Jehangir Sabavala's world was deceptively serene

Ranjit Hoskote, TNN | Sep 3, 2011, 07.06AM IST

Jehangir Sabavala invoked, in many of his landscapes, a homeland lost to historical vagaries and recoverable only in dream. It was easy for us, as viewers, to be seduced by the beauty of this imagined homeland: To lose ourselves among its windswept strands, crystalline lakes and cloud-hidden mountains. What called us back to an engagement with the anguish and uncertainty of this deceptively serene world was the figure, which, in Sabavala's art, was often the exile crossing wastelands in quest of anchorage; the solitary pilgrim following an elusive star; or the sorcerer conjuring up new geographies of forest and stream in defiance of the brutality of circumstance.

During the last ten years, and certainly following the lifetime retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and Delhi (2005-2006), Sabavala has come to be identified with the gracious ease of success. But success had not, in fact, come easily to him. Through the 1970s, and later in the 1990s, he had been charged with being an elitist painter dedicated to romantic evocations of alternative worlds, out of touch with what some of his contemporaries were pleased to regard as the 'real India'. Fortunately, these criticisms have been set in perspective as the strength and relevance of Sabavala's art have become more apparent.

To paint as Sabavala did was not to be escapist, a charge routinely levelled at him during the 1970s, but to address the human predicament in a manner that dramatised the paradoxical vulnerability and resilience of the individual. It was a situation that the artist knew well. He was a member of the heroic first generation of postcolonial Indian artists, who turned their gaze, trained in the academies and ateliers of Paris, to a newly emancipated society in need of sustaining myths. These artists were prepared to commit themselves to an uncertain future because they believed that art could transfigure experience, restore a lost dimension of awareness to everyday life, and to transmit subliminal realities into the domain of consciousness.

In addressing their own dilemmas as well as those of their compatriots, the artists of Sabavala's generation did not simply create a new set of pictorial languages. They also took up a specific stance towards the role of art in relation to 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.

Through the 1950s, he worked to make his paintings legible to his viewers, adapting the Cubism of his Paris training to the harsh light, the bright colours and the visual hyper-abundance of India. Through the 1960s, when he made his breakthrough discovery of what I have elsewhere called the visionary landscape, he bestowed on the rivers and mountains of India an 'auratic' radiance, an otherness that liberated them from the regime of time. And through the 1970s and 1980s, as his palette grew more muted and austere, he seemed to be responding to a history of loss by evoking the elements as the ultimate home of the homeless. The sky, during his paintings of the 1990s, is the wanderer's chosen roof. In many ways, the expansiveness of Sabavala's paintings during the last 20 years reflects the compelling 360-degree awareness that he exhibited.

To be a painter, for Sabavala, was never to be the resident of an ivory tower. He believed that the life of the studio should constantly be replenished by encounter with the broader currents of society and culture. In conversation, he was constantly and genuinely attentive to the lives and practices of others, whether they were artists, poets, critics, architects, politicians, gallerists, or auction-house professionals. The world, to him, was not only a reservoir of images; it was also a place to be enjoyed for its music of surprise and revelation.

Similarly, his acute knowledge of the secondary and tertiary art market did not grow from a fascination with the market as a source of opportunities; rather, the market was a theatre of impulses and outcomes for him, to be analysed and enjoyed for its own sake. If Sabavala has ever wanted a motto, he would perhaps have chosen Socrates' dictum, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' And life, to him, was not confined to the breath of a singular self, but stood for the complex polyphony of a society understood in all its amplitude, which made the existence of that individual self worthwhile. This awareness will be his lasting gift to those of us who had the privilege of knowing him.

In the '40s when he was at JJ School of Arts, his drawings were framed. They were very realistic academic studies which we were told to look at carefully. He often used to exhibit in Bombay. I remember going for his shows. He had a cubist way of conceiving an image. It remained with him for all his life. He had a kind of meditative approach to his medium-the way he would apply paint and conceive a figure. There was a controlled manner in which he approached subject matter and a certain serenity and balance that one saw in his work. - Atul Dodiya

He was an immensely kind individual. Besides his unforgettable elegance, something I will always carry within me is the many conversations we've had about new media and installation art, etc. Despite the fact that his own work had very little to do with these developments, he was always curious about where contemporary art was headed. - Jitish Kallat

He was a definite guide. Till date, I had been consulting him regularly on matters of art and my work. What I admired was the artisanal quality of his painting. Sabavala worked in a small studio. The way he laid out his colours before he started painting was something I admired. And I tried to have that quality, tried to be as organized. I used to admire the monochromatic underpainting. Then he would glaze it. This is an old technique that was used in a contemporary way by him. The old masters did it. - Mehlli Gobhai

He was an artist who was passionately committed to his vision. He lived through times when the concept of art had changed dramatically. But he was never swayed away from his own central vision. He was extremely generous in his willingness to talk to younger artists, to give his comments on their work. - Gieve Patel

He was a senior painter whose contribution to modern Indian art was noteworthy. I am saddened to learn of his demise, my condolences to his family and the art fraternity who will greatly miss him. - SH Raza
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