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Deciphering Jehangir Sabavala’s life and work
Undoubtedly, Jehangir Sabavala is one India’s most admired and respected artists. His illustrious career spans six decades during which he has witnessed many milestones and has won critical acclaim, even while striking a chord with art-loving masses. The modern Indian painter recently set a new personal record with his serene landscape, entitled ‘The Casuarina Line I’, which fetched a price of Rs 1.7 crores. It easily exceeded the pre-sale estimate of Rs. 5 million, marking another glorious moment in his enriching artistic journey.

The celebrated painter’s eclectic art is a fine blend of cubist and impressionist styles. His visual language has often been compared to that of known Cubist masters. Although there exists an underlying similarity and a common thread, at the obvious level, his serene images stand for fractured shards of reality. It may be too ephemeral to term him merely a Cubist. In fact, he is a classicist and primarily a formalist. The landscape always gains precedence over all else in his painterly realm. Capturing their majestic changeability, it also resembles his own liberation of spirit through the very process of his work. In essence, his depiction of nature is akin to a display of his inner emotions, and self-reflection coupled with pure forms build his mesmerizing artistic vision.

The modernist style with a classical influence marks his geometric wedges that merge to create vast, tranquil scenes. The ‘receding planes’ impart his canvas - done in oils with deft brushstrokes - with an illusory sense of depth, displaying his command over the elements of light, color, and texture. Consistently representational, they have invariably weighed a Renaissance master’s meditative equilibrium. What creates poise in them is the intriguing archaeology of forms as well as structural gravity. The octogenarian artist’s foray in art started with studies at Sir J. J. School of Arts, Mumbai. Later, he joined the Heatherly School of Art, London (1945-47), the Academie Julian and the Academic de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, to hone his skills and natural talent. He has come a long way since his debut solo show arranged with the help of artist MF Husain at Mumbai’s Taj Hotel.

The doyen has had a series of major solos, such as 'Ricorso', Sakshi, Mumbai; Aicon, New York (2008-09); a retrospective at NGMA, Mumbai & New Delhi (2005-06), apart from group exhibitions like 'Master Class', The Arts Trust, Mumbai; 'Bharat Ratna', Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2009), and participations, including ‘Evolve: 10th anniversary show’ at Tao, Mumbai, and ‘Roots: 25th anniversary show’ at Sakshi, Mumbai (2010). In recognition of his achievements, he has been honoured with ‘Padma Shri’ (1977) and Lalit Kala Ratna Award (2004) among other distinctions. His work finds a place in distinguished public and private art collections worldwide. His evolution as an artist over the last fifty years is simply fascinating…

The tentative and brittle lines of the 1960s in works like ‘Sails on a Blue Day’ gradually gave way to the more mature representations of the '80s marked by precise artistry. ‘The Friendly Shepherds’ a more recent canvas done in 2000, stands for grandiloquence and poise. Comprised of fragments of his known Cubist leanings, it exhibits intense streaks of contradictions and creativity. He has also been painting cityscapes in the recent years. Mapping these transitions, Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery released a comprehensive audio-visual documentation on the eve of his show ‘Ricorso' that charted an overtly autobiographical trajectory. Revealing the nuances of his practice, an accompanying note stated: “The songs of the seasons continue sans pause in his works. There’s the majesty of nature, a fascination for the changing light and color, a love of the muted tones, and a desire to distill the sheer diversity of experience. While looking back, the artist tries to convey the shape of a career that started in the early 1950s and still goes on unabated.”

Elaborating on his painterly processes, the veteran artist has stated, "I’m essentially a figurative painter. A strong predilection towards landscape is central to my works, albeit the figure - whether wraith-like or human - is often present as an integral part of the whole." Indeed, his passionate art practice is an amalgamation of academic, impressionist and cubist texture. An intriguing interplay of fascinating forms, startlingly vivid colors colors and soothing imagery exhibits his spiritual affiliation with nature. Jehangir Sabavala continues to paint with passion, scaling new artistic peaks and treading new paths of creativity so that the spirit of discovery remains alive and intact.