As a child, Akbar Padamsee might have begun his artistic experiments by copying images from The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine in his father’s accounts books, but it was a journey that was to continue for over seven decades — one that saw him paint the world, from landscapes to mirror images, figures and heads, borrowing from travels and ancient Sanskrit texts. That journey came to an end on Monday evening, when Padamsee breathed his last in Coimbatore. The Padma Bhushan awardee was 91. “With his passing away, we have lost a legend. That generation is slowly disappearing, which is so sad. His compositions came alive in his works,” says curator and art critic Ina Puri.
Described as “grammarian of art”, Padamsee was perhaps one of the most underrated associates of the famed Progressive Artists Group for a long time. Still a student at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art when S H Raza reportedly spotted his talent, he was with Raza in Paris in the early 1950s, famously holding his first exhibition in Paris at Galerie Saint Placide in 1952.
Best known for his Grey Series, Metascapes and Mirror Images, Padamsee experimented with a variety of mediums, including filmmaking, sculpture and photography. In 1969, he set up a Vision Exchange Workshop to provide artists with resources to experiment with photography and filmmaking. It was attended by the likes of artists Nalini Malani and Gieve Patel.
Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, recalls how Padamsee always encouraged young artists. “He was a university himself,” says Krishnamachari. He recalls how Padamsee was a voracious reader who called Sanskrit his first language. “He was a mentor to me,” adds the artist.
Gallerist Arun Vadehra recalls Padamsee as a young artist in Mumbai in the 40s, who was extremely generous and painting till the very end of his life, even when he was on his wheelchair. “He was a great scholar. When he did his figures, anatomy was not his concern, it was basically reform and formalism involved in the work. He had a very distinct style and was a great colourist. He was a follower of Paul Klee in terms of ‘The Thinking Eye’.” A proponent of artistic freedom, his first exhibition in India at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1954 led to a legal battle as he was accused of obscenity for paintings titled Lovers. He eventually won the case.
More than 22 of his works from the Jehangir Nicholson Collection, dating 1957 onwards, prepare to hang at the gallery in Mumbai in the exhibition that was announced to begin on January 9, these probably best reflect Padamsee’s belief — in an interview to The Indian Express in 2015, he had stated, “Art is always undergoing change. It is the artist’s prerogative to embrace change.”
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