A tribute to the pilgrim, the exile and the sorcerer in Jehangir Sabavala

Yesterday, when the light was grey with cloud and storm, when the Arabian sea was turning foaming restlessly outside on the rocks outside the Breach Candy Hospital, Jehangir Sabavala, recently turned 89, let his last breath go and turned his face towards the quest he had depicted in so many of his greatest works.

In an age where art increasingly relies on wit and irony, even on the joke, Sabavala had an old-fashioned respect for his own calling. He knew what it was he was doing. Although he painted journeys, the poet Adil Jussawalla points out that “the end of the journey is clearly in sight even as it is begun.” In his invaluable study of the painter, The Crucible of Painting: The art of Jehangir Sabavala (Eminence Designs), the poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote explains that he was painting his way into light. ‘It is the intangible that is now my goal,' he wrote in a manifesto for the American art critic, George Butcher. His art, he told Hoskote, was his search for moksha.

At the same time, he could also talk about his work in the manner of the artisan. “I have set myself a complicated problem,” he told me a few months ago, with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. It was a problem he would never solve. Cancer took his energy from him but it did not, could not damp his spirit. His friend, the cultural theorist Nancy Adajania spoke of his “blazing eyes” when she visited him in the hospital. Meera Devidayal, the painter, visited him on the day before his death and he talked animatedly, if softly, of the world of art.

He knew that world inside out and he would offer advice to younger artists and critics with a great generosity of spirit. His records were meticulous; he knew every single painting and where it was and when it went on to the market. “A young couple,” he would say, “they inherited the painting, quite a small one, and they need the money.” And then he would help get them the best possible deal for it and take a quiet pride in the startling sums he had begun to command. Few painters care for their collectors as Sabavala did, even in the moment when they were now looking at his work as an asset rather than as a source of spirit food.

But it was not always thus.

Shirin Sabavala once told me of how she and her painter-husband had spent the night hammering nails into the walls of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in order to hang her husband's show. Paintings did not sell terribly well then; one has only to read Krishen Khanna's The Time of My Life to know that the sale of a single painting could occasion a celebration, not a dinner celebration, just breakfast. To keep on painting when you are not sure whether your next show will sell or not, that is integrity. To keep on painting when there aren't even galleries around, that is courage. To show one's work at the Jehangir Art Gallery, to meet the ordinary person from the street and engage that person in conversation about art, that is humanism as its best.

All this shows up in his work. It is the work of someone who believes in the future, who believes in the transcendent. It makes a clear and present demand upon the viewer. Either you must accept its invitation and be drawn into it or turn away immediately. If you cannot allow yourself to take part in this celebration of harmony, in this contemplation of the profound, you should not even be in the same room as a Sabavala painting.

Because these paintings are also about a belief in painting. Even as he soldiered on, working at his canvases, the world was changing once again.

“How can they keep saying this?” he asked once, rhetorically, “How can they keep saying that painting is exhausted, that the canvas is dead.” “They can say anything, Jehangir,” I said. It was a warm day in a chickoo wadi in Gholvad, owned by a common friend, one of the country's leading abstractionists, Mehlli Gobhai. I should have known he would not be fobbed off. “It seems to me to suggest hubris,” he said severely. “And a loss of faith.” “Loss of faith in what?” I asked. “In the human spirit,” he said. “In the human mind, if you like.”

Again and again, in ‘Green thoughts in a green shade' and ‘The lost tribe' and ‘In the world's afterlight,' he proved that the canvas could pose new questions. Who are the figures in ‘The embarkation?' Does the road wind uphill all the way? Those are human forms in the landscapes but that does not mean they are human beings. There are still many mysteries in those enigmatic and serene landscapes into which it would seem their creator has now slipped.

(Jerry Pinto is a poet who has been privileged to know the three Sabavalas for more than two decades).

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Artist Jehangir Sabavala passes awaySeptember 2, 2011

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