Jehangir Sabavala’s last few art works hang along a wall. His books as well as easel, brushes and palettes are placed close by. A portrait of the artist watches over the room from a corner. This is not the late artist’s studio at his Altamount Road residence, but a reconstruction of the space inside the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS).
The set-up forms the centerpiece of the show, titled “Unpacking the Studio: Celebrating the Jehangir Sabavala Bequest”. The exhibition, curated by cultural theorist and poet Ranjit Hoskote, is developed around Shirin Sabavala’s gift to the CSMVS. She gave her husband’s last paintings, along with other objects owned by him including his diaries, scrapbooks, photographs and his sketchbooks, among other things.
“After Jehangir passed away in 2011, Shirin maintained the studio as it was. But recently, she decided to part with the objects and bequeath a lot of his belongings to the museum,” says Hoskote, Sabavala’s friend and biographer, who was approached by the CSMVS to curate the show.
Displayed in the form of an “essay exhibition” in five chapters, it includes 140 objects, a mix of Sabavala’s belongings and works and pieces from the museum’s reserve collections — many of which are on public display for the first time. The show, explains Hoskote, thus, also attempts to showcase the rich collections owned by the museum.
The curator has used the mix to dramatise the relationship the artist had with the gallery, the studio, the museum and academic art. “Through the five chapters, the show attempts to explore what impacted Jehangir’s work,” says Hoskote, “For instance, the chapter ‘Reverie, Fantasia, Quest’ brings together a number of reference points and sources of inspiration that informed his artistic itinerary, such as arts from 18th and 19th century Japan and the sacred symbols and ritual objects of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism,” he adds. A mix of archival family photographs and objects drawn from the museum’s collections have been used to delve into this chapter, including a 1948 painting of a Tibetan votive mural by the Parsi Buddhist seeker and artist Li Gotami.
The first chapter, “Imagination’s Chamber”, looks at how the studio has evolved as a concept from the Northern Renaissance to the present and reflects on Sabavala’s own practice in the context. “Sketch, Draft, Image” offers an experience of the studio of the artist, known for his landscapes and the Cubist influence, through his last works, including The Eye,The Cobras and The Unfinished Landscape.
Placing his work in the local context is “The School of Bombay”. It alludes to the JJ School of Art, where he studied for two years before he left for London and then Paris. The expression, however, also refers to the Bombay school of art. “There’s a crazy notion that life begins with the Progressives. This section explores what art was like before that, around the time that Jehangir was studying or artists whose works perhaps inspired him,” explains Hoskote. The focus is on the period between ’30s and ’50s, with works by artists such as Abdur Rahman Chughtai.
This particular chapter also tries to bring into focus the revival of JJ School of Arts by Gladstone Solomon, the institution’s principal from 1918 till 1936. “The reforms introduced by him will have had an impact on Jehangir, who joined the institution in 1942. For instance Solomon’s introduction of life studies at the institution, was met with shock by many. Today, studying nudes is considered old-fashioned,” says Hoskote.
The final chapter, “Stages for Viewing”, brings together Sabavala’s career as an artist, the history of patronage extended to the arts by his mother’s aristocratic family, the Cowasji Jehangir Readymoneys, and the role of the CSMVS in providing institutional support for culture in the city. This includes archival photographs and architectural drawings of the museum based on Durga Shankar Bajpai’s lost originals.
Hoskote, who penned Sabavala’s biography Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer (1998), the study The Crucible of Painting (2005) and put together a retrospective of his work for the National Gallery of Modern Art (2005-2006), says that to understand an artist completely, one needs to view his works in context. “Jehangir left behind him a legacy through his five-decade-long practice. Looking at it is like looking into a kaleidoscope. Each time you turn it, a new pattern emerges,” says Hoskote.