Akbar Padamsee: Consummate colourist, caring peer, anti-censorship champion and ever-evolving artist
All his life, Akbar Padamsee never lost his spirit for experimentation and worked in plethora of media such as oils, water colours, plastic emulsion, sculpture, photography, computer graphics and printmaking.
Akbar Padamsee embarked on a journey of colour and form by studying at the prestigious Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art — better known as the JJ School of Art — in Bombay.
While at college he befriended the members of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), and travelled to Paris with one of its founder members, Syed Haider Raza, in the early 1950s.
All his life Padamsee never lost his spirit for experimentation and worked in a plethora of media such as oils, water colours, plastic emulsion, sculpture, photography, computer graphics and printmaking.
A decade ago, while researching my book on VS Gaitonde, I was struck by a monumental canvas hanging in artist Krishen Khanna’s dining room depicting a dense jumble of houses in shades of grey. It turned out to be a work that Khanna had purchased from his friend Abkar Padamsee at the latter’s exhibition in 1960. Khanna urged me to visit Padamsee, who was one of the few people to have known Gaitonde — both in his Bombay years and later in the US, when both men were on a Rockefeller scholarship. Taking the senior artist’s advice, I dropped in on Padamsee on my next trip to Bombay. I was lucky to meet him as he was spending more and more time at Sadhguru’s ashram in Coimbatore. We had a freewheeling conversation, not just about the subject of my book but on Padamsee’s own artistic journey. He regaled me with several anecdotes, often laced with his boyish yet acerbic wit, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
Padamsee embarked on a journey of colour and form by studying at the prestigious Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art — better known as the JJ School of Art — in Bombay. Here he was exposed to traditions of Indian miniature painting under Jagannath Ahivasi and the principles of western academic art under HG Nagarkar. Besides art, he also developed a keen interest in spirituality, greatly admiring his college senior, Shankar Palsikar, for his knowledge of the Upanishads. While at college he befriended the members of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), and travelled to Paris with one of its founder members, Syed Haider Raza, in the early 1950s.
In Paris, Padamsee encountered the works of the Swiss-born artist Paul Klee and was greatly taken by the first volume of Klee’s notebooks, The Thinking Eye. Filled with drawings, notes and illustrations, it contained material that Klee used for his Bauhaus school lectures on art and the creative process. But it was the section on colour, which included Goethe’s colour theory, that was of particular interest to Padamsee. It gave him a deep understanding of colour, which explains why he is often regarded in Indian art circles as a consummate colourist. On one of his trips to India he was asked by Palsikar, who was teaching at the JJ School of Art, to give a lecture on Klee. Padamsee readily obliged and recalled Gaitonde also attending the session. Later he learnt from friends that Gaitonde’s work was starting to resemble Klee’s! In turn Padamsee credited Gaitonde for introducing him to Mai Mai Sze’s Tao of Painting, which provided him with insights into the history of Chinese ink painting, calligraphy and philosophical thought.
Perhaps a lesser known fact about Padamsee’s career was how he fought against the censorship of the arts. In 1954, Padamsee held his first solo at the Jehangir Art Gallery, where he exhibited two paintings “Lovers No. 1,” and “Lovers No. 2,” the former depicting two nudes, with the man’s hand placed on a nude woman’s breast. The works must have evidently scandalised some visitors because they tipped off a certain Inspector Kanga of the vigilance branch of the Bombay Police. He requested Padamsee to remove the works from the show, deeming them obscene. Padamsee, however, stood his ground and bravely countered that he would rather risk arrest than take them down. The matter landed in court and the artist was charged under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code for obscenity. However, Padamsee with the help of his lawyer, was able to convince the magistrate that given the subject of the work, the gesture of the man was a way of pictorially establishing him as the woman’s lover. This case finally led to the landmark judgement that artists were free to exhibit nudes in gallery shows without attracting the charge of obscenity. As Art Heritage Gallery’s Amal Allana succinctly put it, “For what was at stake here for Akbar, was the freedom of artistic expression... something that he stood for and believed in till the end.”
All his life Padamsee never lost his spirit for experimentation and worked in a plethora of media such as oils, water colours, plastic emulsion, sculpture, photography, computer graphics and printmaking. He was also a pioneer in more ways than one. His foresight lead him to set up the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW) for printing and film making between 1969 and 1971. At the time there was no such space, which brought together artists and filmmakers, giving them the freedom to experiment in an interdisciplinary environment. The workshop was set up in his flat at Nepean Sea Road and Padamsee recalled how he had to prevail on a local manufacturer to produce an etching press based on his experience in the US. “The Sardarji told me ‘I will make it, but it will not print’. But I told him, just make it. We took an etching. He was shocked that it worked — for all of Rs 3,000! After that many people commissioned presses from him”
The workshop was attended by artists such as Gieve Patel and Nalini Malani and film directors such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Padamsee too made two films, the short animation Syzygy, and Events in a Cloud Chamber. Syzgy has been enjoying a revival on the art circuit and was screened again most recently at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in a show curated by Nancy Adajania. Acknowledging the role that VIEW played in the development of her own career, Nalini Malani said, “I was the youngest to be invited to his dream project and it is thanks to the Vision Exchange Workshop that I achieved my dream of making moving images on film. Thanks to Akbar’s workshop I made five films at VIEW and continue till date to make moving images.”
Padamsee could be extremely caring and generous to his fellow artists in more ways than one. Once, on learning that Gaitonde was in dire straits financially, he invited the artist to stay with him for a week. At the time Padamsee had rented a place in Juhu. But Gaitonde turned his offer down saying that if he became used to living by the sea, it would be difficult for him to pry himself away! Undeterred, Padamsee asked if he could help him in any way. Gaitonde asked him to buy one of his works instead, which the former generously did.
Padamsee will also be remembered for his large-scale works done during the grey phase of his artistic trajectory. In 1959 on his return from Paris, he decided to eschew a colourful palette and turned to shades of grey instead. This phase included, apart from the aforementioned work in Khanna’s possession — which in 2016 set a new record for his work at a Saffronart's auction going under the hammer for over Rs 19 crore — several paintings in what is known as Padamsee’s “Juhu series”.
Since the 1970s, the artist devoted his time oscillating between painting the human figure and his brilliantly coloured Metascape series or metaphysical landscapes. These are works, which could be viewed more as mindscapes, revealing an inner world. Rendered in shades of deep blues, oranges and reds, they were arrived at by Padamsee’s interest in Sanskrit texts such as Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam, where he found a reference to the sun and moon as controllers of time. This inspired him to pair both the sun and moon in his sun-moon metascapes.
Then there are the mirror image works, which reveal Padamsee’s interest in duality. These diptych landscapes are incomplete in themselves, each requiring the other to render them whole. As Padamsee mentioned in his conversation with me, “Sadhguru has said we are torn apart by dualities. There is one way out of it: advaitya. But how can you reach advaitya? If you have understood what dvaitya is then you can play with duality. There is no birth or death without duality.”
Meera Menezes is a noted art scholar and author
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