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A long road to art

Nov 25, 2012:
philosophical: A metaphysical landscape by Akbar Padamsee

In a career spanning six decades, Akbar Padamsee has creatively laboured in exploring structures and juxtaposing colour, writes Giridhar Khasnis.

After a successful three-year stay in Paris, 26-year-old Akbar Padamsee returned to India in 1954 and held his first solo exhibition between April 29 and May 4 at Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay. The show, featuring 22 paintings, attracted the attention of critics and reviewers who hailed the technical competence and vivid expressions of the works.

Some viewers, however, got offended by the supposed obscene content of a few paintings. Two particular paintings, ‘Lovers I’ and ‘Lovers II’, which showed an intimate portrait of a nude couple, the male’s hand resting on his lover’s breast, became the bone of contention.


The Bombay police ordered removal of those paintings (supposedly at the behest of the Home Minister of the then Bombay Province, Morarji Desai). A sizeable portion of the art community, including artists and journalists, wanted the artist to comply, but Padamsee stood his ground.

Removing the paintings, he said, would be an admission of obscenity; he was willing to be arrested, but would not give in to pressure. He did find support from friends like M F Husain, K H Ara, Ebrahim Alkazi and Nissim Ezekiel.

A Committee for the Protection of Artists also reportedly came to be formed.
Nothing of these seemed to matter. Padamsee was chargesheeted for obscenity under Section 292 of IPC and arrested on May 2, 1954 (and released on bail the same day). The police came to seize the contentious paintings and present them at the court. The next day the Esplanade Court ordered the paintings to be returned to the artist, on the condition that they would not be displayed in public.

On being questioned by the judge about the depiction of the couple in the paintings, Padamsee told him, no brother or father or anyone else can touch a woman’s breast, except a lover. The case was thrown out of the court, exonerating Padamsee. The police made another effort by taking the case to the High Court, but the result was no different.

Padamsee became a celebrity, but was clearly fed up with the whole experience. “After I won the case, I didn’t handle this theme (“lovers”) for years. I spent almost a year on the case and at the end of it, I was disgusted, especially by artists who had asked me to take the paintings down... I came back to the lovers in the 1980s, but in a very subtle way.”

He gifted one of the paintings to the friend who had arranged his bail; the other one was bought by the collector, Pheroza Godrej. “When Padamsee fought his case, he referred to artists such as Picasso and Modigliani to support his arguments,” recalls Godrej.  “Today’s artists use Padamsee’s 1954 case as a precedent to support their freedom of expression through art.”

Illustrious career

Today, Akbar Padamsee (b.1928) is one of the important faces of Indian art. A member of the first generation of post-colonial Indian artists, he has had an illustrious career spanning six decades.

Padamsee’s artistic journey, in fact, began at a very young age. “I guess I was born with an eye for images. At the age of five, I so admired the colourful Raja Ravi Varma prints that hung in my ayah’s room that I borrowed one for my bedroom. I believe that one must be chosen for art and not choose it as just another option.”

After completing his art education at the J J School of Art, Bombay (1948 – 51) he proceeded to Paris in 1952 where alongwith other Indian artists like F N Souza, S H Raza and Ram Kumar, formed an artistic brigade of sorts.

In Paris, he also came to be acquainted with the cultural icons of the era. In 1952, his painting, ‘Woman with Bird’ (1951), won a prize in an art competition held by Journal d’ Arte; and received the award from celebrated French poet and surrealist Andre Breton (1896 – 1966).

Padamsee returned to India in 1954 and after the unsavory experience of his first solo exhibition in Bombay, returned to Paris. Over the coming decades, he travelled widely and exhibited in different cities including Venice, London, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, New York, Montreal, and Moscow, besides all important Indian cities.  

Many awards and accolades too came his way, including the Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship (1969-72); the J D Rockefeller Foundation fellowship; Kalidas Samman (1997); Lalit Kala Ratna Puraskar (2004); and more recently, the Padma Bhushan in 2010.

Critical acclaim

In his art practice, Padamsee has worked in many mediums: drawing, painting, sculpture, print-making, photography, computer graphics, and so on. His evocative male heads, female nudes, still lifes and metaphysical landscapes (which he calls ‘metascapes’) are particularly well known for their intellectual and philosophical motivations.

British art critic and curator Toby Treves has observed that Padamsee depicts a world that is both real and transcendental, his forms often hovering on the boundary between abstraction and representation. “Finding inspiration in the competing elements of earth, water, air and fire, Padamsee’s works connote no specific time or place and instead become mythical examples of the natural world.”

Treves also speaks about Padamsee’s series of experiments in juxtaposing colours and exploring structures; the use of bold palette and handling of colour which evoked a sense of movement in a static space.

Art historian Homi Bhabha, in one of his insightful essays, reveals how “Akbar’s painting shuttles between  a moment of emergence and a moment of execution, and between them we witness the ‘work’ of art as a creative labour that is engaged in deep dialogue with the passing of time.”

On his part, Padamsee explains that he does not really paint forms, but forms emerge from the dynamism of movement. He asserts that he is neither interested in location nor landscape; and his paintings are neither abstract nor representational. “As the brush strokes move across the canvas, as they hit the boundary of the picture space and bounce back, an energy field is created and it is this energy field which is the matrix of the image.”

Padamsee’s paintings are eagerly collected; they command high prices in national and international auctions. In March 2010, Christie’s sold his canvas titled ‘Jeune femme aux cheveux noirs, la tête inclinée’ (1962/oil on canvas/35x28 inch) for $578,500 (around Rs 3 crore).  In March this year, at a Christie’s NY auction, his ‘Cityscape’ (1959/oil and plastic emulsion on board/44.25x137 inch) was lapped up for $1,314,500 (Rs 6.7 crore).

In between, a landmark sale had actually happened in March 2011, when his iconic 10x3 feet monochromatic painting of a reclining nude (1960) crossed the million-dollar mark and sold for $1,426,500 (Rs 6.3 crore) at Sotheby’s New York auction. The work, which vastly exceeded the $700,000 estimate, had for decades graced the lobby of Chelsea Hotel, NY. The artist had received no money for it, but the painting had earned him a free, prolonged stay at the hotel!

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