The landscape of an artist: Remembering Jehangir Sabavala

MF Husain helped Jehangir Sabavala mount his first exhibition at the Taj Mahal Palace in Apollo Bunder. This year both exited the scene, leaving India’s art world a lot less colourful. Sabavala died on  Friday at the age of 89.

They came from very different worlds. Husain was from a working class Muslim family. Sabavala was from Mumbai’s Parsee aristocracy. But both were giants in their own way, the grand old men of Indian painting.

Jehangir Sabavala, with his splendidly curled Dali-esque mustache, and old-world Altamount Road elegance, completely with cravat and waistcoat, led the almost storybook life of the gentleman artist. Educated in Mumbai, he had lived in London, studied in Paris and  returned to Mumbai and became one of its great social and artistic lights.

He was remembered by friends and colleagues as one of the great characters of Mumbai. He had splendid antecedents for that role.

 The landscape of an artist: Remembering Jehangir Sabavala

Jehangir Sabavala, with his splendidly curled Dali-esque mustache, and old-world Altamount Road elegance, completely with cravat and waistcoat, led the almost storybook life of the gentleman artist. screen grab from

His mother Bapsy was famous for her collection of dolls. She not only took them out for drives,  according to Malavika Sangghvi, if she decided any of them had fallen ill, she had no hesitation about calling some of the city’s leading doctors even if it was in the middle of the night.

Sabavala was a worthy son, to the manor born remembers Namita Devidayal in a luminous tribute in the Times of India.

Sabavala was a gracious gentleman who took care of the smallest detail. He was always impeccably dressed, silk cravat neatly tucked into his shirt collar and moustaches twirled just so. In fact, if he weren't so brilliant, he could almost have been dismissed as a dandy.

But Sabavala was a brilliant (and hugely successful) painter. Last year one of his serigraphs fetched $400,000.  His The Casuarina Line sold for Rs 1.7 crore in 2002. His unsold Cobweb Clouds is up for sale at Sotheby’s on 15 September . But Devidayal writes “he belonged to a bygone planet and was fundamentally different from the arrivistes who sought to acquire his paintings with ostentatious haste.”

According to Ranjit Hoskote, he was often called an escapist, an elitist romantic out of touch with the “real India.”  But Hoskote writes that Sabavala was one of the first generation of post-colonial Indian artists, who trained in the ateliers of Paris, had to figure out how Cubism could be applied to the “harsh light, bright colours and visual hyper-abundance of India.”

Though he didn’t have the financial angst of many other artists, like others of his generation, he also took specific stances about the role of art in social transformation.

Some, like M F Husain, became the playful chroniclers of the great Indian narrative of transformation. Others, like Tyeb Mehta, dedicated themselves to the creation of archetypal images that spoke of the cataclysms of a society divided against itself. And Sabavala, over the six decades of his painterly career, chose to develop and deepen a body of images that had close linkages with the thrum of the subcontinent yet opened up vistas of reverie and meditative silence.

Jehangir Sabavala - The Tree (1965) . Photo by Cea/Flickr

“He had a cubist way of conceiving an image” remembers Atul Dodiya. “I remember the monochromatic underpainting,” recalls Mehlli Gobhai. “An acclaimed master who decided upon Cubism as his preferred method of artistic choice, he continued to evolve the expression to create tranquil and mysterious spaces (landscapes, seascapes, even cityscapes) with remarkable depth and tactile sentiment,” writes Tina Ambani for the Economic Times. “Over the years, his figures, silent, often solitary, began to emerge with more definition although they remained at a distance; palpable yet beyond reach.” "He had this diary where he would jot down every single detail of his paintings,”  reminisces Manvinder Davar, owner of India Fine Art gallery. “Years ago one of my clients, who bought his painting, wanted to authenticate it. I took it to him and discovered that the grill in the painting was one that was right there in his house!"

Artist Baiju Parthan, an old friend, writes in the Economic Times about a San Juan de la Cruz poem he had once shared with Sabavala, which Sabavala had loved.

The conditions of a solitary bird are five: The first, that it flies to the highest point; the second, that it does not suffer for company, not even of its own kind; the third, that it aims its beak to the skies; the fourth, that it does not have a definite colour the fifth, that it sings very softly.

Jehangir Sabavala has flown the nest.

Updated Date: Sep 03, 2011 12:58:51 IST