In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Discussing Jehangir Sabavala’s paintings from the early 2000s, the artist’s biographer Ranjit Hoskote observes that “Sabavala’s art derives its crucial tension from the dialectic between the actual and the idealised: his paintings come to life in the conceptual region between mutable terrain and timeless landscape [...] The principal device by which Sabavala transmutes and idealises the forms of nature in his paintings is a crystalline geometry, which dissolves bodies, objects and topographies, and re-constitutes them as prismatic structures. Even the relatively abstractionist passages in Sabavala’s paintings are carefully modulated through this crystalline geometry; there is no leeway here for the haphazard gesture or the spontaneous pictorial effusion.” (R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, pp. 168, 176-77)
Titled after a line in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s late 18th century fantasy poem fragment ‘Kubla Khan’, this painting by Sabavala brings the compelling imagery of the Romantic poet’s words to life, an idea the artist first explored in his 1962 painting Down to a Sunless Sea. In the pair of works of titled Caverns Measureless to Man, which he painted more than forty years later in 2003, “Sabavala invokes the primal springs of insight and illumination, paradoxically but not surprisingly held in the softness of the earth, in spaces of darkness and water [...] Sabavala brings his robed pilgrim figure to the very threshold of the Coleridgean caverns of spiritual transformation in this painting.” (R. Hoskote, Limited Edition Serigraphs by Jehangir Sabavala 'The Complete Collection', Mumbai, 2008, p. 56)
Sabavala’s work frequently explores the complex relationship between man and the natural world, almost always ceding power to his wild and beautiful versions of the latter. In most of his paintings, the human figure is consciously abridged. Anonymous pilgrims on an interminable journey, portrayed in moments of pause or rapture, these figures mirror the artist’s own endless quest for excellence and his genuflection before the permanence, beauty and perfection he sees in nature.
In this captivating painting, two shrouded figures are poised on the verge of entering a dark and mysterious cave of immeasurable extent, its mouth ringed with stalactites and stalagmites. The artist seems to ask in this frozen moment whether this next leg of their journey will finally lead them to ‘illumination’ and self-actualization, or if it is just another test on the way to an increasingly elusive goal. The cavern, for Sabavala, represents the unknown and the unpredictable, and the pilgrim-like figures, on their eternal journey, are partly self-referential. As he explained, “Painting for me grows more personalised, more difficult. Movements, styles, the topical moments, all lose out to the attempt to reach deeper levels of interpretation. Horizons widen and recede, and I see myself as a pilgrim, moving towards unknown vistas.” (Artist statement, R. Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai, 2005, p. 216)