It was a rather inelegant way to discover the works of this distinguished painter and gentleman, but in September 2008, Elvis and I were still very new to our exploration of the art scene of Mumbai. We had been invited to a few gallery openings and as with everything new, once you discover it, you notice instances of it all around you. So it happened that on the 27th of September, 2008, we were headed to Colaba’s Woodside Inn to dinner with our friend Anjalee. We parked not far away from Saakshi Art Gallery and as we walked past we noticed lights (more than the usual) and people smoking outside – the telltale signs of Opening Night. On a whim we decided to walk in there, check out the art and leave quickly. No one would object. Sure we weren’t exactly dressed for the event, but we weren’t planning on monopolising the free wine and hors d’oeuvres so we would most likely be ignored.
We wandered in and looked around. We were so focused on ‘crashing’, we didn’t bother to read the sign at the entrance. The works gave it away. They were magnificent, enormous, and seemed somehow larger than the canvases that defined their physical boundaries. We squinted at the signature on one.
A group show maybe? Some big artists, some new ones?
A quick scan revealed that all the works were his. We had just gatecrashed the opening of an important show by a major artist.
When we first saw the artist Jehangir Sabavala in the flesh at an opening earlier that year we recognized him immediately from photographs in the papers even though he wasn’t written about nearly as much as some of his contemporaries. Much has been said of his personal style and elegance, but it was so much more than that. Trying to accurately convey the impression a stranger makes on you can be such an exercise in futility. These are the elements you are dealing with – they have their social mask on, you are processing this carefully chosen information on display through your own filter, and in the case of a public figure your brain already has a preconceived notion of what they must be like. Add to this your facility with articulation and you are left with a very specifically distilled idea that in all probability captures barely a fraction of what the person is all about. Given all this, these were our thoughts – that Mr. Sabavala was a man with impeccable style and intelligent eyes. The word ‘twinkle’ may have come up once or twice. This tells you nothing about anything except why we wanted to go over and speak to him.
There were so many people around him already, there would be no time for our many questions. We did the next best thing – we bought a catalogue of the exhibit and went over to have him sign it. A lady standing nearby, I don’t know who she was, was impatient when we asked if we could speak with him. She told us to hurry, he had to leave. We hurried over and Mr. Sabavala smiled at us. He was not impatient. Our interaction ended when we received his signature because we had nothing more to ask, or say. It was hardly our place to tell him how great we thought the works were and it wasn’t the platform to ask about his process, his stories from life as a painter and his advice to others further down in the art food chain.
So we thanked him, went back for another look at the art and left, part of our dinner budget having been spent on this catalogue that I pulled out today, still in pristine condition because the works in it demand it be treated that way.
Our actions that evening were motivated by pure enthusiasm. We were complete outsiders, we don’t come from families who collect art, we certainly didn’t have the funds to start buying pieces ourselves (certainly not a Sabavala), and we didn’t know anyone in the business so it was all a watch-and-learn experience.
But I’m glad we chose to ‘crash’ that evening.
RIP Mr. Sabavala (August 1922-September 2011)