The late Jehangir Sabavala was as much a creator of beauty as its discoverer and admirer... Recalling a personal association with the artist.

On the afternoon of the second of this month, a large group of mourners had gathered at the Chandanwadi crematorium. Before the cremation, some friends of the deceased chanted the Shantimantra from Ishavasyopanishad. With their voices singing in rhythmic unison and the space reverberating, the effect was hypnotic. The deceased was not a Hindu; it was Jehangir Sabavala, one of India's leading painters who hailed from a distinguished Parsee family. Joining in the chanting was his family: Shirin, his wife and Afreed, his daughter. Jehangir had just turned eighty-nine.

Vivid memories

The National Retrospective of Jehangir's work, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, was held in 2005. The building where the National Gallery of Modern Art is located now, used to be the Cowsjee Jehangir Hall, built by a donation from his family. Many Bombayites still have vivid memories of the public meetings, dance and music concerts held in the building for decades. It was here that Jehangir had sat in the audience as a child. The hall was so packed at the retrospective opening that many had to stand, wherever they could find space. Jehangir was visibly moved.

I documented this event. There was so much genuine warmth about Jehangir, the way everyone spoke. This was my second experience of shooting with the Sabavalas. First was the shooting of the film ‘Colours of Absence' in 1993. It was a thirty-minute film on the life and work of Jehangir, over a year in the making, during which I got close to Jehangir, the artist and person. As an artist, Jehangir believed in creating beauty and did it for decades. As a person he loved surrounding himself with beautiful objects and he equally appreciated beauty in human beings.

Sabavala was as much a creator of beauty as its discoverer and admirer. He would find beauty in a natural stone, a gem or a glass paperweight. He loved displaying these objects, arranging them in different ways with great concentration with his long, well-manicured fingers, until they yielded a pattern that pleased him.

Jehangir loved dressing well. With his trim figure, sharp features, Dali-like moustache, bright and gentle eyes, delicate gestures and soft but well-enunciated, almost musical speech, he was a perfect subject. In our film, we had included a shot of him and Shirin putting final touches to their dressing for going out for his exhibition. They both enjoyed it.

His paintings and drawings, from his student days, had an air of intimacy about them. A particular cut of a face, or a languorous pose of a cat or a woman with a string of flowers would catch his attention. Once that happened, then all subjects were equal in the care they were given, either for drawing or painting.

From his early works, I like Sabavala's impressionistic watercolours a lot and enjoyed shooting them. Some of his oils, especially the portraits, have impasto brushwork. In his hard-lined early cubist work, he seemed to enjoy the intellectual exercise of breaking his subject into geometric shapes. Jehangir described an encounter with the art critic Charles Fabri, who once asked him where his work was going or was he getting into a kind of stagnation. Jehangir sat up and did some self-analysis. It was at that time that he came across the work of Lyonel Feininger, who had brought a kind of luminous aura to his cubist style. Taking his cue from it, Sabavala arrived at a softer personal style that for some years has been his mark. Hereafter light began to fascinate Jehangir. For him, it also had spiritual overtones, as an ineffable effulgence. His palette changed to subtly graded broken tones; the colours mellowed and his oils assumed the softness of pastels without losing their body and texture.

During the course of making the film, I had the opportunity to watch a few of Jehangir's canvases at various stages of completion. He would begin his work in charcoal, laying an architectural skeleton or grid, before he began to apply colour. That gave even his most mellow canvases a solidity and firm sense of form. For his colours, he had years of notes of observation of nature and man-made objects, noting the combinations that would produce a certain effect. Then these would be used not only to replicate the objects but also to transpose colour. So, a wave would get a colour combination that he had spotted in a cloud, adding an air of mystery to its appearance.

He was a master of broken tones. His control over greys made some of his landscapes and seascapes such memorable experiences that you carried them with you for years. Many times looking at the sky or sea, they would come back and haunt you. Looking at a particular seasonal mood of the sky or sea, you felt like saying, “I think Jehangir should have signed it.”

Jehangir was a disciplined artist. He worked a certain number of hours every day, for years together. He worked slowly and meticulously; sometimes it took him as much as six months to paint one large canvas. His studio was so well-organised that you wondered how he could work there at all, without disturbing its neat arrangement of paint-tubes and accessories.

After a day's work, evening was a time to go out. To attend openings or to have people over. One of the most elegant couples in the city for decades, the Sabavalas were a lovely presence at the shows of even the most junior artists, mixing freely with them. Their curiosity about people was boundless.

Majestic and surreal

People who only knew him as a ‘Westernised' person, did not know how deep was his knowledge of the Indian landscape, its trees, rocks, ravines and waterfalls. Using his cubist background, he would often juxtapose a low angled view with a high angled one, creating an eerie space. When I observed places like the gorges of Mahabaleshwar, an inspiration for some of his paintings, I realised how he had transformed them to make them more majestic and surreal.

Born out of the warmth of trust and love, the film took many liberties with Sabavala's canvases including using coloured lights, associative or even dissonant sounds and abrupt rhythms. Jehangir and Shirin always watched the process with the innocence of a child, wild-eyed, excited and happy to be a part of it.

There was something about Jehangir's work that seemed to attract poets. Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawala, Dilip Chitre and Ranjit Hoskote have all written about his work. The film's title, “Colours of Absence”, came from a phrase used by Dom for Jehangir's work. Recorded in the expectant silence of a sound studio, the grain of each poet's voices was picked up by sensitive recording. So were their measured and eloquent pauses. When these silences were played over Jehangir's canvases, they were filled up with murmuring colours and assumed a new life.

I don't believe in life after death, but I feel like closing my eyes in silence and wishing Jehangir a more beautiful world.

Arun Khopkar, an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, is a filmmaker with many national and international awards to his credit. He is also a reputed film scholar and teacher. E-mail: arunkhopkar@gmail.com