Jehangir Sabavala's journey as an artist has been thoughtful and disciplined; a passage navigated according to a definite pattern of choices. He talks to DOM MORAES on what he says may be his last one-man show an exhibition of 24 canvases that will move from Mumbai to Delhi and then New York.
"The river II", 2000.
ONCE in a while, in January, a pleasant day visits Mumbai, and last Friday was one such day. At the Willingdon Club a cool and relatively untainted breeze had felt a tentative way inland from the sea. It passed over the sleekly barbered lawns and slightly ruffled the neat rows of asters and cannas. I had come too early, but Jehangir Sabavala arrived at 1 p.m. sharp, about the same time as the breeze.
He was casually dressed, but fitted admirably into his elegant environs. When I first met him he had recently returned from Paris, and used sometimes, if I remember rightly, to wear a cape. That, I realised with distress, had been 50 years ago, and Sabavala is now nearly 80. He has not changed very much. For all his sophistication, he retains an extremely likeable quality of innocence.
Over the last two days he had proved this and inadvertently embroiled himself in a controversy with the Mumbai press. By and large, it no longer holds many principles or values. A large paper interviewed Sabavala, ostensibly about his latest exhibition, which was to open in a few days. He was asked whether he thought M.F. Husain was a genius, a question that seemed irrelevant. He replied that human history contains very few people who could be so described. The next day headlines in the paper declared that Sabavala had insulted Husain. This was a ridiculous row, generated purely for the sake of sales. Nobody but an idiot would call Husain a genius. Sadly, Mumbai at present is full of idiots. But Sabavala seemed unwarrantedly shaken by the controversy, and hurt by it.
He lamented the standards of the Mumbai press. "And yet," he said, "while the media seems to have lost all respect for art, the common people seem to have started developing an interest in it. That's wonderful to watch. In the galleries and museums one sees more and more middle class people, even poor people, and their children. Some of them come to my shows. In Mumbai people come from Thane; in Delhi I know families that have come by train from as far away as Alwar. They come and ask about the work. I try and answer them." I said that it might be frivolous to expect large numbers of people to be interested in modern painting while they still went without the essentials of life. "I don't," he replied, "but it encourages one that, given their problems, some of them are."
When he came to Bombay in the early 1950s, most of his contemporaries were still in Europe. The Jehangir Gallery had not yet started; the Convocation Hall and the Town Hall were the only places where exhibitions could be held. Slowly, as the prodigal sons returned from the West, galleries began to develop, new painters emerged, and some kind of climate was created for art. "In the 1960s," Sabavala <147,1,0>said, "I persuaded G.U. Mehta, who owned Vakil's, the paper firm in Bombay, to use the works of modern artists on greeting cards. That was a small matter but it increased public consciousness. But it was always an uphill struggle and for years the audience was always elitist. It took a very long time for us to get to where we are: art is big business now, there's no scarcity of buyers.
"And also, what's most important to me, very slowly art is coming to the people. I've even seen now that small, illustrated books about modern Indian art have been issued to children in primary schools in Maharashtra. At the moment most Indian art has its roots in western art, but perhaps that will change."
"Lunar Magic", 2001
He attended delicately to his lunch. In all the years I have known Sabavala, it is the first time that he has spoken to me about his desire to spread some knowledge and appreciation of art beyond the more privileged sections of Indian society. It surprised me; for in many ways he is the epitome of the elitist artist. He is completely westernised as a person. But something in the nature of a race memory emerges in his work: its evocations of deserts, lost tribes, desolate suns.
Race memory must be involved in it. The Zoroastrians, his forefathers, were driven from Iran a thousand years ago and I have always thought that these landscapes of Sabavala's, by whatever subconscious impulse, are concerned with this forced migration. He is a painter who is particularly admired by poets, because his work not only celebrates but also creates the kind of imagery one finds in myths. In this new exhibition he is trying out more brilliant, harder colours; sometimes returning to old themes, sometimes exploring new territory. There are 24 canvases on show and he says 10 "have been lost". In recent years he has participated in several group shows and what he means is that they have been sold. This exhibition will move from Mumbai to Delhi, and wind up in New York.
Lunch was over. As it was cleared away, the breeze lapsed across the lawn. "This will be my last one-man show," Sabavala said. His long hands lay folded in his lap, and his domed head, like that on some ancient Sassanian coin, was bent forward. "I've had a lot of help on this show, especially from Gita Mehta, but now it's too much trouble, and I'm too tired. I shall go on painting, of course. I always have done."
As the new catalogue shows, he has done even more in his career than paint superbly. Much has been written and said about him, but equally he has written many invaluable essays on art. They should be collected. "Looking back, one doesn't think one has succeeded," he said. "How could one ever hope for that? But at least one can truthfully say that one did one's best."
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