The Old Man and
National Gallery of Modern Art is holding a major retrospective of Jehangir
Sabavala. In this warm piece, friend, curator and critic Ranjit
Hoskote assesses the famous artist
I first met Jehangir
Sabavala when I was in college, in 1989, with monsoon clouds of the kind
that often govern his paintings darkening Bombay’s sky. Sabavala
had been practising his art for nearly four decades at the time, and his
paintings figured among the strongest pictorial memories of my childhood.
I knew them from my parents’ scrapbook, from back issues of the
Illustrated Weekly, which during the 50s and 60s had regularly carried
paintings by emerging Indian artists.
And since my parents would take me on their rounds of South Bombay’s
gallery district, I had vivid memories of the shows that Sabavala would
mount of his work, at intervals of four or five years, in the city. The
shock of recognition was marvellous to savour when, as I was putting up
the Sabavala retrospective at the ngma recently, I found myself face-to-face
with paintings I had carefully hidden away for myself in the secret archive
of childhood memory.
But back to that overcast afternoon in 89. Sabavala and I were meeting
to build a bridge across time. At 20, I had been writing on contemporary
art for the Times of India for a year, and was editor of the Elphinstone
College student magazine. Established in 1856, Elphinstone was celebrating
an anniversary in its history, and we thought it appropriate that the
commemorative issue of the magazine should carry a painting by Sabavala.
Elphinstone had been, after all, his alma mater. And however briefly and
reluctantly he’d submitted to confinement within its flamboyant
Victorian Gothic architecture, he’d kept enough terms for us to
claim him as a distinguished alumnus.
We didn’t explain to the student body that Sabavala had renounced
Elphinstone for the Sir J. J. School of Art. Or that he had moved on,
as quickly as the chaotic aftermath of World War II would allow, to London,
where he had wanted to make a career in theatre. Once there, he realised
that painting was his true metier. In London and Paris, he apprenticed
himself to the house styles of European modernism. Returning to India,
he eventually made his true painterly commitments to the visionary landscape
and to a lyrical figure that is, by turns, pilgrim, exile and sorcerer.
Over tea, during
that first meeting, we found ourselves discussing Andrew Marvell and
Rupert Brooke rather than contemporary Indian art. Sabavala made no
attempt to guide the conversation towards his own work, until drawn
out. He then graciously gave us permission to reproduce a painting from
his ‘Bird Forms’ series of the mid-1980s, and we went together
to the press where the magazine was to be printed, where he discussed
the subtlety of tonal gradation in detail with the awestruck printers.
When the magazine appeared, the delicate colours of the painting had
predictably gone all wrong.
The first sketch in
the collection is dated
July 42. I think of how, when the graphite
touched this surface, German bombs were
raining down on London and Gandhi’s
‘Quit India’ call was only weeks away
Fortunately, Sabavala was stoic and forgiving, and by then, we’d
begun to correspond. He took a lively interest in my views on Indian
art, which were not always tactfully expressed; I found his interest
flattering and discovered that we shared many eccentric fascinations,
whether it was with the aesthetic cult of Berenson, 19th-century French
follies or Qajar painting. Getting to know Sabavala was getting to know
a sophisticated procession of selves. At the core, though, he is a meditative
painter who conceals his sense of isolation beneath a pleasantly social
exterior. The fact that Sabavala is nearly 50 years older than I am
(he is 83) hasn’t affected the friendship that developed between
us across the many conversations that followed that first meeting. The
biography that I wrote in 98, the present retrospective and the book
on Sabavala’s art that accompanies it, have all grown out of this
It’s been an honour to curate Sabavala’s retrospective for
the ngma, to bring together 63 years of his work under one roof. Of
the 133 oils, watercolours, drawings that form this show, the very first
is a student drawing dated July 42. Standing before it, I think of how,
when the graphite touched this paper surface, German bombs were raining
down on London and Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ call was
only weeks away.
The retrospective segues from phase to phase, intercutting chronology
with evidence of stylistic and conceptual shifts. My display narrative
is designed to counter the lazy belief that Sabavala acquired a signature
early on, and has never swerved from it. As we move from section to
section, in actuality, strong impasto yields before tonal brushwork;
the figures are released from their thick black outlines and become
spectral; the early blaze of red and yellow gives way to hauntingly
autumnal blues and greys, to return in a triumph of orange and vermilion.
The exhibition also argues against another stereotypical reading of
Sabavala: that he is or was a ‘Cubist’. Cubism was never
more than a rite of passage for him. He emerged through it in the mid-60s,
to embrace the Indian landscape and translate it into a panoramic visionary
invocation to sea, sky and horizon. I demonstrate this, in the display
narrative, by juxtaposing his near-Cubist paintings with works in which
he explores parallel techniques of vision. I set his geometricised still
life arrangements of the 1950s, for instance, alongside other still
life paintings that are richly sensuous, the work of an eye that has
dwelled, not only on Braque and Gris, but also on Zurbaran, Chardin
In The Crucible of Painting, too, I treat Sabavala as a figure in a
landscape vibrant with inspired individuals and a plurality of directions.
I contextualise his artistic choices, in every period, with the key
tendencies of the time: the Calcutta Group in the 1940s, the Progressives
in the 1950s, Group 1890 and the Baroda artists in subsequent decades.
I place him, also, in the sub-context of Indian artists trained in Paris,
including Padamsee and Ram Kumar. Sabavala and Ram Kumar trained with
the same Cubist academician, Andre Lhote; curiously enough, both turned
later to variations on the visionary landscape.
A retrospective can become a cult-making exercise, a very real hazard
in a society as cult-ridden as ours. Instead of mere votive surrender,
we ought to offer distinguished artists like Sabavala the true homage
of critical attention. We must look seriously at the body of work they
have produced, in a context that has not always been hospitable or conducive.
For Sabavala belongs to that pioneering generation of postcolonial Indian
artists who had the courage, in the poet-painter Gieve Patel’s
phrase, to ‘pick up a brush’ in the Republic’s infancy,
when art was regarded as a frippery to be rejected in favour of social
The development of a liberal imagination is just as crucial, in the long
run, and we cannot achieve this goal by ignoring the artists who have
been at the forefront of the struggle to keep the mind open and receptive.
Hence the importance of retrospectives and major monographic exhibitions
that offer the viewing public a chance to see an artist’s contribution
in its fullness, rather than through the occasional reproduction or via
stereotypes promoted by the crimes of careless viewing or reviewing.
Colours: White Veni, 1951
In Beauty: The Friends, 1983
Eagle’s Eye For Detail: Predator, 1987
The Star That Beckons, 1991