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Akbar Padamsee (1928-2020): The Thinker’s Artist

Gallerist Dadiba Pundole looks back on his decades-long friendship with the celebrated artist, who passed away earlier this week

Photo: Jehangir Nicholson Gallery/Twitter.
Photo: Jehangir Nicholson Gallery/Twitter.

My association with Akbar started soon after my father [Kali Pundole, founder of the Pundole Art Gallery, one of the oldest galleries in Mumbai] passed away in 1990. And it was a bond that stayed ever since.

One moment that has remained with me is from a group show that I did in November 1991, featuring works by Akbar, Krishen Khanna, M.F. Husain, Ram Kumar and V.S. Gaitonde. He had given me four heads in charcoal and linseed oil. The exhibition opened to a packed gallery and Akbar was the only one present from the set of artists, as the rest were in Delhi. But by the time I went looking for him, he had gone. When I called him up the next day, he sounded upset. “I don’t know why I chose to exhibit with you," he said. Akbar hadn’t liked the display of the show. I was just a kid back then, had just taken over the gallery and this is how the innings had started. I assured him that I had tried to design the show to the best of my abilities. However, if he wanted, he could come in anytime and change the display based on the format of the works.

Four to five days later, Akbar walked into the gallery, and I froze. I thought to myself that he had come to remove his works. He simply smiled and asked, “Can we have some tea?" Akbar loved tea. He would always come to the gallery and have a cup, usually two. He said that I was right and there couldn’t have been a better display. My body just relaxed when I heard him say that. And that was the day we built our friendship. I remember the next part so vividly--Akbar shook my hand and said we must do another show together. And we did exactly that four months later: a solo show of his watercolours and drawings. That memory has always remained with me as it tells so much about the humility of the artist.

To me, his practice is divided into distinctive phases, starting with the early figuration from the 1950s, followed by the grey paintings and metascapes, and finally the mirror images. The heads, particularly the ones done with acrylic emulsion on paper, had a rare quality about them. Akbar used mathematics in the division of space. He would use a large brush to create broad, semi-conscious sweeps, wherever his hand chose to move on paper. From there on emerged a form. He used this technique later in life as well with the watercolours, when he used the same criss-cross method with a broad brush. He let the head emerge from the grid and then defined it. It was special, instead of just painting a head for the sake of it. The placement within that space was crucial.

Akbar also understood colour theory very well, and used it extensively in his paintings. Even as a layperson, if you didn’t know anything about the theory, his works would have a logical impact on you. Akbar used to consciously work towards that effect. I remember every time he did a painting, there would be a smaller canvas standing beside it on another easel, on which he just juxtaposed colours before he executed them on his painting. He believed that any mark one makes stays forever. So one has to be sure of the marks one leaves. The vocabulary he developed was unique. If you look at his "metascapes", I can’t think of any artist anywhere in the world who has done something like those--not just in the execution but also in the thought process behind them. The composition of metascapes, I believe, are some of the most critical things he has left behind as a legacy for the art world.

He was also really humble, as I mentioned. When he completed a work, he would ask you for a response. Akbar was really open to listening to people’s opinions. It wasn’t as if he was asking you for the sake of it or for flattery. Sometimes a small comment that one made stayed with him. And he would bring it up much later, “You remember you had said this?" You might have forgotten about it but he did not. Akbar knew what to discard and what to retain. He has often said that he was an old soul [In a 1952 interview to The Statesman, Kolkata, he mentioned that he was 25,000 years old, when in reality he was just 25]. He carried a lot of history with him in a bid to understand himself at that moment. During my conversations with him, I could gather that Akbar believed a lot in the Hindu philosophy, even though he had been born into a Muslim family. He definitely believed in rebirth, and would say that there is a side to you that shows how you have lived all those lives. You are not born today. And there is something in the subconscious that triggers that.

Akbar was called a thinker’s artist--someone who was well-versed in the scriptures. [He once told his daughter to visit him in Paris only if she had read one book of philosophy]. Thankfully, it never came to that with me, or we would have never ever met. He was a great one for understanding aesthetics. He could talk so much. If he were to discuss the same subject a few months or years later, one would not be subjected to the same regurgitated matter again. There would be a new dimension to the topic. He could hold you completely enthralled.

(as told to Avantika Bhuyan)

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