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The enigmatic Akbar Padamsee

The artist, who had M.F. Husain and Shammi Kapoor as early buyers of his works, is showing his recent monochrome 'heads' in Mumbai

Akbar Padamsee at his south Mumbai home. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Akbar Padamsee at his south Mumbai home. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

He’s nearly 90 years old, has had seven decades of art practice, thousands of works and hundreds of shows. Akbar Padamsee is described as an “intellectual artist" who has been inspired by concepts of formalism, an artistic practice that rigorously adheres to recognizable forms as the basis to configure the imagery. His ongoing show in Mumbai, Where The Lines Fall, presented by Priyasri Art Gallery, comprises monochromatic figures, or “heads", largely drawn on paper and lithographs over the past decade. At his south Mumbai home, the artist shows me a diptych of his landscape painting on canvas, completed this year.

“I have deep fascination for the science of art—the Hindu iconography, Chinese writings on art, and psychoanalysis. I am naturally attracted to work done with contemplation," he says. It was a revelation for me that his landscape is a segment of a larger geometric grid-like criss-crossing of lines. Even his figures and heads emerge from a matrix of a complex pattern which, Padamsee says, was a critical basis of works done by artists as early as in the 14th century. Ironically, while he is said to be a conservative artist confined to formalism, he has improvised and extensively experimented across a wide spectrum of media and processes. Paintings using oil, acrylic and plastic emulsion, graphite and charcoal drawings, works in watercolour and Chinese ink, metal and clay sculptures, printmaking, photography, films, and computer graphics, he has done it all.

He was 11 years old when he accidentally stepped on a rusted nail, leading to a serious injury. While the wound was cured, the psychological impact left him speechless. “I do not think I lost my power to speak. It was more the will to speak that had gone away," he recounts. Apparently, he did not speak a word for about seven years. Instead, he focused his energies on reading. Padamsee studied the French language and his art teacher, Shankar Palsikar, encouraged him to study Sanskrit, which later became the basis of Padamsee’s thought process and the foundational structure for his art.

In 1950, when Padamsee was studying at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, a former student visited the school and showed interest in the works of the students. The senior was S.H. Raza. “I told Raza that I was given third-class. He said I should have gotten a first-class with this work," Padamsee reminisces. Raza had received a scholarship to go to Paris and offered to take him along. On the first morning in Paris, at a local café, it was Padamsee who conversed with the waiter to order the food. Raza did not know French.

While in Paris, Padamsee started painting at a local studio, Atelier 17, and held his first show at Galerie Saint Placide in 1952. People did not relate at all. “People asked me why I don’t paint like ‘them’. I think I offended an important guest who held a senior position at the National Museum for Modern Art in Paris and the gallerist warned me that I will dry like a dry-fruit!" he laughs.

Padamsee says he was a close associate, not a “formal member", of the Progressive Artist Group, founded by F.N. Souza, with Raza and M.F. Husain as members, among others, with whom he developed a “lifelong friendship". “My father had a cyclostyle machine, with which I made copies of a catalogue of the show they had put up. That probably made me a blue-eyed boy." The group had disintegrated by the time he returned home with Raza in 1952.

Back in Mumbai, Padamsee was an artists’ artist. Most works sold at his first “significant" solo in 1960 at the Jehangir Art Gallery were acquired by artists like Husain, Bal Chhabda, Krishen Khanna, and even actor Shammi Kapoor, and one by the ministry of culture. Sadly, the work acquired by Husain, Juhu, is now lost. Greek Landscape, which Khanna bought for Rs1,000, sold for an amount exceeding Rs19 crore at a Saffronart auction last year. Padamsee says that in the 1950s no one was interested in buying paintings. Husain was selling his works for Rs500; very few works even reached a four-digit price; of course, to him the Rs1,000 felt like Rs19 crore then.

As the doyen looks back, he says a lot has changed. He had to fight a court case for obscenity in a painting titled Lovers six decades ago, which he won after a distressing legal battle that lasted over a year. There has been a change in the concept of artistic freedom which, according to him, has only worsened. He also feels that galleries have made the whole scene far too commercial, excessively skewed towards the business of art. It is intriguing he points that out when his current show in Mumbai is installed in an “apartment". More than a hundred works hang frame to frame, like cars in a parking lot, not able to breath.

The artist says he isn’t done yet. On a recent trip, Padamsee mentioned to his wife that he has far too many ideas yet to explore. That he will have to be reborn as an artist.

Where The Lines Fall is on view till 28 November, 11am-7pm, Priyasri Art Gallery, Worli, Mumbai.

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