3 Stylistic Elements in Jehangir Sabavala’s ‘The Cactus Wave’

One of the foremost practitioners of modern Indian art, Jehangir Sabavala’s call to artistic fame lay in his unique ability to blend Indian aesthetic sensibilities with western stylistic techniques. In a career spanning more than six decades—which began with a solo show at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 1951—Sabavala created a vocabulary that was singular and recognisably his, characterised by the use of soft palettes and an intuitive use of light that hitherto unseen. Saffronart’s upcoming auction Alive: Evening Sale of Modern and Contemporary Art features a painting by Sabavala titled The Cactus Wave, 2006, which illustrates his masterful understanding of form, colour, space and structure. 

Jehangir Sabavala. Image courtesy of Shirin Sabavala

Throughout his prolific career, which he likened to a pilgrimage, Sabavala pushed forward in his quest to find lyricism and serenity in a seemingly irredeemable world. The Mumbai-born artist pursued art degrees at some of the most prestigious institutions, including the Sir J J School of Art, where he received a diploma in fine arts in 1944, followed by the Heatherley School of Art in London the next year, and the Académie André Lhote in Paris from 1948 to 1951. Sabavala would return to Paris once again in the mid-1950s, with his worldly experiences informing his artistic style for the rest of his career. Simultaneously guided by his classical European education—which included studies in Cubism, Impressionism, abstraction—as well as the postcolonial environment of India, Sabavala increasingly exhibited an extraordinary penchant for synthesising these opposing influences, harmoniously creating expansive and tranquil works of art. 

Jehangir Sabavala, The Bangle Sellers, 1954. Saffronart, 15-16 June 2011, sold for INR 87.5 lakhs. Image courtesy of Saffronart

Upon his return to India from Europe, Sabavala found that he had to reconcile the “contrary demands of the Impressionist and Cubist traditions” which he had learned during his years as a student in Paris, with the realities of India’s overwhelming landscape. In his paintings from this period—such as the vibrant The Bangle Sellers, 1954, which was inspired by rural scenes that Sabavala encountered whilst driving from Mumbai to Delhi—the artist paints a vibrant scene in bold lines and strong colour planes. An early work, it shows a nascent, yet powerful, attempt to bridge the contrasting elements of what he knew and what he saw. “India was not the most congenial context for one of [André] Lhote’s disciples to absorb and practice his principles: the Indian light is much sharper, and the structures it creates far crisper than in Europe; the subcontinent’s natural excess of colour over stimulates the eye, tempts the senses.” (Ranjit Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai: Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd., 2005 p. 63) 

Sabavala skilfully addressed these issues by giving colour and composition as much importance as form on his canvases, with some intelligent maneuvering of “…the analysis of planes, the passages of light. I became more sure of how I wanted my painting fractured and adopted a definite form, a daring, high-pitched and high-keyed palette.” (Artist quoted in Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting, p. 63). This vivid, highly stylised work is an early example of the geometric style that recurs throughout Sabavala’s oeuvre. 


The radiant style that Sabavala employed in the 1950s soon gave way to a more refined artistic idiom. His canvases from the following decade mark one of the most important turns in his career; a period of crystallisation and definition in his painterly evolution which led to his discovery of an unparalleled vocabulary that transcended common genres and motifs. Sabavala, in his own words, “…discovered the joys of extending form into the beauty and clarity of light. I became interested in the source of light, its direction, its effect. Through these experiments, gradually, my work changed.” (Artist quoted in Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting, p. 95)

Jehangir Sabavala, The Star that Beckons, 1968. Saffronart, Mumbai, 13 March 2018, lot 13. Sold for INR 3.84 crores. Image courtesy of Saffronart

This can be seen in The Star that Beckons, painted in 1968, which embodies Sabavala’s desire to move away from the restrictive structure of Cubism to include elements of allegory and mysticism in his work. In a statement to the American art critic George Butcher in 1964, Sabavala commented, “No longer am I satisfied with the juxtaposition of planes, the search for rare colour, the almost total denigration of the unpremeditated. It is the intangible which is now my goal. Space and light, and an element of mystery begin to permeate my canvases.” (Artist quoted in Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting, p. 106) This search for the intangible continued to inform Sabavala’s art throughout art, and permeates each of his paintings, including works such as The Cactus Wave

