Part of a series of vivid canvases that Jehangir Sabavala painted in the mid-1950s, inspired by the people and landscapes of India, this painting from 1955 underscores the artist’s early experiments with subject, structure and palette. Titled Fisher-Folk Madh Island, this semi-urban scene features a group of fishermen and their families involved in their everyday routines in their coastal community in northern Mumbai. Wearing typical Maharashtrian nauvari or nine yard sarees, the women are busy bathing their children and sorting and cleaning the day’s catch, carried over to them from the fishing boats by the men.
In these paintings, the artist “[…] seeks not only to capture the colours and warmth of the Indian milieu, but to evolve a visual language which is universal, if not conventional [...] 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)
Meticulously constructed from precise facets of color, applied in a carefully planned composition, this painting reflects Sabavala’s European training at the Academie Julian and Academie André Lhote in Paris, as well as the new sensitivity that began to inform and develop the styles and techniques he learned there on his return to India in 1951. According to Ranjit Hoskote, “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, pp. 62-63)
Writing about Sabavala’s work in 1956, Richard Lannoy, a fellow artist and lifelong friend from the Heatherly School in London, notes, “His pictures have joyous subjects, gay colour […] the exclamatory brightness of figures at work in the landscape […] His scenes of Indian life call for a new rich key of patterned colours and geometrical stylisation. He not only transmits to us his visual delight but that he has discovered a personal way of portraying the Indian scene with striking felicity.” (R. Lannoy, Marg, 1956 reprinted in Jehangir Sabavala, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 1962, unpaginated)