The Brush in hand, the paint on the palette, the canvas mounted on the easel… And the artist steps forward spiritedly, meditatively or in sheer workmanlike manner to take his stance and fight a battle with himself. Well may one imagine the creator seized by many moods, dispelling the primeval chaos to establish a controlled cycle of order and disorder, and well may one wonder as to the meaning of it all. Alas, the Creator is a god unknown!
But the meaning of art has to be sought in and through art, just as the meaning of life can stand revealed only through the experience of existence. And, to be precise, art is what the artist creates. The major confusion in the appreciation and evaluation of art arises from judging a work from the viewpoint of vague definitions of arts. Is there, one may ask, an impeccable statement that defines the nature poetry? What, at another end, is science, except the sum total of experiments?
Thus one can arrive at the meaning of art only through a calm and considered study of the works in question. But it would be rash to apply a set of conclusions arrived at in an investigation for judging any painting or sculpture, disregarding the approach and outlook of the artist.
Even whilst having moved away in time from vhaos to civilisation and with the works of masters, ancient and modern, anonymous or celebrated, to appreciate and admire, one can face the initial questions concerning the validity of a creation only with cryptic answere: the meaning of creation has a menaing in the measure it contributes to the simultaneous perception of mind and material, through a process of cognition, connecting the whole with the individual, the general with the particular, the outside reality with the inner awareness.
Broadly speaking, there are two angles of appreciation when assessing the contribution of artists. Some contribute to the enrichment of tradition, the trends of times, and, thus, to meaningful movement; some to their own perspective of art and thought.
Jehangir Sabavala certainly belongs to the latter group.
Today there is perhaps, no one in India who can be aligned with him in an assessment, in terms of an artist's search, or style-and he is too far away on another shore to be fixed in a 'family tree' of modern Indian painting, that, in so far as Indian-ness is concerned, can at best trace a faint line of descent from Abanindranath Tagore.
Early in his career, when Sabavala's field of enquiry concerned itself only with certain stylistic explorations and the subject and the scene were restricted to the narrow confines of a given environment, one could have discussed is art in terms of the work of an Indian painter, whatever that may, mean.
As one born in India, Jehangir Sabavala is a citizen of this country. But to suggest that any artist should reflect his national status in his work is to ignore the fact that art is, in a manner of speaking, abstract thought. Though every nation has a cultural heritage to boast of and to inspire its creative minds, any wider study of art history will reveal that the achievements ofartists everywhere have constant points of co-ordinating thought.
Whatever be the comparative merits and demerits of Gothic and Pallava architecture, the cathedral and the temple speak of the glory of God and man's lofty designs to reach the Heavens. Similarly, the Moghul miniaturists and the Flemish portrait painters can never be consigned to different continents, if it is art that, in the final count, is under survey. It is the same in heroic sculpture, or religious frescoes, or historical painting-the vision is the same in each particular genre, and the divergence in tone and speech are merely the fluctuations of language and eloquence. In other worth, if the relevant matrix of thought had been available, one can imagine Michelangelo as the maker of a Chola Parvati or the South Indian mastercraftsmnan doing a Pieta. Michelangelo and a bronze sculptor of ancient times are being grouped together here, because the individual talent or genius is not under discussion. What is being stressed is the fact that to an art appreciator, without minor prejudices of race or religion the impact of both the Pieta and the Parvati is on the same centre of the mind, even though analytically one may speak in different words of the feelings produced, depending on the emotional stress of the work observed. All this can be taken as an argument in an ends- and-means discussion of art, which, though it may sound abstruse, will reveal how art has gained a universal language with the successful search for more valid aims and objectives from an artist’s point of view.
Once the painter realised that the problems facing him were his own, to be resolved in the painting itself, the emphasis shifted from subject to style-to an intense exploration of line, colour and form. Therefater the alignment of art on the basis of the subject portrayed lost its hold and, gradually, as the painters bagan asking themselves the same questions regarding space light, volume an dperspective, the subject itself was to disappear in many instances and a common language began to be cultivated, so that eventually the critics and connoisseurs had to judge a painter as a painter and not as a descriptive or dramatic storyteller.
