Obituary: Jehangir Sebavala

This came out first on Mumbai Boss.

The Artist as a Gentleman

Jehangir Sabavala was 29 years old when he had his first solo exhibition. It was in the Taj Mahal Hotel and was organised by M.F. Husain. Husain, Sabavala and two carpenters hung the paintings. The paintings, that would later sell for hundreds of thousands of rupees, were priced modestly. It was a simple but elegant start to an artistic career that would span more than half a century.

Amidst flamboyant contemporaries like F. N. Souza and other artists of 1950s, Sabavala, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, was distinct and unusual. An alumnus of the Sir J. J. School of Art, he went on to hone his painterly skills at prestigious institutions like the Heatherly School of Art in London and the Academie Andre Lhote and the Academie Julian in Paris. Sabavala was one of the most expertly-trained, well-travelled and accomplished painters of his generation. He had seen more of European art than most of his artist friends in India and this was obvious in his paintings. Although he is today not as famous as some of his artist friends—intriguingly, there is no Wikipedia page for Sabavala so far, even though his biographer Ranjit Hoskote has one—Sabavala’s rise was meteoric. He won Monaco’s Grand Prix de la Peinture in 1949. In 1954, his paintings were seen in the Venice Biennale, which was an outstanding achievement given few in the West acknowledged there was such a thing as modern Indian art at the time. Having shown at places like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C. and the Fukuoka Museum in Tokyo, Sabavala was one of the best known names of Indian art in the 1970s and 1980s. The Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri in 1977 and he won the Lalit Kala Ratna award in 2004.

Looking at his work is often like seeing the world through a kaleidoscope. Shards of colour would make up scenes in which every line and every geometric plane was in perfect balance. His paintings were marked by quietude and stillness—a pristine landscape, a flock of birds, a group of women. Figures and forms angled their way out of wedges of colour that were used with expert precision.

Sabavala is perhaps best known for his paintings of nature and his Cubism-influenced works. Few of these had the electric energy and scandalous boldness that we associate with the modern painters of India in the 1950s and 1960s. Sabavala’s style was unique but its obvious European influences made him less exciting to many. He didn’t grab headlines or court controversies. Enamoured of the clean geometry of modernist art, the clever illusions of Cubism and the mystique of Impressionism, Sabavala didn’t stray from the role of being a figurative painter. This would make his work less interesting to many as Indian contemporary art tried to be increasingly experimental.

Whether it was among his contemporaries or later generations of Indian artists, Sabavala stood apart, both as a man and as a painter. Impeccably dressed in three-piece suits, sporting cravats and a twirly moustache that a musketeer would envy, Sabavala always looked like the perfect gentleman and also behaved like one. Suave, witty and impossibly charming even in his mid-eighties, Sabavala was like a character out of an Oscar Wilde play but with oodles more heart and warmth. When he passed away yesterday morning, we’re certain that every single person who had ever known him, however briefly, said a prayer for India’s most elegant gentleman artist.

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