‘What excites me is pure painting: line, pattern, colour and balance which constitute the quintessence of composition.” This is what the artist Shiavax Chavda said in a 1981 interview with a newspaper when he was asked about whether he prefers to work with colour alone or is it the subject matter that appeals to him more. Chavda explained, “I don’t care for subject matter. Any subject is good enough. It’s just a peg to hang your composition on. It is incidental.”

His idea of “pure painting” is to be reflected in this second posthumous retrospective of Chavda (1914-1990), slated to be held from 24-30 October at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. Entitled The Dancing Line: Revisiting Shiavax Chavda, this exhibition will bring viewers face-to-face with Chavda’s versatility as an artist. In over four decades of practice, where he dedicated himself to his art, Chavda dabbled in a variety of subjects, many of them done in tempera, including human studies, fisher folk, birds, serpents and animals, Balinese masks, Indian musicians, classical Indian dancers, as well as semi-abstract and abstract art—all of which represent his ability of establishing a deep connection with his practice.

Pervez Chavda, son of Shiavax, highlights how different the upcoming retrospective is expected to be from all the previous shows. “In the 1993 exhibition, we had showcased abstracts and semi-abstracts. But in this upcoming show, many of his older works will be covered. The works will range from his time when he was studying to be an artist in the J.J. College of Art, till his final years. Here, we are showcasing portraits and murals he worked on across a period of time; the animal series, village life paintings, portraits of important personalities like Gandhi and Nehru, and the dance performances he has painted.”

Shiavax Chavda.

Shiavax Chavda, who was felicitated as a fellow by the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1986, was a prolific modernist who used to paint for almost seven hours every day. “My father used to work in his studio daily from 10 in the morning till two in the afternoon. In the evening as well he used to again head to his studio and remained there for about three hours,” said Pervez. Even after painting for over seven hours daily, the work never ended. The artist’s wife, Khurshid Vajifdar was one of the three famous Vajifdar sisters who were acclaimed Indian classical dancers.

Chavda’s studio was on the terrace of his house. And his wife, Khurshid, would practice and teach Bharatanatyam among other classical forms on the same terrace. So it’s no surprise that dance tip-toed its way into his art.

The way he portrayed dancers in his paintings made him a revered figure all across the world.

Chavda also traversed the mountainous regions of India and the villages of Gujarat and South India. This led him to document, in his scores of sketch books, the life he saw there. The artist also later travelled to Indonesia and Malaya and brought back a number of pen-and-ink sketches of temple structures, Balinese dancers and masks. He frequently created sketches of dancers from the Russian Imperial Ballet, the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet; and his oeuvre includes portraits of renowned ballerinas, such as Margot Fonteyn and Anna Pavlova.

Folk Ensemble, 1954.

The sketches and paintings done by him showcase his flawless skill of draughtsmanship. In his works, the dancers appear performing without any inhibition. The dancers in his paintings are so well created that it won’t be peculiar if these works are used to teach dance students the form and structure of this performing art. In these graceful paintings, along with the expressions of the dancers, even the rhythm can be felt profoundly. This series suggests an artist who has mastered his craft meticulously and is enjoying the work without any restraint.

Chavda gave the utmost importance to drawing, and was considered a master draughtsman. In a 1987 interview, the artist said, “In the summer of 1938, when war seemed imminent, I could not leave London. So I stayed on and systematically visited the British Museum’s Print Room and spent more than two months in making an intense study of the world’s best original drawings of Italian, Dutch, French, Indian, Mughal and Chinese masters spending six to seven hours a day in a quiet atmosphere…Drawing according to me is a linear depiction of an idea or experience in shorthand..”

Karthiayani Menon, who has been working as the secretary at Jehangir Art Gallery since 1968, talks about what the artist means to her. “Chavda was just like a father figure to me. He always brought sweets for me whenever he used to visit the gallery.”

Chavda belongs to the same circle of artists which included modernists like Narayan Shridhar Bendre, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara and Abdul Aziz Raiba. He shared close friendships with other artists. Menon says, “At Chavda’s funeral, Raiba told me, ‘Chavda is of my age, he has already left the world. Maybe my time is also near.’ Such was the attachment between these two stalwarts.”

The show is on view through 24-30 October at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery


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