The artistic development of Jehangir Sabavala, as is invariably the case with any painter of significance, offers an insight into the steady transformation of art as an occupation into art as a medium self -expression and discovery.
Turning to the output of an early period, 1949-52, one finds Sabavala content to portray or analyse a subject or scene-and always within the frame work of perceptive reality. Here the line, whether in straight forward still-lifes or in portraits studies (‘Montenegran Gypsy’), is called upon to do no more than trace the relevant contour, the colour being merely a helpful factor to lend emphasis. Even in a ‘Table by the window’, with its cubist bias, the line only cuts out the pattern and one may say that it has not yet gained its inherent independent force, simply because the creative mind seeks its power mainly from the compositional arrangement. But, quite soon, in 'The Madonna', for instance, Sabavala reveals an enthusiasm for original composition and free form, and is able to discover how one can create an image without tracing the contour. Again in 'Still-Life with Speckled Leaves', the rigidit of academic. Cubism is subtly softened by seeking a rhythmic compositional balance. And in 'Venetian Reverie', the floating shapes and forms that have settled in the mind take over to emerge in alliterative stress, against the background of towers and porticos seen on a journey through the waterways.
The Madonna' faintly marks a point of departure and, looking back on the `nuanced' impressionist study, 'Golden Oranges' (1949), shows the distance Sabavala had traversed in the first phase ofhis artistic career. But apparently, Sabavala was still not sure of the direction he was to pursue, for in 'A Village Gathering, Rajasthan' (1956), he is going back to the period of 'The Chequered Shade' and only attempting to tackle one aspect of compositional arrangement-the massing of volume in terrestial space. The Cubist approach here is slack enough to accommodate large areas of unbroken surface, and the indigenous colours and the judicious use of yellows bring the glow of desert heat to augment the impact. One appreciates it mainly for the studied sense of colour, though the seated figure in the foreground at the extreme right is at variance with the others in treatment, the jagged shadow seen through the thick veil slightly disturbing the eye.
shadow seen through the thick veil slightly disturbing the eye.
In the direction of Cubist abstraction, Sabavala can best be studied in the three still-life studies with jugs painted around 1959-Earthenware', 'Jugs in Consonance', and 'Still-Life with Jugs'. In a way the last-named composition is important for it draws Sabavala back again to experimenting without the contours of a subject, seeking release from its hold, giving the line its freedom and to colour its real value beyond the defined local connotation.
The earlier two studies in this set are reminiscently romantic, vet the broken contours help interpenetration of planes and remove the painting from the task of recording an arrangement.
But in 'Still-Life with Jugs', the artist aims at hard abstraction, allowing the geometric shapes superimposed on one another in an asymetrical manner to create a pattern purely as a painterly exercise. The textural treatment is uniform too, relieved occasionally by smooth surfaces. Colours overlap at chosen points to present admisture in harmony and contrast, and Sabavala is here in no mood to allow any outside factor to dictate his thought.
Roughly, till the year 1958, one notices Sabavala moving in three directions, according to his predilections : (1) exploring the Cubist idiom for a personal style and testing its strength to record his impressions of the Indian scene , as in 'The Chequered Shade', 'Camels Resting', and 'A Village GAthering Rajasthan', (2) experimenting, again.with t Cubist outlook, but attempting to discover for himself the raison d'etre of the style, and, in the process, moving beyond the limits of profiles and planes to seek throuth Iines, and segments of form the substance of an inherent subject as in 'The Madonna' and 'Blue Dragonflies', (3) deviating entirely, at times, from tho regular path he had set himself to communicate through texture and the resonances of colour as in ‘ Venetian Reverie’ and ‘The Green Gorge’.
