Interview with Jehangir Sabavala

Interview with Jehangir Sabavala

Jasmine Shah Varma

At the age of 86 most people, whichever field they belong to, would rest easy if they have achieved their goals. They say the field of arts has no age limits and one could be compelled at any age to accomplish more. Though not all are compelled for it is an even greater struggle to push the envelope after one has accomplished.


After years of recognition and distinction as one of the masters of Indian art, winning several awards and accolades in his lifetime, Jehangir Sabavala found within him the force to explore more through what has been a passion all his life - art. He has been exhibiting his works since 1949 in various countries and on significant platforms. Early in his career that is in 1977 he received from The President of India the Padma Shri, to be followed periodically by other awards.
Following a worthy retrospective of his works in 2005-06 at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and New Delhi, Sabavala’s 35th solo exhibition opened at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in September 2008 and later travelled to London and New York.


While the 20 works in the Ricorso collection were made in the course of two years since mid 2006, the works took us back to the past and to the present of Sabavala’s artistic career. It’s a career that he steered self-assuredly without giving in to fads of the day. In a sense he has singly pursued his discourse even if it ran on a parallel route from his contemporaries in India. His eminent approach to painting was shaped by his early academic years at the J J School of Art, Mumbai (1942-44), and mainly by influential years at Heatherly School of Art, London (1945-47) then Academic Julian and Academie Andre Lhote, Paris (1947-51), Academie Julien (1953-54) and Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, Paris (1957).


In the 1960’s Sabavala ensconced his personal visual language, going beyond the academic learning. Throughout his career he has been preoccupied as much with emotions of humanity as with the vastness of nature and its inherent beauty.  He has explored different subjects through series such as purdah clad women, monks and disciples, human figures set against the landscape, waterfalls, mountains and rivers. The underlying tone in his works, whichever series, has been contemplative and has depicted human psyche rather than represented the human condition. These subjects have been rendered through the prism of Sabavala’s unique vision which combines impressionist and cubist strokes. The lines are at once strong and sharp and yet the subtle colours and tones render a softness, stillness and tranquility to the imagery. He has been a stickler for discipline, structure and strong foundations even as he continued to experiment.
Not one to make brash statements through his work or his speech or to make conspicuous his privileged familial background (grandson of Lady Dhunbai and Sir Cowasji Jehangir), Sabavala’s gentle personality reflects in his works too. The catalogue of his latest show Ricorso opens with a quote by Francis Bacon that lends itself well to describe Sabavala’s personality and his work: “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”


Was it a conscious decision to revisit your themes from the past while you were working on this collection that you started in 2006?
It’s an interesting thing. When Ranjit (Hoskote) suggested ricorso for a title I was a little hesitant at first. Everybody knows its meaning and is also used sometimes in English. But today everything is so globalised. We are using their terms and they are using our terms. And that’s very nice as there is a free exchange of thoughts. It’s Dante who brought it into fashion in Pre-Renaissance and in the Renaissance it was commonly used. It’s a recall, it’s a memory, and it’s a going over your past. It’s a trajectory of your life. If you are of a certain age it’s more of the past than the future.


It was not a conscious decision on my part to recall. The title came when it was all finished. For example The Purdah series I last did it in 1980’s and I haven’t touched it since. This time two more appeared. I am deliberately telling you because these are definitely recall. Cascades and waterfalls have reappeared after a long spell of not touching them. I simply think that in some way they were deep inside me. Some things that I obviously hadn’t said enough about and so I went back. Only when the whole collection was ready you realise how much was recall and what wasn’t. I am a great believer in always experimenting, always trying to push within your orbit, your style, your approach to painting and to life, to push it further and not rest on laurels. That was me.


That brings me to the Mantle series which is not a recall but a new area for you.
And yet it is in this exhibition. Whilst you were doing that (recall) you began to experiment. The big heads started with the drawing of an abstraction of lines. It looked like an abstraction because the middle section was empty. It was a void. And yet there was a distinct construction forming on all four sides. I thought, something around these blank spaces is hidden… it must be a head… for me at least. You may have seen something else. Once the penny dropped then I worked towards it to give it life and expression. And the three women are completely different. I worked on the moods and the mantle was – rather like the sari - over your head. It was three women with their face fully revealed showing three modes of expression. I was trying to evoke the feelings of a woman in three different moods.


