Indian painter Jehangir Sabavala worked most often in oils, creating landscapes and seascapes of rarefied beauty.
Born in an affluent Parsi family in Mumbai, he studied at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art before attending art schools in London and Paris in the 1940s and 1950s. In Europe, Sabavala was influenced by Impressionism and cubism. Today, he is regarded as the greatest Indian exponent of cubism.
Photographs: Sotheby’s, Hindustan Times
In a Sotheby’s auction on 15 September 2011 in New York, his serene and delicate Cobweb Cloud (1973) sold for $266,500 to a private collector from Europe. It generated much interest also because of the timing: Sabavala passed away on 2 September in Mumbai.
We asked Maithili Parekh, country head and director of Sotheby’s, India, what gives Cobweb Cloud its venerated status in art circles.
The painting was exhibited at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery in 1973 (the year it was executed) and has been housed in a private collection ever since— and, hence, rarely seen.
It was chosen by Sabavala and curator Ranjit Hoskote, also the artist’s biographer, to be exhibited at the artist’s retrospective, The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and Delhi in 2005-2006.
Cobweb Cloud symbolizes, according to Sabavala, ‘‘the essence of painting”.
‘‘...The essence of painting coalesces, for me, in a painting like Cobweb Cloud. Here, composition, colour and texture are spun together, with the mystery of the spirit, in a gossamer landscape.” (As quoted by Hoskote in The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, 2005)
Cobweb Cloud is reminiscent of the early 20th century protocubist works by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and André Lhote (under whom Sabavala studied in Paris from 1947 to 1951). It displays a departure point between Sabavala’s early tightly ordered, analytical cubist works and the richly textured composition planes of his later works.
Cobweb Cloud utilizes the artist’s characteristic subdued palette—shades of calming azure, greys and ochre—capturing the arc of evening light over a plain. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Sabavala seemed to be responding to a history of loss by evoking the elements as the ultimate home of the homeless. In these canvases, the subtle colouring and the vast amplitude of land, sky and sea provided a sense of the infinite.
A beautifully balanced composition, where lonely pilgrim figures punctuate the various planes, Sabavala distils the landscape he sees around him using crystalline geometry, carefully controlled and deliberate strokes of refined abstraction to create a timeless vista, capturing an austere and still vastness enveloped in mystery.
‘‘Clouds—evanescent, magical, ominous— have been a favourite subject of mine, to which I often return. In this work, a delicate web has been spun across the landscape, enmeshing the humanoids on their journey. Can they escape? Will they free themselves?”
(Personal communication between Sotheby’s and Sabavala on 4 August 2011 about this work.)