During one of his visits to Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art in the late ’40s, artist SH Raza was particularly moved by the work of one student. He not only told him that he should have been given a better grade for that specific work but also that he deserved a first-class. The student was Akbar Padamsee and that meeting, recalled by him in an interview, was perhaps the foundation on which their abiding friendship would be built.
Though not a formal member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, Padamsee was associated with the famed collective that comprised Raza and his close circle of confidants, including, among others, MF Husain, FN Souza and KH Ara. In his early 20s, Padamsee — who passed away on January 6, in Coimbatore at the age of 91 — might have been the youngest associate of the group but was, in no way, lesser than any of them. He was already well-known in the artistic community. “His aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations extended beyond the realm of the visual arts into literature, critical theory, cinema, mathematics, the theory of mind, the theory of language, and psychoanalysis. It is conventional to contextualise Akbar within the Progressive Artists’ Group, a formation of which he was never a member, although he maintained lifelong friendships with the Progressives and their circle of associates. However, I would see him in another context altogether — as an artist who focused on the archetypal figure as isolated survivor or questor. From these concerns come Akbar’s series of heads, rendered in various media, whether oils, watercolours or charcoal and linseed oil or metal, and his Metascapes, a series he inaugurated during the early 1970s,” says cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote.
Padamsee’s legacy includes over seven decades of art that borrowed from Sanskrit texts and Chinese writings, Hindu iconography and Paul Klee’s pedagogical diagrams. His subjects — heads, torsos and nudes — painted with mathematical precision, seem to contain secrets of their own, yielding little to viewers. While his contemporaries remember him as a master colourist and interdisciplinary artist who was constantly pushing boundaries, for the younger generation, he was a mentor whose studio was always open. “He would buy works of young artists to support them,” says Kamini Sawhney, curator with the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation. In recent years, a wheelchair-bound Padamsee, accompanied by his second wife Bhanumati, would visit Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai to attend exhibitions and talks by fellow artists. The gallery where he held his first solo in India in 1954 is currently hosting an exhibition of his works, spanning from 1957 to 2000, representative of his engagements with varied mediums, from oil on canvas to watercolours, charcoal drawings and digital prints.
Born in Mumbai to a Khoja Muslim family that traced its roots to Gujarat, Padamsee was the youngest of eight siblings. His interest in art, he would say, developed through photographs of gods and goddesses his nanny shared with him and the antique Irani furniture and flower vases that adorned his home. He recalled drawing animal-shaped biscuits as a child and copying images from the journal The Illustrated Weekly of India in account books at his father’s shop of imported glass lanterns on Chakla Street. Formal training began at St Xavier’s School, where his art teacher introduced him to watercolours. Later, he took lessons in studying nudes. “Akbar was the most experimental of the Progressives and also the most intellectual in a sense. He was very well-read in Indian philosophy and aesthetics,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, former bureaucrat and trustee of the The Raza Foundation.
When Raza, who had received a French government scholarship, invited Padamsee to Paris, he agreed at once, despite his family’s reluctance. It is there that he would develop a new language of art for himself. On his canvas, the defining contours of the figures gradually faded and the expanse widened. He also found love, marrying French doctor Solange Gounelle in 1954, with whom he has a daughter, Raisa, named by Raza.
Though he made frequent trips to India, he would move back for good only in the late ’60s, after spending years in Paris, and, later, a stint in the US, on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship. Working from surrealist artist Stanley Hayter’s studio in Paris, Atelier 17, an experimental workshop for graphic art, he also studied the works of western masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Artist Atul Dodiya recalls spending hours with him at his Juhu studio when he was a student at the JJ School in the early ’80s. “Senior artists are usually busy with their work but he would always share his thoughts. He could be blunt if he did not like something but he was also extremely generous and witty. He would make tea and often invited Tyeb (Mehta), too. Together, we would have long conversations. While Tyeb was strict, Akbar was more relaxed. I have not come across any artist with his kind of understanding of life, people, medium and what it means to be a painter,” says Dodiya.
Padamsee’s first solo was held in Paris in 1952 at Galerie Saint Placide. The same year, his painting, Woman with Bird, won him a prestigious prize judged by French writer and poet Andre Breton. He shared the award with French artist Jean Carzou. But when he came to India to present his first solo in Mumbai in 1954, the experience was not pleasant. Featuring cityscapes, heads and nudes, it also had a set of works titled Lovers, that included a canvas depicting a man with his hand on his lover’s breast. Padamsee was accused of obscenity and taken to court. Even though he won the court case that continued for almost a year, it left him bitter. He returned to Paris afterwards.