It was Paul valery who remarked that an artist ‘awaits an answer that must be absolutely precise to a question that is essentially incomplete’. It was he who also pointed out that ‘every art can be learned but not the whole art’. But far more enlightening than these two statements is the great French poet’s observation in another direction: ‘ When poets repair to the enchanted forest of language it is with the xpress purpose of getting lost; far gone in bewilderment they seek crossroads of meaning, unexpected echoes, strange encounters; they fear neither detours, suprises, nor darkness; but the huntsman who ventures into this forest in hot pursuit of the “ truth”, who sticks to a single continous path, from which he cannot deviate for a moment on pain of losing the scent or impeilling the progress he has already made, runs the risk of capturing nothing but his shadow. Sometimes the shadow is enormous, but a shadow it remains. ‘ ( The collected works of Paul Valery; Translated by Ralph Manheim; Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.)
Sabavala, apparently, sought the same experience of bewildering moments in his studio in the following years in order to discover how to arrive at poetry and thus seek the substance, renouncing the shattow, of himself. And that is the crucial period for an artist.
The grammar, the simple syntax of prose, the common figures of speech are what in every art can be learned with patience and practice . But the whole art will reveal itself only when the poetic, creative spirit rises in a pure flame. And, as Jacques Maritain observes, 'the first obligation imposed on the poet is to consent to be brought back to the hidden place, near the centre of the soul, where his totality exists in the state of a creative source'. (Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry Harvill, London.)
Proceeding on such a path of discovery, Sabavala, during the period 1959-61, is seen ardently engaged in experimenting with the formal patterns of poetry and moving slowly, inwardly, towards 'the centre of the soul'. Thus, in the ‘ Still -life with Bottles', Sabavala carefully seeks the proportion of syllables and stress, measuring the architectural impact of a formal pattern; and lookering at 'Under Sail' one can summon a few apt lines from Coleridge's ‘The Ancient Mariner'. It is clear at tins stage that he can, so to say, compose a stanza and is on his way to producing poems, pure and profound, springing from the still centre of his mind. One is also certain by now that Sabavala will never appear anarchic or speak in a frenzied tone. Indeed he avers that he will not conceive a composition designed to shock or compel one to surrender one's sensibilities. Such experiments and exercises are far from Sabavala’s temperament.
The Cubist bias continues for the good in Sabavala's work during this period, but he is seen throughout erasing its rough edges and employing the style in a freer manner, constantly striving to retain a sense of the beyond, to align own subjective search with the quest for true painterly values.
One can here note the statement of Victor Pasmore, in a recent interview given to Alan Ross for The London Magazine : ‘… there could have been no pure painting without the daring freedom of cubism', And, among Indian painters, Sabavala has been more or less alone in progressing steadfastly along the path of Cubism and exploring the style through his own thoughts to move forward towards his own vision of pure art. He does not allow the ‘daring freedom of Cubism' to overrun the meaningful limits or discard the demands of art. He seems at every stage to release the line and shapes cautiously, aware that only a firm grasp will prevent liberty from degenerating into the chaos of licence, as for instance in 'The Musicians', which while keeping the suggestion of a subject proceeds to unfold itself in a magnificent well-knit pattern.
Picasso rightly maintains that it is misleading to talk of an artist's evolution: 'If an artist varies his mode of expression this only means that he has changed his manner of thinking, and in changing, it might be for the better or it might be for theworse’. Nothing, thecefore, is as misleading as to attempt a survey of a painter’s output as if he were climbing a ladder or journeying into the beyond counting the milestones. It is only in the advance of the individual technique that one can appreciate the progress, if evident, during the successive periods; and technical accomplishment by itself does not contribute to the enrichment of art.
One has, therefore, to note the change in the manner of expression in Sabavala's later work as a co-ordinating corollary of the change in his thought and approach, and, here, one can offer only certain surmises, suppprted by his enquires into the art of the modern masters and their declared aims.
There is, for instance, the observation of Lyonel Feininger, whose achievements Sabavala keenly admires: 'What one sees must undergo an inner tramsformation, must be crystallised.' Or Guillaume Apollinaire's declaration: ‘ I love the art of today because above all else I love the light, for man loves light more than anything; it was he who invented fire’ . Feininger, it may be pointed out, also had this advice to offer: ‘I believe firmly that every picture that deserves the name must be an absolute synthesis of rhythm, form, perspective, and colour; and even all that is not good enough if it is not expressive’.
