An artist next door

Sep 04, 2011, 03:10 IST | Ranjona Banerji

A friend on Facebook says Jehangir Sabavala was a "father figure to us young artists, an inspiration", and I am certain there are countless artists today who counted on him for advice and direction

A friend on Facebook says Jehangir Sabavala was a "father figure to us young artists, an inspiration", and I am certain there are countless artists today who counted on him for advice and direction.
In my early memories of Jehangir Sabavala more than four decades ago I cannot in any honesty claim recognition of his stature as a great artist: my defence is that I was only five years old.

But I should qualify that because the warmth and generosity of the Sabavala family with wife Shirin and daughter Afreed was always on display as my parents, then a young couple, started as neighbours and went on to become friends. And that is, in any measurement, a sign of greatness.

But even so, this much we knew he was not to be disturbed when he was in his studio. All childish games had to be taken elsewhere.

But at other times, my sister, Afreed and I were allowed in to the hallowed space and sometimes, even given some crayons and paper to practice some scrawls. Filled with light and art, the room seemed far away from Altamount Road and even from Bombay (as it was then), closer perhaps to Paris.

Sabavala remained always true to his art and his metier unlike so many Indian artists of his time who for all their greatness, succumbed to market forces. He is often called cubist but it might well be argued that that is merely a throwaway word in the context of his work.
There is deep religious symbolism and philosophy in his works, made stronger and more powerful by his meticulous brushwork.

He was often, loosely, called Dali-esque because of his moustache and his charm of personality but his art was very precise. The soulful pilgrims and the stark petrified trees did not amuse or shock so much as touch some very deep chord in the viewer.
Many years after we left Meher Apartments, and Bombay, my parents did finally manage to buy a Sabavala although he offered them very generously at less than market cost for years which has pride of place in our home.

A bon vivant and a great story-teller there was a child-like delight at meeting actor Peter O'Toole in a bar Sabavala did not however tread the publicity-path as it became de rigueur for artists in India through the 1990s.
He was not afraid to air his views even if they did not appear to fit with the current trends. It is a massive testament to our superficiality as a society that we only admire those who agree with us or those who feel no shame in abandoning their ideals to pander to the popular. Sabavala did neither and challenged those around him to a higher standard.

On a more personal note, I can perhaps give him credit for starting me off on a journey of food exploration. At dinner in his house when I was much older than five he talked with great zest about a Parsi delicacy which had been prepared and even claimed that he had himself bought the bananas needed for 'kera par eeda'.

This dish I had seen many times at the Ratan Tata Institute but hadn't had the guts to taste mashed banana topped with an egg. But there was no denying Jehangir and his enthusiasm or his challenge to your courage.
I cannot claim that I loved it eggs anytime, bananas never is my usual policy but it did open my palate to exploration.

For that and a wonderful chunk of childhood memories from a day swimming at the beach at Raj Bhavan to Afreed's attempt to show me the rabbits on the moon aged six, to watching with awe as the beautiful Shirin got ready for an evening out thank you. Ranjona Banerji is a Mumbai-based writer

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