Ode to a thinker’s artist

Ode to a thinker’s artist

A tribute to veteran artist Akbar Padamsee whose grasp of colour theory was legendary

Veteran artist Akbar Padamsee, whose images were touched with philosophical ideas and contemplative thoughts, passed away last month in Coimbatore, aged 91, bringing down the curtains on a long and eventful life, which included seven decades of intense art practice. In an era which defined a critical phase of Indian Modern Art, Padamsee had rubbed shoulders with the likes of M F Hussain, F N Souza, S H Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Vasudeo Gaitonde.

While reviewing the Lalit Kala Akademi’s very first National Exhibition of Art way back in 1955, well-known art critic Richard Bartholomew (1926-1985) had observed: “Mr Padamsee believes in the power of selected form. He is strong and economical in construction. He is generally monochromatic in effect, depending on the sheer impact of the visual image.” The symbolic and  monumental painting, ‘Man and City’, was singled out for ‘its driving narrative and suggestive force.’

Padamsee was often called a thinker’s artist. His grasp of colour theory, profound knowledge of Hindu philosophy and understanding of Sanskrit language and ancient scriptures provided a sharp edge to the mathematical precision of his work. “For Akbar, the process of acquisition of knowledge, learning and scholarship were not isolated phenomena,” explains eminent artist and long-time friend Krishen Khanna. “They are the bedrock of his personality. His painting emanates from this centre.”

On his part, Padamsee believed that one needed to have the mind of a mathematician and the heart of a poet to be a painter. “I have a deep fascination for the science of art — the Hindu iconography, Chinese writings on art and psychoanalysis. I am naturally attracted to work done with contemplation… Art  for me is to express the invisible.” He also professed that art always belonged to the present in a living culture, even if its actual making dated back to 10,000 years. “Great works of art usually carry within them an intuitive, innate logic… It is this intuitive logic, which is expressed through form, colour, line, sound and tension between spaces…”

Courting controversy

Born into an affluent business family of traditional Khoja Muslims, Padamsee studied at the J J School of Art, Mumbai, before making his way to Paris in 1951. There, among others, he got introduced to Surrealist master Stanley Hayter who was regarded as one of the most significant printmakers of the 20th century. Padamsee’s first exhibition of paintings (group show with Raza and Souza) was held at Galerie Saint Placide in 1952. His work titled ‘Woman with bird’ received an award from Journal d’Arte in the same year.

Returning to India after a successful three-year stay in Paris, Padamsee held his first solo exhibition in Mumbai. Unfortunately, two paintings — ‘Lovers I’ and ‘Lovers II’ — featuring intimate portrayals of a nude couple became controversial and the Bombay police ordered their removal from the show. When Padamsee refused to oblige, he was charge-sheeted for obscenity and arrested on May 1, 1954 (and released on bail the same day). The matter went to court and eventually, the police case was thrown out by the judge who exonerated the artist of obscenity charges.

Although he received support from the art community in his fight against authorities, the entire episode left a bad impression on the young artist who gave up painting nudes for a while.

His new works, however, continued to garner critical appreciation and recognition. By the late 1950s, Padamsee had exhibited his works in prestigious venues including Galerie de Ventadour,  Paris (solo exhibition/1957), Gallery One, London (1958/group show) and Jehangir art gallery, Mumbai (1959/Group show). He also participated in the Venice Biennale in 1953, Tokyo Biennale and Sao Paulo Biennale in 1959.

The ‘Grey’ works

In 1960, Padamsee’s new body of ‘Grey’ works were featured in a solo exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery and became an instant success. “Padamsee has established himself as a major painter,”  wrote a reviewer, “with an individual vision and an écriture all his own, with nothing borrowed from anybody and with something many may like to borrow and copy. His large scale monochromatic paintings came under the limelight and made headlines. They were acquired by some of his close friends and artists. While ‘Juhu’ (5.6. ft x 20 ft) was bought by MF Husain, ‘Greek Landscape’ — a 12-foot long image — was picked by Krishen Khanna for Rs 1,000.

Fiercely experimental

Painting was a life-long interest for Padamsee; his pensive portraits, colourful metascapes and stimulating mirror images were highly rated, critically acclaimed and eagerly collected.

A fiercely experimental spirit took him to other mediums like graphics, sculpture, photography and digital printmaking. His multiple talents and achievements did not go unrecognised. Among others, he received the Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship (1969-72); Kalidas Samman (1997); Lalit Kala Ratna Puraskar (2004); and Padma Bhushan (2010).

Padamsee was known to be very supportive of other artists in many ways. In the late 1980s, when graphic prints were not very popular, he innovated by buying print editions from 40 artists and created portfolios, which became a great hit.

When filmmaker Mani Kaul (director of Uski Roti/1970 and Ashad Ke Ek Din/1971) was in financial trouble, Padamsee gave him his 16mm Bolex camera, film stock and editing facilities.  The resultant film Duvidha (1973), based on a Rajasthani folktale, went on to win the National Film Award for Best Direction; and also the Filmfare Award for Best Film (Critic’s prize). Padamsee’s daughter Raisa played the lead role in the film for which the cinematographer was Navroze Contractor, who is now based in Bengaluru.

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