It is not that Sabavala has made the dictums of others, however eminent, his own-and the quotations are merely intended to show the present direction of Sabavala's approach and to endorse the validitv of his refined. flaterm•day style, that in a manner aligns the findings of the Cubist, the Abstract and the Expressionist painters inculcating in the personalised idiom a sense of the mystical awareness of grandeur of Nature. This is, indeed, a measure of good art, when a painting cannot easily be categorised as belonging to any school or system.
As to his own inclinations and the guiding force of his thought it is perhaps pertinent to quote Sabavala directly from a recent letter : ‘I find it necessary, looking at the plethora of work produced in this country and abroad-so much of it produced so rapidly and prolifically, due to the licence of our day and age ---to take the measure of myself as a painter. Whereas most painters today are concerned with man and "the human predicament"-or so they would have us believe-I seem to stand apart at the other end of the scale, for I find myself concerned and enthralled by Nature. The sun, the moon, the stars-- : heavenly alchemy"-it is in the region of the beyond that I find myself free to dream and build a world of mystery and beauty. Both qualities----mystery and beauty-are essential to me. I will not be unravelled blatantly. I will not pour out my heart onto a canvas in a mess of gore and savagery. Rather will it beat deeply and from within the core of the canras. Hence my fight with talents that serve themselves up raw and drippiagt-- but fail to terrify or truly revolt. And so, understandably , I love mist and rain, sushsine through great banks of clouds-the power and poetry of an incredibly beautiful 'world-God- made but enriched by man…Yes, I seek to haunt. by the use of the broken tone-a moss green rather than a pure green, russet and brown and gold. rather than a primary red or yellow. I now tend to paint "man" as a wraith-like form and not as the solid, carnal creature that he really is. Not that I have anything against mankind-but the ethereally visulalised form fits more aptly into my biblical lanthcapes. It strikes me as strange that I, who have sought to capture the weight and volume of the human figure in my studies of men and women in the studios o fLondon and Paris, am now satisfied with creating a shimmering creature-part flesh, part spirit.’
The turning point in Sabavala's art materialised when through some doubts and deliberations of his own he arrived at the position, in 1962, of realising that an artist has to rise far above the formulas acquired from studies and must bring the full force of his imagination to bear its impact on a composition. In other word, the total impressions and responses have to be refined through a process of ‘ inner transformation', the objective reality -visualised in terms of expressive, subjective thought, and transferred' onto the canvas in a methodical manner, allowing the dictates and demands of art to shape the final pattern in stages of discovery.
The Impressionist lets th eye remain supreme; the Expressionist allows his mind absolute freedom; the Abstract painter mostlty depends on his intellect. But an artist like Sabavala, in attempting to fuse the divergent approaches, face the challenging task of having to arrest the various reactions and responses at a certain stage and to channelize the total impact in a controlled manner, allowing, finally, the painter in him to emerge and synthesise the modd and emotions with form, colour and pattern.
The first attempts at ‘inner transformation’, even if the theme or subject in these cases is to a great extent visulaised in the mind, are to be seen in the compositions dated 1962, such as “ The Guiding Light’, ‘ Down to a Sunless Sea and Eventide’. Here Sabavala records a major breakthrough both in technique and treatment, clearly evident when the works in question are compared with the paintings of the immediately preceding period.
The earlier approach that fo all its constructive brillriance left the painting in a sterile shell of stylistic shimmer is now pursured with greater deliberation, with an emphasis on creative splendour that makes the colours seek glory of light and the planes swim in space. Sabavala from now on does not rest content in the role of a painter. He has sensed the mystery of the artistic experience, the ethereal pulsation of life, the eternity that hallows the earth, and is aware that a painter has to bring to his work a sense of awe and wonder which any act of creation inherently contains.
To stress the point again, it is only through the co-ordinated impact of all the essential factors of thought and the communicative medium that one can hope to satisfy both the need of self - expression and the claim of the creative urge. Depending on the degree of precision, refinement and calcuation an artist gains in every effort, his work reveals in comparative stress the meaning of art, establishing, too, the fact that art is what the artist creates.