You have used very sharp lines and yet brought out certain softness.
It is entirely structured. The closer you go to it, it gets more structured and further you go you see the whole. As you know I like structure. It’s like a building. What you see on the outside is the marble and granite and colour all that is paint and powder, that’s flesh. But it’s the bones… a person with a nice face is not necessarily so because of the make-up but because of the beautiful structure of the face. And that’s what I like – the inside of the building. If that portion is strong it’s rare that the painting should fail. If that portion is weak, it’s like a weak foundation. You put a lot of paint on top to hide the weaknesses. And that is what I like fighting.


Most of the works are subtle. But the Mantle series is bold, in the face in its subject and presentation. Is that something you have been working on recently?
Long time. It doesn’t always work out. Subtleties one is very fond of all together. I like it in people. If I can immediately spot a person and see through you, it’s too easy. But if the person offers me, by the fact that she is subtle not someone who wishes to be revealed it’s a thing that has appealed to me in people and things I see. There is a mysterious hold, you want to pull the curtain open and find the insides. Rather than see a scene in blatant sunlight where every detail is shouting.


Temperamentally (subtle), yes. But this idea it’s a misnomer that I paint in a subtle palette. It is not easy; it’s extremely difficult to do so. The easier your palette, say you like red, green yellow, it can look very attractive and is much easier because you are using primary tones. You are not breaking it into half tones, quarter tones, which I do all the time and it is very difficult because your range is 30 tones in one painting. And you have to keep those fresh because the painting may take a month or a month-and-half to finish. So I have to keep those alive and fresh. But what I feel is that every painter must not be classified or docketed. He paints in subtle tones. Period. As if I am not capable of painting in brilliant colour. It’s just what I am particularly keen on. But I like the challenge. Who says I cannot paint in bright reds for example.


This is what you have done in some paintings in the Ricorso collection.
Yes I have in ‘Ancestral Boats’. One was brilliant in red and the other was in blue - more mysterious colours. That was deliberate. I thought I was tired of the soft colours and wanted for a long time to cut the challenge of the bold yellow, bold red. But the tones must be beautiful, not just red red, that doesn’t excite to me at all. Red is not my colour. But I took up the challenge. It keeps you elastic. You move from one palette to another, absolutely opposed. But are capable, hopefully, of bringing it all together. 


I am curious about the duality in The Sangha (Conclave) which features monks in orange and red drapes. On the one hand it is painted in a bold palette compared to the paintings inspired by nature, on the other the subject is peaceful, meditating monks.
These are Buddhist monks in their drape rather than the sanyasi. It has come because Shirin (wife) is a devotee of the Bihar school of Yoga where she has taught and been a lot. I have sometimes been there too and stayed there in ashrams that are extremely austere. I was struck by what one saw, the life around one was of contemplation, of removal and of meditation. Conclave came about because I saw them sitting together in a group of five or six in different colours of sanyas. There is a reason why they wear a light yellow or bright yellow, then why they wear geru, why the wear a deeper colour and that was a recall.


In Conclave something seems to be going on while the other work featuring monks – ‘At the Source’ - is rather calm and composed.
Yes. They were after all minds in meditation, speaking not necessarily verbally, but communicating as they do in silence. Each one throws his aura out. It was challenge in itself to compose the nine figures and to get that feeling of extreme at the source. Here there are tones and different shades of geru and it was very exciting to see where I would put the colours. I hate formula painting. If it’s not this design then there’s that design. For me each one (composition) is a battle. And I don’t care at what stage the painter is at. It is a terrific struggle. It is just not easy. The older you grow the harder it is to paint.


Because you have explored a lot already and yet there’s more to do?
Yes. Can you say more - that you are not at all sure. You may say more and yet you feel what the point of going is if I can’t say more. So it’s a dilemma. So people of a certain age rest on their laurels. You’ve built your reputation and you relax. That’s dangerous. You can’t chalane deyo at any stage. At an older age more so the challenge because people have seen it all. People can get bored with you because you are repeating yourself.


