Vespers I, oil on canvas, signed and dated '68 lower left, framed, 121 x 91cm (47 5/8 x 35 13/16in).
Provenance: Private UK Collection.
Published: Ranjit Hoskote. The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala. Bombay 2005. p. 118 - 119.
Jehangir Sabavala (1922-2011) was one of the most distinguished members of India's first generation of postcolonial artists, and a contemporary of M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza and Tyeb Mehta. The scion of an aristocratic Bombay Parsi family, Sabavala was raised in India and Europe; he trained in art at Heatherleys, London, and the Academie Julian, the Academie Grande Chaumiere and the Academie Andre Lhote in Paris. Over a six-decade-long career, Sabavala evolved from his early interest in reconciling the austere cubism of his teacher Andre Lhote with the tropical sensuousness of India, through a sustained engagement with the visionary landscape, to an eventual celebration of the stylised human figure as pilgrim, wanderer, and survivor of cataclysm.
Sabavala's Vespers I, first exhibited at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, and then at his solo exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute, London, represents an important period of transition in the artist's oeuvre. By the late 1960s, Sabavala had resolved the formal problems he had set himself during the previous decade, after returning to Bombay from a long period of residence in London and Paris. He had wanted to devise a pictorial language that was animated by his technical training in expressionism, impressionism and cubism, yet could embrace an Indian sense of place, be legible to an Indian audience, and articulate his transcultural sense of belonging both to India and to Europe at the same time. Between 1962 and 1964, Sabavala made what I have identified elsewhere as a breakthrough both in his relationship to India and his style. Abandoning his prismatic linearity and high-keyed palette of the 1950sthe former a legacy of cubism, the latter a tribute to his tropical environmenthe embraced what I have called the 'visionary landscape'. Recognisable topographies, whether based on the Swiss lakes or the western-Indian Sahyadri mountains of his childhood, receded from his paintings. Instead, he developed a cosmic scale, celebrating stylised vistas of mountains, land-locked seas, mist-veiled headlands and massed clouds, all delivered in muted, pellucid, crystalline tonalities.
After 1965, Sabavala's focus shifted to the philosophical question of humankind's relationship to this sublimely indifferent cosmos, its purpose and destiny in this site of mingled beauty and terror. Appropriately enough, the figure re-entered his work as a refugee, a pilgrim, a questor, a monk or nun. In Vespers I, a group of nuns are pictured in a cavernous, seemingly ruined chapel or abbey, spectral figures ritually treading an otherworldly space between doubt and faith, twilight and illumination. They are gathered up in a moment of prayer, not distinguishable as individuals but symbolising the life of seclusion and renunciation. These seekers turn away from the viewer, and from the secular world; they inhabit the time of the sacred, a domain given shape and coherence by the various liturgical offices of the day, matins, lauds and vespers and so forth. Vespers is the traditional evening prayer in the liturgical systems of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Churches.
Sabavala had a lifelong fascination with the monastic life, and with the figures of the monk and the hermit. Indeed, he often compared his long, solitary and disciplined hours of work in the studio with a monk's routine of study, prayer, retreat and meditation. At the same time, he was attracted to the form of participatory community that the monastery provided; and especially to the power of collective chanting or song to renew one's attention both to language and silence. Writing in 1979, Sabavala observed of his pictorial emphases: "I find the draped and cowled figure very interesting from a technical point of view: it provides volume, bulkelements to play with. I have an instinctive attraction towards the veiled. My temperament leads me to investigate into what is concealed."
Ranjit Hoskote Independent Curator and Author of The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala
Please note this artwork is on the cover of the monograph: Ranjit Hoskote. The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala. Bombay, 2005.