What then is the art that Sabavala offers? One cannot answer this question by categorising the paintings as mere still-lifes or landscape studies, for when an artist -creates, in the proper sense of the term, he rises above the subject or theme and strives towards the truth not of perceptible reality but of an awareness of the living moment on the plane of eternity. Thus, 'The Legendary Queen’ bears no name but embraces a whole world of myth and history, and the cumulative sorrow ofexistence is expressively reflected in the withdrawn look. On another level, the timelessness of time, the eternity in a dissolving scene is brought to focus in 'The Spectral Light' and 'White Forms on an Azure Night', which is to say that by 1963 Sabavala records a magnificent conquest for his paintings-endowing each with a quality of permanence beyond, the threat of measured time.
Nowhere is this new majesty of Sabavala's creative prowess, at this stage, so lasting in its impact as in `The Journey of the Magi' -----a painter's poem, indeed, resounding with a rare internal rhythm and an assonance of great harmony, all attuned to the stillness of the heart throbbing to the light of the guiding star. And one must appreciate here expressly the purely painterly manner in which the biblical episode has been detailed evocatively, with the clarity of colours accentuating' the precision of the formal construction of the composition, and both together heightening the imaginative reconstruction of a solemn moment. The architectonics of Cubism provide Sabavala with the method of rendering even an ancient figurative theme in modern terminology, while the assimilation of abstract aesthetics offers full scope for a painterly treatment of the composition, eliminating all needless detail to lay emphasis on a note of purity in diction. At the same time the inner transiormation of thought permits a slight expressionistic feel and sets in movement- the impact of emotional reverberations.
It is perhaps easier to appreciate Sabavala's present command in the subject combining the syntax with the objective statement if one turns to such compositions, free of literary or religious allusions, as 'The Islands' and 'The Flight’. Here, on the poetic level, one readily summons stalwart minds of immense insight and impeccable artistry - W. E. Yeats, for instance - for the mystery of being is touched to the quick and everything is 'so arrogantly pure'. Indeed in 'The Embarkationf' (1965) Sabavala wears the mystical mien as majestically as Yeats so that the melodious strains of the enraptured muse are felt intensely as in 'Sailing to Byzantium'.
When an artist does not turn his face away from nature or refuses to restrict his vision to a revelation of his own self, the poetic argument for the purity of phrase and the synthesis of sensory findings is totally relevant. He has perforce to transfer reality to the realm of abstract thought and recapture images and forms in a different setting of the unknown that is still the known. It is on this level of perception and intuitive imagination that Sabavala has enlarged his mode of expression to a fruitful, abundant realisation of art.
Fortunately Sabavala continues to explore both the dramatic and the poetic moments, so to say, and while 'The journey of the Magi' and 'Icarus reveal his concern with the surcharged situations visualised in the religious or mythical field, and 'The Wandering Shades' and 'The Embarkation' project the search in the wilderness or the flight towards the unknown of the heart in harness, other compositions such as 'On The Earth-Margins' and 'Golden Flight' elaborate solely on the lyrical note. Such an exploration from divergent starting points certainly enlarges the field of observation and analysis and the artistic vision is not rigidly regulated to a set path of enquiry.
The first influences of Botticelli (for perfection of line), Cezanne (for his courageous approach to colour and formal balance in composition), Juan Gris and Jacques Villon (for the daring freedom of Cubism) and Lyonel Feininger (for inner transformation and crystallisation of thought) have finally made Sabavala look towards Turner, to capture through the excellence of refined technique the mystic vision and to behold the manifestations of creative splendour in the glory of light and the vastness of space.
The sea and the sky help the soul to sense tranquillity, but the mind in eternal search of the unknown seeks images and symbols and is forever engaged in a flight towards the distant horizon. Sabavala, thus, seeks a meaning to his art in several equations and returns to the easel, invigorated, filled with joy the creative quest, to embark on another voyage of wonder and discover.
The gradual transformation, then, in thought and approach, the realisation of the need for a spiritual understanding of the creative urge has helped Sabavala reach his own stature as an artist. He is, today, undoubtedly alone and supreme on an elevated plane, and, though there are others on the high-board, his sense of direction makes him a singular personality among the contemporary artists of India.