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Adieu to a pioneer of Indian modernism

art-and-culture Updated: Sep 03, 2011 22:47 IST
Dinesh Vazirani
Dinesh Vazirani
Hindustan Times
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Jehangir Sabavala, a great artist, friend and supporter, passed away on Friday morning, aged 89, following a prolonged illness.

A man of impeccable taste and comportment, of etiquette and letters, Sabavala will be remembered not only for his art, but also for his uncompromising commitment to beauty, and the dignity, integrity and generosity of spirit that he always stood for.

Cutting a prominent and elegant figure, whether he was in a silk shirt and cravat or a kurta and Kashmiri shawl, Sabavala touched several lives during the course of his own, both within and beyond Mumbai’s art fraternity, of which he was an integral part.Always generous with his time, Sabavala mentored young artists, encouraged gallerists and supported several charities. He was always willing to lend a ear and offer words of advice to anyone who sought them, and made it a point to nurture every relationship that he was a part of, whether personal or professional. To me, he was a friend and mentor, encouraging me to do better and offering kind words of support.

Born into a well-known Parsi philanthropic family in 1922, Sabavala studied art at the best schools and ateliers in London and Paris. Deeply influenced by the tenets of Impressionism and Cubism, the artist fused the technical principles of these styles with his personal quest to capture the elusive spirituality that he believed animated humans and nature, fashioning the unique vocabulary that he honed to precision over the past half-century.

Over the course of his artistic career, which spanned more than six decades, Sabavala never paused to survey the past but always pushed forward, constantly challenging himself and the boundaries of his unique modern idiom.

A multi-faceted man always eager to share his experiences, Sabavala’s expertise spanned several subjects, from ancient Greek philosophy and classical Indian art to mythology, literature and contemporary politics, all of which informed his art.

Practising in the modernist mode, Sabavala’s infinite, carefully constructed landscapes and seascapes represent his unrelenting quest to find lyricism and serenity in a seemingly irredeemable world.

Greatly influenced by the varied terrain and landscapes of India, many of Sabavala’s paintings reflect his travels across the country, including early canvases portraying Rajasthani scenes, later coastal landscapes, and even the series of cityscapes he painted as late as 2004. Using what he learnt in Europe, the artist created works like The Bangle Sellers (1954), a rural Indian scene that underscores his unique interpretation of Cubism.

Most of all, Sabavala the artist believed in art for art’s sake. He never stopped trying to make his art better; as he grew, his artistic idiom evolved. In every one of his works, his commitment to beauty and to the idea that an artist had to be perfectly fluent in his technique is evident. Every stroke on his canvas and every colour was planned and thought through meticulously.

As he said in the 2005 monograph ‘The Crucible of Painting’ by Ranjit Hoskote: “Painting for me grows more personalised, more difficult. Movements, styles, the topical moments, all lose out to the attempt to reach deeper levels of interpretation. Horizons widen and recede, and I see myself as a pilgrim, moving towards unknown vistas.”

As recently as 2004, Sabavala began creating cityscapes, reflecting the changing realities that he saw all around him. Since his first solo exhibition — organised in a room at the Taj Mahal Hotel and put together with help from fellow artist MF Husain and a couple of carpenters — the artist’s work has been featured in more than 30 solo shows around the world. Four monographs have been published on him already, by eminent art publishers including Tata McGraw-Hill and the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. Colours of Absence, a film on his life, won a National Award in 1994.

Sabavala was also awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1977 and the Lalit Kala Ratna by the President in 2007. Sabavala’s passing marks the loss of a true gentleman, a respected mentor, and one of the most important pioneers of Indian modernism. He will be missed deeply and remembered with great fondness.

(The author is CEO and co-founder of SaffronArt, India’s largest online art auction house)