes and colours. More often than not, his paintings are shrouded in silence and covered with obscure light and middle-tones. His is a soft and restrained palette. His colours are muted; feelings subdued; moods tranquil. “I’ve used as many as 30 tones in some drawings. But I believe that the content determines the colour. I will never sacrifice art for effect. You must marry the palette to the subject.”

Critics have appreciated Sabavala’s persistent connection with landscape. His attraction to water, his technique of transparency, his handling of light effects, his subtle coloring which invokes feelings of quietude, solitude and contemplation have attracted connoisseurs and common viewers alike.

“Sabavala has accomplished something extremely difficult in his diverse landscapes,” observed poet and painter Dilip Chitre. “He has achieved the unity of the external with his internal world... Subtleties of tonal transitions and colour relationships are his forte; and scale, not size, is his preoccupation.”

Art critic Richard Bartholomew was captivated by Sabavala’s faceted tree, the embodied mountains, the suggested shadows, the ambient clouds, precipices over which the water cascades, like dissolving muslin. “This is the repertoire of the romantic painter who is also committed. There is the relevance of distance, time, perspective, and mood. And notwithstanding the element of the dream, there is earnestness (and an acceptance of limits) in Jehangir’s work which is  vital.”

On his part, Sabavala whose works include the Purdah series, the Monk series and the Harvest series, has always felt that art is not a mechanical activity that can be done with a few paints, brushes and a canvas.  For him a certain degree of emotion and involvement is a pre-requisite. 

He confesses that his own art - a mixture of academic, impressionist and cubist texture, form and colour - acquired a distinct style in the mid-1960s. With each step he believes he has evolved a new experience; and painting became more personalised. “Movements, styles, the topical moments, all lose out to the attempt to reach deeper levels of interpretation. Horizons widen and recede, and I see myself as a pilgrim, moving towards unknown vistas.”

Art market and beyond
While he is happy that artists today are getting good exposure and money even in early stages of their career, Sabavala feels that in the race for success, much is being done without emotions and spiritual connect.

  He sees young artists often engaged in shocking and titillating works rather than producing true-to-heart art. He himself is not taken in by the cult of the grotesque.  
   He also believes that the personal bond  between an artist and a buyer has become a casualty. He is wary of unscrupulous agents who hype  artists and dump them at the earliest opportunity. Sabavala fondly recalls the good-old-days when people would purchase a painting from him over cups of tea and pay him in instalments. In recent times, he regrets to note, it has all come down to being just a business transaction.

Published 10 July 2010, 10:48 IST

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