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A rare showcase of Jehangir Sabavala’s experiments with light and shadow

The first posthumous solo presentation of the artist's work focuses on different phases of his seven-decade long career

'The Miasmic Shore', oil on canvas (1967). Photo: courtesy Akara Art

Jehangir Sabavala’s paintings have a unique luminescence about them. Using a play of light, shadow and texture the artist managed to infuse his landscapes with a range of emotions. While his landmark work, Elegy, featuring high mountains, some shrouded in the dark, while others rising into the light, is tinged with despondence, another one, The Miasmic Shore, from 1967 has a sense of infinite vastness about it. And now 15 such works can be viewed at Akara Art’s upcoming show in Mumbai, titled ‘Jehangir Sabavala: Pilgrim Souls, Soaring Skies, Crystalline Seas’.

This is the first posthumous solo presentation of Sabavala’s work in a gallery context since he passed away in 2011, and focuses on different phases of the artist’s seven-decade long career. Some of the works in the show have rarely been placed on public view. “One doesn’t get to see many Sabavala works come together, be it in a gallery show or at an auction,” says Puneet Shah, director, Akara Art. “We received a good response to our physical shows held post the covid-19 induced lockdown. So, we thought of focusing on a significant artist like Sabavala for our next show.” The artist is particularly significant for his mastery over depth, perspective and colour. The works on display hail from the 1950s to the 2000s, thus offering a glimpse of the workings of the artist’s mind over time.

'Elegy', oil on canvas (1967). Photo: courtesy Akara Art
'Elegy', oil on canvas (1967). Photo: courtesy Akara Art

The show has been divided into four distinct sections, the first being ‘Towards the Crystalline’, featuring his quintessential landscapes. It looks at his breaking away from the formality of Synthetic Cubism, which he had experienced during his apprenticeship at Andre Lhote’s academy in Paris. “Sabavala allowed light to permeate the canvas as tissues, as suffusions, to produce a mysterious shifting topography of translucent seas, opaque headlands, clouded plateaux, and free-floating atmospheric forms. His handling became freer, his emphasis shifted from the particular to the universal,” writes cultural theorist and poet Ranjt Hoskote in his descriptions of the first section. The Miasmic Shore and Beached Boats (1962) form a part of this period.

Another section takes the viewer back to the early 1950s, when the artist returned to India with his wife after having spent six years in Europe. His initial style at that time was still influenced by Cubism, but one saw a steady transition out of it towards the end of the decade. “You can see thick brushstrokes and vivid colours in works like Earthenware Against the Sea,” says Shah. A lot of the themes were informed by the scenes and vistas he saw during his travels around the country.

'Earthenware Against The Sea', oil on canvas (1952). Photo: courtesy Akara Art
'Earthenware Against The Sea', oil on canvas (1952). Photo: courtesy Akara Art

Sabavala’s watercolours line the corridors of Akara Art, while another segment focuses on the figurative phase of his practice. Pilgrims, women, seers make an appearance in the oils on canvas. “He reached out to the experience of hard work and austere devotion, and memorialised, in his stylised manner, the shepherd, the farmer, and the monk. He could also open his imagination up to enigmatic otherworldly presences such as apparitions, visitants, shamans, and wizards, inhabitants of the worlds of myth, legend, and archetype,” writes Hoskote.

All the works on display hail from private collections, some having been acquired by the gallery and some borrowed from private collections.

‘Jehangir Sabavala: Pilgrim Souls, Soaring Skies, Crystalline Seas’ can be viewed at Akara Art, Colaba, Mumbai, between 29 October and 10 December

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