Over the course of this decade, Sabavala learnt to forego excessive colours in favour of a delicately crafted balance between softness and radiance, resulting in works infused with a serene luminescence. Elaborating on his carefully composed palette, Sabavala noted, “I observe an object or a landscape to which I intuitively respond. I analyze it to find the myriad tones that make up its colour. I see ten or more shades in the grey-blue or slate jade of the sea on a particular day, the mood, the season – and they enter my paintings in combinations that are unpredictable.” (Artist quoted in Ranjit Hoskote, Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer: The Painterly Evolution of Jehangir Sabavala, Mumbai: Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd., 1998, p. 79)


Sabavala’s search for divinity in nature is mirrored in the German Romanticism movement’s uniquely cerebral desire to comprehend nature through art. In The Green Cape from 1974, the artist succeeds in creating a silent, lonely landscape with meditative scenes that lend themselves to moments of quiet contemplation.

Jehangir Sabavala, The Green Cape, 1974. Saffronart, 24 February, 2016, lot 18. Sold for INR 3.84 crores. Image courtesy of Saffronart

This painting showcases the breathtaking beauty that Sabavala finds within nature. “At the level of immediate sensation, we are struck by the obvious physical beauty of the painting as a product, process and parallel reality. And as we enter Sabavala’s spaces, with trepidation, to inhabit them, we apprehend their disquieting tranquillity; the paradox underscores the artist’s uncertainty about his place in the universe, his nostalgia for the infinite.” (Hoskote, Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer, p. 101)


Sabavala’s experiences of adapting Cubist techniques to fit his Indian environment helped him achieve a sense of balance and harmony in his works. The controlled tones and geometric precision of his later works are representative of his mastery over both the canvas and his own technique. Talking about his artistic style of the late 1990s, Sabavala noted, “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 quoted in Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting p. 216)

Lot 36: Jehangir Sabavala, The Cactus Wave, 2006, Oil on canvas,  50 x 50 in (127 x 127 cm). Estimate: INR  2.22 ‒ 2.96 crores (USD 300,000 ‒ 400,000). Image courtesy of Saffronart  

Sabavala’s works from the late 1990s and early 2000s, including The Cactus Wave painted in 2006, appear to be “suffused with a light that emerges from within the canvas: a light that breaks the surface at the edges of the image, delineating body and topography, earth and flame, rock and sky as a single flow of faceted forms… Crystalline in structure, these forms interpenetrate… seem to change into one another before our eyes when we look at them closely.” (Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting, pp. 193, 196)

Through this “crystalline geometry,” as Hoskote terms it, Sabavala transforms the topographical landscape into “prismatic structures… there is no leeway here for the haphazard gesture or the spontaneous pictorial effusion.” (Hoskote, The Crucible of Painting, p. 176) With its fluidly intersecting planes of colour and deliberate demarcation of space and painted surface, this painting represents the hallmark of Sabavala’s unique and enduring style, a studied reworking of the Cubist idiom. 

This canvas—with its subtle Cubist forms, style and imagery—explores the possibilities of water and light. Sabavala was fascinated “…by water at rest and in flow: water as spring, source, current and cascade, as majestic yet overwhelming swell, and as a measure of abundance… With its combination of light amethyst and aquamarine, touched with ochre and Naples yellow, ‘The Cactus Wave’ leaves us in some doubt: is this a sea or a desert , and is that a series of spiky waves cresting up, or are they dunes rising like an undulating sequence of scimitars?” (Ranjit Hoskote, Ricorso: Jehangir Sabavala, Paintings, 2006 – 2008, Mumbai: Sakshi Art Gallery, 2008)

Creating works that are both timeless and modern, Jehangir Sabavala helped shape the canon of Indian art. Here, Sabavala’s unique visual idiom shines through, a culmination of his dedication to blending Indian aesthetic sensibilities with Cubist principles. In this canvas—through a masterful handling of colour and texture—Sabavala continues his search for divinity in nature by exploring the pictorial possibilities of land and sea. The emotive and spiritual resonances of this canvas, enhanced by a soft palette of pastel hues, are a testament to Sabavala’s refined artistic style.

Saffronart’s upcoming auction Alive: Evening Sale of Modern and Contemporary Art will be held on 17 September 2020. The auction is preceded by viewings by prior appointment only at the Saffronart galleries in Mumbai (through 16 September) and New Delhi and London (through 17 September).

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