You have always made clear why you paint and what your work is about. But in today’s scenario artists feel compelled to paint political and socially relevant works. As if it’s necessary to voice a political opinion whether you understand the subject in its entirety or not.
May I ask you something? Ask them why? Why? It’s the compulsion. I am all for the freedom of any form of expression. I agree there should be a free flow of thought whether you agree with it or not. Social consciousness, socio-political consciousness in a painter, I think, is valid when the person concerned is completely involved and is not doing it for any extraneous reason other than that is his speech. Personal question, right or wrong you may differ in opinion, but completely honest in her attempt is Medha Patkar. Meet the person, there isn’t a shred of insincerity. It’s not a platform, it’s too tragic a consequence and too serious a subject for that. Am I capable of conveying this to my public with a sense of commitment so that viewers are totally disturbed by what they are looking at? Now you tell me how many paintings disturb you till you are restless. Shall we say we go home and say that this painting really disturbed me. What is this person trying to say. If that happens I am 100 per cent with it. But my point is that there is a very big IF. Because 99 per cent it’s simply not the case and I am sorry to say so.


Would you say this is a recent trend or has the Indian artist always been compelled to be concerned about “socio political issues”?
In India no. I won’t say it’s very very recent. I think it’s been there for quite some time. But I will give an example. I have been an examiner in Mumbai and in Gujarat for the exams of the final year. I don’t do it anymore. And these were so many of the subjects - riots, Bangladesh, or some great thing that had happened – a topical subject and you saw the work. It was pathetic. I would ask the graduate students what you mean by this because the meaning didn’t come through to me. I knew what the subject was, I was told that, which is ridiculous as an examiner. Violent colours, abstract. I would ask ‘kya meaning hai, kya apko lagta hai?’ The answer would be ‘Bahut ladai hoti hai Bangladesh mein’. We all know that. Was that student committed, did that young student feel the horror of this unnatural thing that had happened to another woman? You answer me in honesty how much of that comes through to you as a critique, as a writer, as young thinking person. If it doesn’t speak to me why am I doing all this.


When you present it do you have the power to move? Because why are you presenting it unless you are convincing the audience that this must not happen. How convinced is the audience of the long statement explaining the painting and the event. Is anyone moved by it? That’s not social consciousness. Unless you are committed, unless you are one the few great thinkers, writers or painters… We can name some we know who have moved the world by the direct approach in their particular field. And we know of what they are talking about. The pain and the agony these people have through. You and I doing it is meaningless. To depict this one must genuinely feel and bleed for that man and then put it into paint. Then it becomes the best kind of propaganda because you move people to do something about it. Siqueiros, Orozco were the great Mexican social content painters. There were a whole lot but who were the ones that moved the world for their country, for the suffering of the peasants, who thought the government was totally wrong and depicted that wrong with such power? We knew what they were talking. What we see here (India) is nothing. You wonder why they are doing it.


There are views that art as a discourse, as a means of communication is elitist, exclusive. What is your position?
In itself it is elitist and only for a small fraction of people and has always been because it costs money. To that extent the average man may like it very much and want to posses it but he can’t. In its practice and in itself it is elitist but in its spread and the hope that you establish a dialogue it’s not elitist. What I am saying is not contradictory.


You talked about being invited for evaluation at art schools. Over the years since you were a student to now do you see any difference in the art education in the country?
I am a bit out of touch with that aspect but I hear from other people that it is fossilised, that they don’t use new methods and ideas. But I don’t know for myself.


In an interview in the past you said that you would like to be like a round pebble, like stones in the Ganges which have been washed and washed by centuries of action over the stone, until you find a most beautifully ovoid, totally smooth. Do you feel you’ve reached that stage yet?
I have always felt these river beds, particularly the Himalayas, the Ganges are the purest when they flow in the mountain areas. The pebbles on the shoreline to touch are very tactile marvelously small as if a machine has been used to polish. Shapes are lovely, very few are jagged.


Today there is a raw competition which is not in the nice sense; it’s either you or me. It’s the Joneses and yourself. You see this and say let time wash and wash and wash them with experience, with the power of the water and see if they are receptive of everything, as if nothing can stop them, nothing more can happen. That it’s all part of life. With that idea, the idea of roundedness, the removal of the sharp edges of life which we all have, not that I am devoid completely, but I feel there is an attempt to see that all this is trash and should see this as if it’s all rounded in way of the pebble which will slip out of hand because it has no rough edges. You either cherish that experience or you prefer rough edges and cut your hand.