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Sep 27 2011

Jehangir Sabavala (1922-2011)

by Kathy Zhang

Courtesy of artist and Aicon Gallery, New York

On the morning of September 2, one week following his 89th birthday, Indian modernist Jehangir Sabavala passed away at Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai due to lung cancer. Sabavala, an important pioneering force among India’s post-colonial artists, was also the first Indian artist to achieve the level of international recognition he did in 1954, when his works were chosen to display at that year’s Venice Biennale.

Born in 1922, in Mumbai, to the aristocratic Cowasji Jehangir family, Sabavala was fortunate enough to study at prestigious arts institutions in Mumbai, London and Paris. After graduating from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art in 1944, he trained at the Heatherley School of Art in London from 1945 to 1947. He moved to Paris the following year to study at the city’s ateliers, including the Académie of cubist painter-sculptor André Lhote from 1948 to 1951.

After his long sojourn abroad, Sabavala returned to India in 1951 to a newly liberated country greatly changed from the homeland that he left. That same year, he held his first solo exhibition at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, marking the start of his painting career. One of the first generation of Indian artists to study extensively in Europe, Sabavala’s deeply ingrained Expressionist styled landscapes set him apart from the brusque and loud-colored compositions of his contemporaries, such as MF Husain, SH Raza and others belonging to the popular Progressive Artists’ Group.

Indifferent to the fashionable rebellious style, which sought to shatter preexisting notions of national identity, Sabavala looked to the cubist paintings of German-American Lyonel Feininger for inspiration, adopting Feininger’s subdued palette and formulaic construction of form and space, before developing his distinct style by the mid 1960s. While less harshly angular, The Radiant Cloud (1975)—considered one of Sabavala’s masterpieces—with its crisscrossing sweeps of greyish blue and light russet that define the central mass of clouds, and the minute ghostlike figures who wander the painting’s desert landscape, bears resemblance to Feininger’s Vogel Wolke (1926).

During a period when themes of “Indian-ness” and the pursuit of a uniquely Indian style were driving forces in the contemporary art scene, Sabavala was disparaged in the 1950s and 1960s as a “westernized elitist,” who was out of touch with “real India.” On the other hand, his ethereal or wraithlike evocations of the physical world earned him the regalement of the poets Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto‚Äč and Arundhathi Sumbramaniam. They viewed Sabavala’s work rather as allegoric landscapes of dislocation of an artist who found himself an émigré in Democratic India as he was in Europe. Sabavala, when questioned on his predilection for painting landscapes, told art historian Yashodhara Dalmia in a 2004 interview, “I think, as a painter, in all those hours spent alone, you are not only thinking of the painting. You are thinking of yourself, of death, of mortality, of tragedies and happiness.” For the artist, his paintings were not landscapes, but subliminal explorations into the human soul, which followed the Indian aesthetic of chetovistatra (“expansion of consciousness”).

Over the last two decades, while still maintaining his characteristic introspective and melancholic quality, paintings by the artist gradually became more and more effulgent in color and sharply delineated in such works as The Casurina Line II (2002), and paintings highlighting the human figure began to appear such as his trilogy of female portraits, Red Mantle, Blue Mantle and Green Mantle (all 2006) exhibited at “Ricorso” (2008-09) at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai.

Following strict academic structure and self-discipline, Sabavala was as an impeccable of an artist as he was a host. After an eight hour day in the studio, the artist with his wife, if they were not already to be found conversing with new young artists at exhibition openings, would host one of their much sought after dinner parties.

At the end of his six-decade career, the artist donned his three-piece suit, neatly arranged his cravat, and tweaking his upturned moustache, attended his final engagement on the afternoon of September 2, where friends and family of the artist gathered to honor the deceased man at the Chandanwadi crematorium. The assembled guests chanted in unison the Shanti Mantra from the Ishavasya Upanishad, praying for everlasting peace for the departed soul.