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The Old Man and His Oils

The 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.

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
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.

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 friendship.

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 and Cezanne.

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 development.

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.

Fragrant Colours: White Veni, 1951
Veiled In Beauty: The Friends, 1983
An Eagle’s Eye For Detail: Predator, 1987
Bright: The Star That Beckons, 1991


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Jan 21, 2006

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