Indian artist Jehangir Sabavala’s painting sets record at bonhams sale
A stunning piece, a brilliant canvas dotted with allegories- Vespers I by Jehangir Sabavala sets records at Bonhams by selling for $391,021 (£253,650). While the celebrated auction house’s annual summer sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian art remained packed with a number of mesmerizing creations from the region, Sabavala’s painting was undoubtedly the show stealer. It surpassed pre-sale estimates £100,000-150,000, even triggering a sales room tussle between two bidders. Displayed for the first time at Jehangir art gallery in Bombay, the painting is often considered as one of Sabavala’s most notable works. Vespers I is the perfect representation of a transitory phase in the artist’s oeuvre.
For those who did not know, Jehangir Sabavala is one of the most distinguished figures in India’s post colonial art history. Born into a wealthy Parsi family, Sabavala spent his growing up years all over the world. No wonder then, his training as an artist happened at some of the most prestigious names in business. Paintings which transpired during the initial days of his career were efforts to reconcile his teacher Andre Lhote’s austere cubism with the sensuousness underlining tropical India. Indian landscapes have continued to dominate a majority of Sabavala’s works back through time. In a career spanning over six decades, the artist eventually settled for the human figure as a pilgrim and wanderer.
The origin of Vespers I can be traced back to the 1960s. Sabavala had returned to India after a long stay abroad. Hence, Sabavala was looking to develop a pictorial language using his formal training in impressionism, expressionism and cubism- a language that despite being animated by western techniques of art would be acceptable and legible to Indian people and represent its creator’s cross cultural roots. To cut a long story short, Sabavala wanted his art to depict his diverse lineage. During the mid 1960s Sabavala’s work had started to get increasingly packed with mist veiled mountains, land locked seas and masses of clouds. Slowly and steadily, the artist was moving away from Cubism influences.Vespers I was born out of this gradual shift in Sabavala’s artistic style.
Post 1965, his focus bordered completely and totally on man’s relationship with his unchanging cosmos. His works from this period featured refugees, pilgrims, questors, monks or nuns. In Vespers I, for instance, we can see a group of nuns in what appears to be a ruined abbey or chapel. Although, gathered in prayer, the figures are barely distinguishable as separate individuals. It would be more apt to describe them as allegorical representations of seclusion and renunciation. Vespers refers to the evening prayer in the Liturgical systems of different churches including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican sections.
Vespers I depicting a group of nuns becomes all the more important due to its creator Jehangir Sabavala’s fascination with monastic life. The artist had on more occasions than one compared his disciplined hours in the studio with the monk’s time at the Church, spent primarily through prayers, studies and meditation. Talking of his love for monastic figures, Sabavala once said “I find the draped and cowled figure very interesting from a technical point of view: it provides volume, bulk elements to play with”.
Apart from Vespers I, the other important feature of Bonhams June 7th auction was an MF Husain piece. Named The Blue Lady, the breath taking creation which sold for over $1.5 million reminds us of the MF Husain paintings exhibited at the Art Dubai Fair sometime ago. A string of interesting creations by the renowned artist, worth over $45 million were put up on display. Bonhams latest effort to bring path breaking specimens of South Asian art may not be as big as the art fair, yet from MF Hussain, to Jamini Roy to A. R. Chughtai to Jamil Naqsh- name it and the sale had it all.