One of India’s most distinguished artist, Sabavala belongs to the first generation of post-colonial Indian
painters. He was born in Mumbai to an affluent Parsi and Zoroastrian family and is the scion of the
Readymoneys, whose history of commercial enterprise, cultural patronage and civic concern is closely
intertwined with the history of Bombay. He belonged to a family who gave Bombay the only truly public art
exhibition space it has, the Jehangir Art Gallery as well as the Cowasji Jehangir Hall where the Bombay
branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art is housed. He grew up in the Readymoney House — a
neoclassical mansion that served his grandfather which presented the dreamy and intelligent child with a
marvelous scope for exploration; so that the young Jehangir could penetrate the labyrinthine infinities of the
mansion. Like all lonely children, he created an elaborate reality for himself: a world of private fantasy with
heroes and monsters, into which he could escape at will. By the early 1930’s, Jehangir had travelled across the
Indian subcontinent with his mother and sibling before setting off on a grand tour across Europe. It was a
richly variegated itinerary along which Bapsy shepherded her gifted children; the younger to become a
distinguished painter. Their senses opened out in the museums and the galleries, theatre and the ballet at
concerts. Since then, Sabavala has not lost his excitement and wonder of those early encounters.
He studied at Cathedral and John Connon School, Elphinstone College and earned a Fine Arts diploma
from Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art in 1944. Thereafter, he went to Europe and studied in the Heatherley
School of Art, London from 1945 to 1947, in Academia Andre Lhote, Paris in 1948 to 51, the Academie Julian
from 1953 to 54 and finally at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in 1957. His career spanned for more
than sixty years since his first solo exhibition at the Taj Art Gallery, Mumbai in 1951, after returning to his
homeland from Europe.
As one of the post-colonial Indian painters, Sabavala staked his claim to a modernity of his own while
maintaining a close relationship with the currents of international art practice. He has had no patience with
the fluctuations of fashion; nor has he permitted such oppressive factors as ideology or political necessity to
determine the tenor and direction of his work. Sabavala has rejected group affiliations, not from arrogance,
but from the simple desire to explore the terrain of experience alone, neither imposing his beliefs on others
nor permitting others to impose their doctrines on him. He has always worked at a tangent to main currents
of contemporary Indian art, standing apart from schools and movements, guided by an inner logic of
transformation. He believes that expression can be perfected through the tireless questioning of experience;
through the divination of the motives and currents that purl beneath the still-flowing surfaces of our lives.
Evolving as he has done, Sabavala has remained true to certain lodestars of the imagination. And yet, over
the decades, his handling of light and colour, his treatment of surface and structure have changed, at first
almost imperceptibly and then to the more visible effect. The hard, aggressively definite and form-enclosing
line of the early paintings gave way gradually to suffusions of radiance, hinting at the marbled openness, the
limitless expanse of the infinite. Later on, he was attracted, not to the residual ideological content of Cubism,
but to its formal discipline. Cubism ingrained in him a firm appreciation of light and structure; but it
constrained him as he forged ahead and grew into an acceptance of a deep-seated, classicising tendency
within himself. From the early 1960’s onwards, he was led to the expression of the contemplative energies
that have fructified in his semi-abstractionist canvasses.
After the mid 1960’s, Sabavala calls into being a procession of exiles and pilgrims in his paintings; and as they
traverse the unbounded distances towards a once and future homeland, he traces the stations of their quest.
Over the 1970’s Sabavala came to see his art as a tightrope walk between the abstractionist and the
representational. There is, in the crisply structured form, an echo of the old Cubism; but the content springs
from the treasured memory and the stunning observation that has imprinted itself on the mind’s eye.
Since 1951, Sabavala has exhibited at prestigious national and international venues and held solo exhibitions
of his Paintings in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, New Delhi, Edinburgh, London, and New York. A
retrospective exhibition of his works was organized at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and
New Delhi in 2005-06. He also contributed his writings to many publications since 1951. Sabavala passed
away in 2011.
Excerpt from the book, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala by Ranjit Hoskote
published in 2005