Jehangir Sabavala: The tranquil artist
By Poonam Goel
18th July 2012 12:16 PM
When Jehangir Sabavala, an iconic artist who was known for his impressionistic and cubist works, passed away last year, he had not even found enough time to celebrate the success of his painting The Casuarina Line 1 which sold at a record Rs 1.7 crore during a Saffronart auction held in 2010. But then, commerce was never this gentleman artist’s priority in life. He once laughingly remarked at the opening of his retrospective exhibition at National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi that “there was a time when I was paid a few hundred rupees for my work and that too in instalments. This retrospective means I am now a successful artist!”
Born in 1922 in Mumbai, Sabavala had an exceptional training in art education. After his initial years at J J School of Art, Mumbai, he went to London in 1945 to train at the Heatherley School of Art and in 1947, moved to Paris to study at the Academic Julian and the Academic Andre Lhote where he remained till 1951. In 1954 he showed his work at the Venice Biennale and this was the first time an Indian painter’s work had found so much recognition outside the Asian sub-continent. Winner of the Padma Shri award in 1977, Sabavala received many honours including the Lalit Kala Ratna in 2007.
Known for his figurative and geometric forms, Sabavala’s forte was in creating serene landscapes and seascapes. His colour palette was soft and muted and the mood always tranquil. While he was admired mostly for his landscapes, he was equally adept at handling the transparency of water creating a soothing effect with veiled light, middle tones and subtle colouring. An artist practicing in the modernist style with a deeply ingrained classical influence, Sabavala created geometric wedges out of paint, which he put together to form vast, tranquil scenes. These ‘receding planes’ gave each canvas an illusory sense of depth, illustrating Sabavala’s mastery over light, colour, and texture.
In the artist’s early works, the human form emerged as only a minuscule element on the canvas, shrouded in silence and encapsulating the notion of solitude perfectly. However, his figures, over the many years that Sabavala painted, began to reveal more and more of themselves, even though they were still distanced from the viewer.
Sabavala’s career spanned more than 60 years since his first solo exhibition held in a hired room of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, put up with the help of fellow artist M F Husain and a couple of carpenters. To the artist’s credit are over 30 solo exhibitions held across India as well as abroad. His work is in several important collections, both private and public, in India and abroad. A National Award winning film Colours of Absence was made on his life and work by documentary filmmaker Arun Khopkar in 1993.
To quote what Jehangir Sabavala once said about his work, “It has been a long and arduous journey, but one that has steadily evolved, without harsh leaps or suicidal reverses. My graph is easily deciphered from the start to where it stands today. I am essentially a figurative painter with a strong predilection towards landscape. It is central to my work, and yet the figure whether wraithlike or human, is often present as a part of the whole. ”
(Poonam Goel is a freelance journalist who contributes on visual arts for unboxedwriters.com)
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