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The figures I draw exist, and on their flesh and bones is stamped the experience of living: Akbar Padamsee

One of the most original of the modernists, Akbar Padamsee’s works defy easy classification. A painter, sculptor and photographer, Padamsee, 87, has also engaged with print-making and filmmaking.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi | Updated: September 20, 2015 1:00:22 am
Akbar Padamsee Akbar Padamsee

One of the most original of the modernists, Akbar Padamsee’s works defy easy classification. A painter, sculptor and photographer, Padamsee, 87, has also engaged with print-making and filmmaking. In this interview, he talks about his upcoming solo in Delhi, why the human face has been an eternal inspiration and how he lost his voice for 14 years as a child. Excerpts:

It’s been a while since your last exhibition in Delhi. Tell us about your upcoming solo, “A Life Less Ordinary”, at Triveni Gallery in Delhi (it begins on October 26).
I am happy about it as I had exhibited almost three years ago in Delhi. I have another solo coming up in Mumbai towards the end of the year so it’s good to be in both cities. Priyank (Jain, director, Dhoomimal.com) has chosen 20 of the lithographs I did between 2008 and 2010, especially heads, for this show. It seems to me that it is not possible to ever exhaust all possibilities of imaging the human head, each similar and yet so dissimilar. My ardent search is for a look, a gaze, an expression, a stance and a placement.

What is it about the face that intrigues you?
My art practice is mainly divided into two categories: metascapes and figuration. For figures, I start with a schema, where I divide the space into different parts and build the figure from there — this is not the usual way it is done. I am in the habit of watching myself intently in the mirror and that is the first representation in my mind, which creates images for me. Eyes are the most important — they create a “look”. A bronze head I did in 1984 had no eyeballs, no pupils, yet the eyes were the most dominating feature. Even in Woman with Bird (1951), the painting for which Andre Breton [French writer and founder of Surrealism] gave me an award (on behalf of the Journale d’art), I drew two circles for eyes. (FN) Souza asked me why I had done that, and I told him they gave the face an expression, a look. The immediate inspiration for these faces is my own.

I draw my figures and forms from the world that I know intimately, but viewers also find there is a sense of detachment or alienation in them. My figures are not heroic creatures, nor are they angst-ridden, shattered beings. They exist, and on their flesh and bones is stamped the experience of living. When I went to Paris in 1951, my figuration was undergoing a change — female forms painted with their elemental faces, like primitive cult objects, became more physical. From 1955 onwards, the defining contours began to disappear and figures became more and more massive. In the ’60s, the size was scaled down and in the ’80s, the mood of the figures became pensive and sad.

You have worked on nudes, prophets, heads, couples, still life, grey works, metascapes, and across many media. When you began, did you want to focus on any one genre or did you always want to experiment?
It has always been in my nature to experiment. I was doing a lot of still life during my Paris years, especially in 1956-57, which showed ordinary kitchen equipment — warm and intimate — in glowing colours. The studio light wasn’t very good so that encouraged me to impart a sort of an “aura” to my work to make ordinary objects look “special”. I was mainly doing oil paintings in Paris. I did photography and sculptural work as early as 1951. Metascapes — where you combine both landscapes and cityscapes together — happened around 1954. I travelled a lot and picked up whichever medium appealed to me. I made two short abstract films — Syzygy and Events in a Cloud Chamber — where I animated a set of geometric drawings.

Do you remember how you became interested in art?
Oh yes, I was always interested in art, ever since I was four years old. My ayah would show me images of gods and goddesses, there was antique Irani furniture all around me, flower vases that called out to be drawn — all this got me interested in figuration. Instead of eating, I used to collect animal-shaped biscuits so that I could draw them. My father had a shop of imported (German) glass lanterns in Mumbai’s Chakla Street and I would want to draw all over the bahi khaata (account books). He would indulge me and say “margin mein banao”. When I was seven, I hurt my foot on a rusty nail and had to take Unani medicine to prevent amputation. But (because of that) I lost my speech and could speak again only when I was 21. I was the youngest and seventh child and would be teased by my siblings. Many people tell me that being mute gave me the inner strength to produce the kind of work I did later.

How did you become associated with the Progressives? You were much younger than them and they had already become well-known by the time you were in JJ School of Arts.
(MF) Husain was always the star. He was also loved by all. I was a student at JJ College of Art and Tyeb (Mehta) was my senior, when the group (Progressives) was having its first show at Jehangir Art Gallery. I would go and help them hang the paintings. In 1951, when I wanted to go to Paris, my family was very reluctant, but (SH) Raza, who was older to me, was also going on a scholarship and they finally agreed to let me go with him. Souza was in London then and we had many group shows between the three of us. We had a very good equation.

Husain’s 100th birthday just went by…
Husain is one of the “purest” people I have known. He never went after things but good things were attracted to him. Italian filmmaker (Roberto) Rossellini once came to Mumbai and happened to see his work. He came to meet him. Husain was like that — he attracted the famous. He supported me in his own way. In 1954, when one of my works was seized by the police on charges of obscenity, he came to the court as a witness for me and said in his trademark nonchalant way, “Is mein kya hai? Is mein mujhe sirf triangle and circle dikh raha hai”. I liked most of his works, but if I ever said I didn’t like any, he would say that I could never match his speed! I have seen the films he made and enjoyed them very much. My films are different though, they are more conceptual.

Tell us about your years in Paris. What did it teach you about art and life?
I have a very low opinion of the School of Fine Arts in Paris. They were as static and as academic as JJ was, where I was not happy either. I never got a first class in JJ. But I used my time in Paris to visit all the museums and saw Negro art, Egyptian art, folk art, everything. I did admire some teachers though, especially my sculpture teacher. My years in Paris were mainly about a financial crisis. Even though my brothers wanted to send me money, stringent RBI rules at the time meant we had to live very frugally. I lived on approximately 60 pounds a year. After I won my first award in 1952, I thought my days of struggle were over but the struggle had just begun. So, there were two parts of Paris — the Left Bank and the Right Bank. Strugglers showed on the Left Bank. Those who made it on the opposite side of the Seine. Dealers wanted 90 per cent commissions if you were a struggler, so the option was to first show on the Left Bank, succeed and then move to the Right Bank.

When you began, did you ever imagine art prices would become what it is today?
Not at all, we thought we would starve to death. For almost 14 years after I started painting, I never made any money and survived on support from family.

What is your opinion about the growing culture of censorship in India? Have you ever faced it?
I believe in absolute artistic freedom, so I do not agree with it at all. Yes, I faced it in 1954. This was my very first solo show at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. (Padamsee was accused of obscenity for some of the artworks on display, particularly a painting titled Lovers which depicted a man with his lover, his hand resting on the woman’s breast. A case was fought in the Bombay High Court, which Padamsee eventually won.)

You have also been among the few artists from an earlier generation to have embraced technology. What is your opinion about digital art or video installations? 
Art is always undergoing change. It is the artist’s prerogative to embrace change. I am very comfortable working on a computer, I have the latest cameras and watch a lot of stuff on YouTube. I think it’s great that technology is being used today by so many artists for their work.

What is a day in the life of Akbar Padamsee like now?
After my fall in October 2013, when I fractured my hip bone, I could not paint very much. But I was still making drawings while in ICU. I have recovered well since then. My home has a large terrace with a railing that I can hold on to while painting. I am working on some oils now and have a solo show of drawings at Priyasri Gallery towards the end of this year. I usually spend my day indoors, paint a little, read a lot. I am currently reading On Photography by Susan Sontag and Understanding A Photograph by John Berger.

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