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IN CONVERSATION

One for the record

RESHMA S. KULKARNI

At 86, Jehangir Sabavala shows he has still got an infinite appetite for art as he prepares Ricorso, a retrospect of his favourite and landmark paintings, that sums up the essence of his artistic journey over six decades. Excerpts from a conversation…

PHOTO: ANU PUSHKARNA

Seeking new horizons: Jehangir Sabawala (right) and a painting from the mantle trilogy.

Jehangir Sabavala is a modern artist with a deep classical influence on his oils that usually portray landscapes and in the recent past, cityscapes, Sabavala has indeed come a long way from his first solo exhibit that he still reminisces about fondly, held in the Taj Palace at Colaba Mumbai. His 35th solo show was held at the Sakshi gallery, Mumbai, recently.

Sabavala’s six-decade plus artistic journey is decorated with innumerable successful shows, prestigious invitations for coveted exhibitions, successful participation at high-end auctions. Volumes have been written on the greatness of the artist and the man.

The Padmashri awardee (who received this honour at the age of 55, in 1977) was fortunate (and talented enough) to showcase his works at Grand Prix De la Peinture at Monaco in 1949; followed by participation in the Commonwealth Arts festival at London, Asian Artists exhibition at Fukuoka in Tokyo, Japan; Indian painters, Teheran; and the Whitley’s gallery show in London, apart from numerous shows all over India and the world.

Sabavala currently resides in South Mumbai along with wife Shireen, an ex-yoga teacher.

Always known to be ahead of his times, Jehangir Sabavala displayed his progressive streak yet again by becoming the first Indian artist to have an autobiographical DVD of his life and work! Excerpts from a conversation with the 86-year-old maestro during the preview of Ricorso, a collection of select works spanning his illustrious career, which served as a precursor to the launch of this much awaited DVD…

Tell us about Ricorso… It seems to be a unique showcase of works.

Ricorso is an autobiographical trajectory which comprises 21 select works that revisit the important milestones of my artistic journey. Personally, I do not like “manifestos” — they sound somewhat pompous — but, as I began preparing for my 35th, three-city solo show, I felt a need to have a summation of my attitudes and thoughts, more for myself than for anyone else. In Ricorso, I have included 21 works from series that have been landmarks or personal favourites, such as The Purdah series, The Monk series or The Harvest series. Ricorso is an Italian word that means a “record”. It was a term coined for my show by eminent art writer Ranjit Hoskote, who, when he saw what I had compiled, realised that it is actually a walk down memory lane to revisit what I had created.

Anything new included in this series?

While Ricorso takes stock of my work in the past, I’m an artist who believes in infusing something new in each of his work rather than sticking to the tried and tested singular palettes. For instance, the trilogy of red mantle, blue mantle and green mantle portrays women who are compassionate, seductive and poignant; something that a viewer has probably never seen of me in a single show but that’s precisely why I still showcase my work.

Could you elaborate more on your last statement?

Well, I often get asked what prompts me to still work at this age, when I can well rest on the laurels so kindly bestowed in abundance by the Almighty. But I think the moment a person stops being active, preferring to rest on past laurels, he is not too far away from death — not of a physical kind but of a creative, emotional one. As long as I live (and I aspire to live till 100!) I want to be alive not just in the physical sense but otherwise as well. And, for an artist to have vitality coursing through his veins, there’s no better elixir than experimentation and innovation. Which is why, even today, I seek to better and re-invent myself in everything I do.

Is that why you were one of the earliest to embrace the ideology of Serigraphs and give your stamp of approval to Serigraph-ing your works?

Well, I have always believed that anything that makes art reach to the maximum number of art lovers, in the correct way, should be encouraged. Serigraphs, which are prints of art done on silk, are a great way to make art available in its purest form to those who cannot afford an original. Considering the way prices are going through the roof, which is indeed an encouraging trend for artists but on the flip side limits the number of buyers, when this enterprising young man, Lavesh Jagasia, approached me for serigraph-ing some select works of mine, I said why not? It was a long process which took almost two years to complete but the end result was an authentic reproduction of my works that I was really happy with and so was the buyer segment.

Tell us more about this DVD.

The DVD, called “Jehangir Sabavala: The Life and work of Jehangir Sabavala” is a comprehensive effort by Arun Khopkar who has directed it and will be released by Geeta Mehra’s Sakshi Art gallery, Mumbai. It is a two-DVD pack which comprises the retrospectives of my work displayed in NGMA in Delhi and Mumbai in 2005 and 2006; it has interviews of eminent people knowledgeable about art, such as Harsh Goenka, Sabira Merchant and Arundhati Subramaniam wherein they have proffered their views on my work; apart from that, it holds a gallery of 195 of my select works, my essays, interviews and writings on art as also important critical reviews.

Has this DVD been conceived with a particular aim?

Essentially, it has been made for posterity and archival use. It aims to reach out with art to as many people as possible. Lately, art has somehow been wrongly perceived as the domain of particular sections of the society. I hope this DVD changes the perception and brings more people close to the field. Also, it will be used to educate students of art in universities in India and abroad (it will be included in their curriculum). I also hope it will serve a purpose for aspirant art writers and critics.

What made you opt for launching a DVD rather than penning an autobiography?

Initially I intended no autobiographical record of my life because I already have had two biographies chronicling the same. But when Arun approached me with this idea, I liked the thought behind its intent and also found the medium quite novel. An autobiography has never appealed to me; I find it uncomfortable to pen down what I think I have achieved in life. That’s for others to say.

Lastly, as someone who has witnessed all kinds of trends in the Indian art scenario, what is your take on the Indian art scene today?

Indian art is booming like never before; it’s like the days of yore when art was considered a precious treasure to be cherished and encouraged. In the interim, art and artists hit a tough patch. I have seen days when my works would sell for Rs. 75-200 and I’d be considered successful for that! I’m fortunate to have come a really long way from there, not only in terms of finance but also international acclaim. I’m happy that artists today are getting that kind of fame and money very early on. But on the flip side, in the race for success, much is being done without emotions and spiritual connect. Art is not a mechanical activity that can be done with a few paints, brushes and a canvas. It needs a certain degree of emotion and involvement, which I see getting rarer by the day. Much is done to shock and titillate the viewer; but artists who do that do not realise that the shock value has a momentary effect. What remains eternal is the simple and true-to-heart art. Had it not been so, people wouldn’t have queued up for Picasso, Rembrandt and Goya after years of their departure. I also feel that while it’s great that money is coming into art field, the personal touch between an artist and a buyer is getting lost. Gone are the days when I’d have a young couple purchase a painting from me over cups of tea and paying me in instalments! Now there’s business more than good-old art exchange. But times are changing and it’s best to look at what’s good in the change!

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