Soon after, Padamsee would present his much-admired Grey series. The interplay between light and shadow in the mid ’50s eventually led to complete abstinence from colour by the end of the decade. With massive monochromes, Padamsee returned to India for a solo organised by artist-collector Bal Chhabda in 1960. It was a resounding success. While Husain bought the iconic canvas in plastic emulsion, Juhu, Khanna bought a canvas titled Greek Landscape. The 4.3 x 12 ft panoramic landscape was auctioned for a whopping Rs 19.19 crore at a Saffronart auction in 2016.
The sale marked a record price for Padamsee and recent years have seen a steady escalation. “While he emphasised that art was a personal philosophy and not a stepping stone for money or success, he did acknowledge that we were in the business of painting and exhibiting, so we should know how to do that as well,” says Dodiya. It was Padamsee who had reassured his sceptical parents that Dodiya had a bright future in art when he had visited them in Ghatkopar.
When in 1982 artist J Swaminathan was organising a grand inaugural exhibition for Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts complex and museum in Bhopal, Padamsee was among the artists who helped him put it together. “Akbar went with Swami to Bastar as part of the collection drive for folk and tribal art,” recalls Vajpeyi, who was then posted in Bhopal. “Every night, I would finish work and head to Bharat Bhavan with kebabs and a bottle of Old Monk. Often, I would find Husain, Krishen Khanna, Manjit Bawa and Akbar quarrelling about how the artworks should be displayed. I remember once Krishen and Akbar were working late into the night and slept in the gallery on newspapers spread on the floor,” he adds.
Artist Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, describes Padamsee as “another university by himself”. He came to know him as a student at JJ School in the late ’80s. Padamsee encouraged him to curate exhibitions and lent support when Krishnamachari was expelled from college while pursuing his Master’s in 1992, after a news article carried his opinion that the institute needed better infrastructure.
Recently, Padamsee and his wife became followers of Sadhguru and spent a lot of time at his Isha Yoga Center in Coimbatore, where Padamsee also breathed his last.
Described as a “grammarian of art”, he remained a student forever. Mesmerised by the sutras mentioned in Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga that he read in Paris, years later, in his 40s, he took lessons in Sanskrit in Mumbai. Verses from the Gita, Vedas and the Upanishads became a part of his life. He reflected upon theories of aesthetics in his later works, including the metascapes in the ’70s — that brought together landscapes and cityscapes — where he referenced Kalidasa’s work.
“Structure was paramount to him. The way Akbar applied oil paint, and the energy it generated, you never feel a dull moment when you are facing his painting,” says Dodiya. Following the schema, he would divide the space into different parts and build his figures from there. The mirror images — that depicted his concern with duality — also underwent a change over time, occasionally appearing three-dimensional. In a 2008 conversation with Homi Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, Padamsee referred to a set of 1994 mirror images, and said, “The diptychs were of equal size and the images were either reversed or repeated in the adjacent canvas. Form and colour underwent change, as they passed from one canvas to the other, as if waking from sleep — two worlds, both the similar and dissimilar at the same time.”
He is also acknowledged for prompting arguably Indian artists’ first direct engagement with moving images. He set aside the funds he received through a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship for the Vision Exchange Workshop, that ran from his Napean Sea Road apartment from 1969 to 1972. The revolutionary initiative provided handpicked group of artists, books, slides, 16 mm cameras, dark room and an etching press. Nalini Malani, the youngest and sole woman in the group that included artists Gieve Patel, Adi Davierwalla and PD Dhumal, and filmmakers Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, says, “If Akbar had a success story, it was me. I made five films there and availed all the opportunities that the workshop offered. No one else continued with that vision.”
Padamsee himself made two short abstract films, Syzygy and Events in a Cloud Chamber. Both fared badly. Introducing the 11-minute silent Syzygy at a screening in Paris in the early ’70s, Jehangir Jean Bhownagary, chief producer, Films Division of India, reportedly said: “I would like you to take an aspirin before you see this film. It will surely give you a headache.” The only reel of the second film was lost after Padamsee sent it for viewing at a festival in Delhi in 1974. Filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia made a remake in collaboration with Padamsee in 2016. Syzygy attained an afterlife after a lone copy of the film, that Padamsee had shared with an anonymous man, became part of the collection at Cinémathèque Francaise, one of the biggest archives of film documents. In another victory of sorts, his paintings from the Lovers series — barred from public display over six decades ago — are going to be revisited in an exhibition at Priyasri Art Gallery in Mumbai. Padamsee would have been triumphant. After all, artistic freedom was sacrosanct to him.