Pilgrim Painter: Jehangir Sabawala


March 16, 2006

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Art | Individuals

With his impeccable social graces, his dandy deportment and his luminous painterly style a la Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), Jehangir Sabavala, 83, hovers between the problematic and the passe. Ever the monastic loner in the hurly burly of the Indian art world, this gentleman Parsi painter returns to the public gaze with a highly engaging retrospective put up at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi after a similar showing at its Mumbai branch.

Curated by poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote, the large and interestingly put together show traces the painter’s journey from his art school sketches of the early 1940s to his post-cubist landscapes of 2004. Hoskote had written Sabavala’s biography Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer: The Painterly Evolution of Jehangir Sabavala some years ago, which has found reincarnation in a handsome volume The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala that has been published to accompany the present retrospective.

Sabavala trained first at the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai and then the Heatherly School of Art, London (1945-47), the Academie Julian and the Academie Andre Lhote, Paris (1947-51 and 1954) and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, Paris (1957). As Hoskote points out, Sabavala returned not only a changed man himself after his long sojourn in Europe but also as a stranger returning to a changed country: British Raj was now democratic India. Thus, argues Hoskote, Sabavala is doubly exiled-an exile as a Parsi in India and an exile from British colonialism in a democratic (and at times a sharply chauvinistic) Indian republic. Extending this premise Hoskote points out that “Through the 1950s and 1960s, Sabavala’s art was subjected to satire by the indigenists with their favoured mythology of ‘belonging’ and ‘Indianness’: He was too alien for their taste and too steeped in European civilisation to share the prevailing enthusiasm for Indian folk iconography cross-bred with a mode of figuration drawn from the School of Paris.”

What Hoskote comfortingly forgets is that the sort of art Sabavala practised was of a kind that even Paris of the day had long left behind. Cubism, we must remember, found flourish in the first two decades of the 20th century, a full 20 years before Sabavala even reached Paris.

Surprisingly, not for once does Hoskote dwell on the fact that around the time when Sabavala was painstakingly acquiring the skill to deconstruct the human figure a la the cubists, Francis Newton Souza was painting London red with Stephen Spender blowing his trumpet or that an equally monastic Ram Kumar was also studying at the same ateliers in Paris as Sabavala but with very different results. Or, for that matter, that the Kolkata painter Paritosh Sen had preceded them all in studying with first generation Parisian cubists.

Nor does Hoskote’s facile thesis hold water when he asserts that in the present globalised era when cultural moorings are fast giving way to a multiculturalism as found in the works of, say, an artist like Atul Dodiya, why should Sabavala be sacrificed at the altar of cultural chauvinism. Well, for one, even in the post-modern, post-globalisation art practice artists invariably find signifiers and metaphors that are rooted in their specific geo-cultural space. And Dodiya is no exception. In fact, Dodiya is such a success because he weds the intensely localised personal to the expanded universal.

Secondly, as Hoskote himself concedes, Sabavala’s own valourised cubism is itself tempered with a “tropicalised” gaze.

However, that notwithstanding, or perhaps because of just that, Sabavala has hardly found any serious attention in any international platform, gallery or museum. Whereas, the naive Indian folksy figurative painters have been celebrated for just those attributes.

Had Sabavala stayed on in (or returned to) Europe professionally, he would have been an exile a third time round. And sadly, but certainly he would not have merited a retrospective at a state-funded institution.

But this criticism of the biographer’s rhetoric is not meant to detract from Sabavala’s completely sincere, usually extremely competent and occasionally surprisingly sublime canvasses. Sabavala, like a classical musician who has honed his skill to perfection does painstakingly “construct” (echoes of the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius) canvasses that entice the eye and calm the mind. It really does not matter if his language is as alien or remote as the androgynous figures with Barbie doll eyes that he often paints.

Above all, Sabavala, is not overly affected by either overt celebration or acute criticism. He is too centred in his personal metier to be easily derailed. Hoskote does in a fleeting reference bring up this aspect of the painter when he refers to Sabavala’s art aiming for the state of chetovistatra (expansion of consciousness) that Indian aesthetics alludes to.

To that one could add another purpose. Like Tulsidas’ writing of the Sri Ramcharitamanas, Sabavala’s art too, is primarily “swantah sukhaya”; or for the happiness of one’s own soul. And therein, ultimately, lies every man’s salvation.



BIRTH: August 23, 1922

EDUCATION: 1940-43 Elphinstone College, University of Bombay

1942-44 Sir JJ School of Art, Bombay

1945-47 Heatherly School of Art, London

1947-51 Academie Julian and the Academie Lhote, Paris

1953-54 Academie Julian, Paris

1957 Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, Paris

ARTISTIC EXCELLENCE: Exhibited widely in India and abroad with 30 solo exhibitions and several group showings to his credit

AWARDS: Padma Shri in 1977

IN RECOGNITION: Colours of Absense, a film by Arun Khopkar on the painter

Original article here