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The White Veni

The White Veni
signed and dated 'Sabavala '51' (lower right)
oil on canvas
38¼ x 28 3/8 in. (97.2 x 72.1 cm.)
Painted in 1951
Gifted by the artist to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Dastur
Ashish Balram Nagpal Galleries, Mumbai
Acquired from the above in 1990
R. Hoskote, Sabavala: Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer, Mumbai, 1998, p. 54 (detail illustrated)
R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, p. 53 (illustrated)
S. Kalidas, ‘Pilgrim Painter’, India Today, New Delhi, 2 January 2006, p. 94 (illustrated)
R. Hoskote, ‘The Old Man and His Oils’, Tehelka, 21 January 2006, p. 24 (illustrated)
Mumbai, Jehangir Art Gallery, 28 February - 9 March, 1955
Mumbai, Jehangir Art Gallery, Jehangir Sabavala Exhibition of Paintings, 15-23 November, 1958
Mumbai and New Delhi, National Gallery of Modern Art, Jehangir Sabavala, A Retrospective, 19 December 2005 - 9 January 2006

Lot Essay

Following a period of intensive training in London and then in Paris at the Academie Julian and Academie André Lhote, Jehangir Sabavala returned to India in 1951. As he struggled to develop an artistic vocabulary that reconciled the opposing demands of the Impressionist and Cubist traditions in which he was trained, he also realized that his work could not ignore its new and unique Indian context. Describing the period as a ‘private journey of re-discovery’ for the artist, Ranjit Hoskote explains that “Sabavala employed the 1950s in testing his Cubist education against the patterns of his experience: would it hold, could it be extended and modified?” (R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, p. 62)

Painted in 1951, the year Sabavala returned to India and mounted his first solo exhibition at the Princes’ Room of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, this is a portrait of the beautiful young Veena Purohit Shroff, dressed in a vibrant sari with her hair elaborately styled and decorated with a veni made of white jasmine flowers, after which the painting is titled. Exhibited in a few of his earliest shows in Mumbai, this painting went on to hold pride of place in the residence of the artist's in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Dastur for several decades before it was sold.

Shroff, a renowned hair ‘sculptor’ who wrote a treatise on the various ways Indian women wore their hair over the centuries, remained a close friend of the artist and his family for several decades. A collector of antique hair ornaments, she also worked as a stylist on several films from the 1950s to the 1990s, including Jhansi ki Rani, Bollywood’s first film in color. Inspired by classical Indian sculpture and painting, Shroff is remembered for her classic beauty and for “breathing life into the feminine coiffures frozen in ancient stone.” (M. Handique, ‘Forty Years of Good Hair Days’, Business Standard, 28 February 1998)

In this painting, Sabavala poses his sitter comfortably against a pile of colorful rugs and cushions, expressing his strong academic training as well as the tentative foundations his distinctive style of construction and high-keyed palette. Speaking about this painting, the artist’s biographer Ranjit Hoskote notes that it is one of the few that express the ‘contrapuntal creative tensions’ of his early career. Here, “the painter allows his fondness for colour free rein, and the orange and green of the sitter’s clothes scintillate against the bold hauteur of her pose.” (R. Hoskote, Mumbai, 2005, pp. 51-52)

Writing about this formative period of the artist’s career, A.S. Raman concisely summed up the virtuosic balance between the West and India, academic discipline and individual freedom, and artistic ‘authenticity’ and tradition that such works represent. “Among the few serious, solitary Indian painters, Jehangir Sabavala has an honoured place […] Sabavala infuses a lyrical and exotic flavour into his canvases which are authentic without being patently traditional. His manner of building up his compositions plane by plane and the subtle harmonies of his palette bear testimony to virtuosity and sensitivity of a high order.” (A.S. Raman, ‘The Art of Jehangir Sabavala’, The Illustrated Weekly of India, 23 November, 1958)

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