This is Jehangir Sabavala’s return to the human form under the light of western India. It is light that cuts a form, fragments it and the chopped pieces coalesce again through the animation of understated colours, subdued tones and a pale sulphuric miasma. Jehangir has crossed oceans of landscapes to arrive at the human form.
- N. Goswami, 1983
In 1979, Jehangir Sabavala summed up the nature of his creative process, saying that painting for him was “an unceasing battle to achieve perfection” (Artist statement, For You: The Magazine with a Mind, November 1979, p. 34). Although the artist’s quest for constant reinvention and perfection spanned all six decades of his career, by 1981, when The Peasants was painted, he had overcome one of the most challenging hurdles of this journey. It was during this period that Sabavala’s control of structure, color, light and texture reached an apogee of sorts, bringing him closer than ever to the perfection he sought. This, in turn, led to the creation of some of his most refined paintings, which his biographer, Ranjit Hoskote, has termed “visionary”.
The path from vision to execution, however, was a long and arduous one for Sabavala. Each painting took the artist close to a month and a half to complete, their complex constructions evolving from initial sketches, schematic plans and color calculations. Describing this meticulous process, Sabavala noted, “First, the idea strikes, either visual or through the spoken word. I put it down in an ordinary sketch-book, a pencil sketch [...] I do a number of sketches before the idea crystallises [...] I decide on the colours, the colours must marry the subject matter and the drawing. My instinct is not towards bright colours, I use a very subtle range, muted, soft colours, but a very wide spectrum of them, often 50-60 shades. The effort is to make it evocative in colours. I also think of the texture of the painting, how thick or thin the colours should be [...] The eye has to be constantly stimulated” (Artist statement, B. Contractor, ‘Sabavala: Portrait of an Artist’, Parsiana, December 1983, p. 35).
During the late 1970s, Sabavala also consciously turned away from the sweeping land and seascapes he was so well known for, to focus once again on the human figure. Created with his subtle yet refined palette and consummate control light and texture, the groups of statuesque figures that the artist now painted dominated his compositions. Veiled ladies in purdah, cloaked farmers, tired pilgrims, seated monks and their itinerant disciples were portrayed solemnly engaged in their particular journeys, at once restrained and powerful.
“What has happened is that the distant and enigmatic human figures who peopled his poignant visionary landscapes now advance towards us and wholly occupy the forefront of our attention. Their monumental scale and the concentrated silence with which they confront the world imbue these personages with commanding presence. The mood is often magisterially austere and sometimes sublime. In their hieratic stillness their deep and searching gaze seems to proceed from some unfathomable resource. These groups share a secret solidarity, a self-containment which, in its fullness, imparts what only the full technical and spiritual equipment of classical art can give: an abidingly gravid calm or rapt inner intensity” (R. Lannoy, ‘Rave Press Reviews’, Jehangir Sabavala, Calcutta, 1983, unpaginated).
This seminal painting from 1981 connects past, present and future in the arc of Sabavala’s long artistic career. Building on the early series of figurative works that the artist painted on his return to India in the mid-1950s, The Peasants is inspired by the people and landscapes the artist encountered on his travels around the country, particularly its Western states. Sabavala also offers a nod to his early experiments with Cubism as a student in the ateliers of London and Paris in the finely rendered drapery of the men’s clothing and the many strata of terrain they occupy, constructed from precisely gradated and textured layers of pigment arranged in crystalline forms. At the same, this painting foreshadows works that the artist would paint almost three decades later, in which these central figures reappear, taking on an even more mysterious and prophetic aura.
The five men in the present lot, carrying walking sticks and wrapped in thick brown shawls, are portrayed during a moment of pause in what seems to be a long and demanding journey. Far ahead of them, at the foothills of the hazy blue mountains in the distance, lies a group of houses, either a rest stop for the night or their elusive destination. Gathered in a circle, they seem to be taking stock of their progress, much like Sabavala himself frequently did, contemplating what he saw as the ever-retreating horizon of artistic perfection. In this context, the artist’s description of this painting takes on an added, personal layer of meaning, leaving us speculating about the ‘ferocity of the elements’ he perceived his subjects battling against. “A group of Maharashtrian sons of the soil cluster together in ‘The Peasants’. Their rugged, independent stance is clear and admirable. I picture them in their dhablis, coarse-haired homespun shawls that protect them from the ferocity of the elements.” (Artist statement, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, p. 214)
A poster featuring this painting, published by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, on the occassion of the exhibition Jehangir Sabavala, A Retrospective and signed and dated by the artist is included with this lot.