A fiery angel. Sorcerers defying gravity. A man turns into a tree. An art that sought otherworldly lives. Ranjit Hoskote remembers Jehangir Sabavala
OUTSIDE MY window in Bergen, as I write this memorial text for Jehangir Sabavala, whose friendship I was privileged to enjoy for nearly 25 years, stretches a landscape that could well have been created by him. Forests of fir and pine climb down blue-misted mountains to meet a grey sea, the sky is dominated by an armada of clouds, and the fugitive sunlight strikes crystalline sparks off the cliffs.
Classical in his ability to transform the objects of the transitory present into shapes of perennial radiance, Jehangir seemed often at odds with the reigning ascendancies of contemporary art. And, yet, he would have it no other way. He remained, to the end, committed to the easel painting. It was a window that he could open outwards on the world’s inexhaustible stimuli. At the same time, it allowed him to probe inward, to explore the dark currents swirling beneath the level of consciousness.
Despite the primacy of landscape, the figure persisted in Jehangir’s art as an idealised archetype. He invoked the visitant: the fiery angel, the man arriving by sea, the messenger from another world. Jehangir fluidly weaved the disruptive otherness of such beings into the world’s continuities through a sleight of charcoal and brush. In his paintings of the past 20 years, the man becomes a tree, the body a peak, the skin of water a rushing cloak. Through the geometer’s planar intricacies and the sensualist’s tonal play, it appeared he was trying to harmonise nature and the human will.
Jehangir’s other chosen figures were wanderers of no fixed address, resolute in their commitment to the quest: monks inhabiting deep caverns, sorcerers defying the laws of gravity and history, exiled pilgrims crossing deserts and open plains to reach ancestral shrines. These protagonists were, at a profound level, self-portraits.
To view the amplitude of Jehangir’s journey is to bear witness to 60 years of questing. He was never the hostage of fashion, the voice of ideology or the tactician of political necessity. At his own measured pace, working a lode of his own without reference to schools, groups and movements, he gracefully progressed from one key theme to the next, one formal discovery to another. The art of his maturity holds within it the reflexes of his apprenticeship to the grand tradition of European art and his training in the dominant styles of modernism, as well as the insights won through periods of meticulous self-questioning.
Jehangir’s handling of the primary elements of light, colour and texture changed, at first almost imperceptibly and then more dramatically over the decades. The hard, aggressively definite, form-enclosing line of his early work gave way to limitless suffusions of radiance that conveyed the experience of cosmic infinity. His early bright palette yielded before subtle, fractured tonalities; the schematic evocation of the actual scene was transmuted into the shimmering reverie, the imagined vista. Then once again, in recent years, he returned to brilliant colour, hard-edged figures, the interplay of angle, plane, shimmer and destiny. Yet, his paintings preserved an introspective, melancholy lyricism throughout.
The most distinctive feature of Jehangir’s practice was his continuing devotion to the classical ideal of beauty, however fragile it may seem in a period of absolute war, programmed genocide and forced migration. For that very reason, beauty remained for Jehangir Sabavala a token of grace and illumination, which gives us the strength to endure the trials of existence.
(Hoskote is Sabavala’s biographer and curated the lifetime retrospective of the painter’s work at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and New Delhi, in 2005-2006)