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A brush with a gentleman

A discerning palette_Jahangir Sabawala at New Delhi's Metropolitan Nikko Hotel. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.

TRAVELLING by car, he politely asks for the window to be drawn up, for the wind might just make the remaining strands of hair on his head go haywire. And he must look spic and span. He is after all, bound for New Delhi's Metropolitan Nikko Hotel, dressed in a smart royal blue suit with a tucked-in scarf, very representative of Parsi wear. He is the rich and famous first generation artist Jahangir Sabawala, whose father established the Jahangir Art Gallery, the only prime gallery in Mumbai, which he now takes care of.

Jahangir Sabawala can be safely labelled as one of the last breed of gentlemen living in India. Never would he venture a step ahead if his companion happens to be a woman. "After you, ma'am," is his pet recourse while entering a venue, climbing stairs, taking a seat at the dining table or even sipping coffee. What makes you marvel is his straight, slim stature, exceptionally glowing skin with a baby-pink complexion, his lucid diction and assertive voice at 87. He reveals the secret. "When I was young, I emphasised on lots of exercise, swimming, yoga, aerobics, sports as tennis and horse riding. Standing for almost 12 hours every day while painting was a routine. It still is."

And his eye for art and architecture catches the dιcor of the hotel as soon as he enters. "Isn't it Japanese style," he queries. It is, confirms the manager.

As coffee comes he speaks of his food preferences. "Back home, our food is very rich. We cook a mix of Western and Parsi food. We eat lots of meat, fish and chutney. Our food is first steamed and then wrapped in a huge leaf. We use lots of pudina. Patra-ni-machi, cut foods as ham, sausages, salmon and raw salad are my favourites," he says. Here, though, it is bharwaan zafrani murg that is on offer. This reminds him of his days during World War II in 1945. "Those days we would get meat in a matchbox, would you believe?"

Sabwala has spent much of his time in Paris. "When I came to Delhi long back, I did face lots of hostility among the art fraternity. Some even labelled me as a `firang'. In Mumbai too initially I had a feeling of dislocation, but I concentrated on my paintings rather than giving attention to people averse to me and my kind of art," says the painter who was among the many veterans of art who received an award from the President for his contribution to art during the golden jubilee celebrations of the Lalit Kala Akademi last year.

The Nikko staff invites him to taste the prawns and chicken cooked in the Japanese Teppanyaki style. "Wow, I can make out the original taste of prawn," he says, relishing it. Teppanyaki, he is told, is a grilled food, which is fumed with wine on a huge flat, elongated tawa. It retains the original taste of the meat. Next come gulnaar jalpari and boti kabab masala.

Art writing too tough

Sabawala who is among the very few Indians whose solo art shows have exhibited abroad, is now happy with the art scenario. "Now the audience is critical. You just can't sell everything to them. They can see the truth now. Fifty years back it was not so. Earlier people were pushed to see the art exhibitions. Now with the media highlighting artists, and poets too, there is more curiosity. But I still feel that art writing should be simplified."

That Indian art will go international within 10 years is his prediction. He feels it will because much of the younger generation is experimenting a lot, but he claims, "The younger generation is taking advantage of what we did. They are a lucky lot. We had to struggle a lot."

On the one hand he feels art is trivialised by "lots of alternation" and that "in principal art is not for the masses, but it is the artists' duty to create a sense of art in masses too".

And how can we do that?

"By first going to their level and then raising them to our level."


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