Akbar Padamsee: The Shastra of Art
by Dr. Manisha Patil
Akbar Padamsee’s art practice spans six decades. It is difficult to sum up the entire oeuvre of Padamsee’s works and the myriad facets of his gifted personality as a painter, printmaker, photographer, teacher and theoretician in brief. This essay therefore restricts its perimeters to the artist’s early career from the fifties to the beginning of the sixties and maps his journey from Bombay to Paris and back.
Born in Mumbai on April 12, 1928 into a Khoja Muslim family with intellectual leanings, Padamsee had his future charted out with a precision and deliberation that pervades his art making as well. He joined Sir. J.J. School of Art in 1948, with considerable support from his family and the blessings of Aga Khan. Though scarce information is available about his performance in academics, he was a diligent student with an inquisitive bent of mind and completed his art education in 1951.Padamsee was encouraged to read and expand his vision beyond the confines of the studios by his teacher, the distinguished painter Shankar Palshikar. The art school library was to become Padamsee’s favourite haunt, as he immersed himself in books as diverse as T. Gopinath Rao’s Elements of Hindu Iconography and Principles of Chinese Painting. He also frequented the library of the Asiatic society, voraciously reading texts on Coomarswamy, Max Mueller, and Adi Shankaracharya. Padamsee’s interest in psychoanalysis was triggered even earlier in life, when his elder brother Nicky (Nuruddin) introduced the young lad to the writings of Freud. Padamsee internalized his varied readings, so much so that they became a part of his flow of thought, enriching his vision and subconsciously guiding him in his trajectory as an artist in a long, eventful career.
It was at J.J. that Padamsee met Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Gaitonde as also Souza, who had been expelled from the art school for his rebellious behaviour and who had shortly thereafter founded the Progressive Artists Group. Though Padamsee never joined the Progressives officially, he forged a lifelong bond with the members of this artists collective. A bronze head of Padamsee executed in 1950 by sculptor Sadanand Bakre of the PAG bears testimony of his proximity with the artists of the group.
“Raza, who had got a French Government scholarship to study art was instrumental in my decision to move to Paris“ says Padamsee. Arriving in Paris in 1952, Akbar Padamsee, along with Raza and Souza, who had preceded him to the west, and Ram Kumar, represented the young Indian brigade in Europe. Paris opened up new vistas of modernism to Padamsee, as he became acquainted with works of Picasso and Braque, Matisse and Modigliani. He turned his attention to the collection of African masks at the Musee de l’homme and met the renowned sculptor Giacometi. His first bout of critical recognition came in the form of a prize for the painting Woman with Bird (1951) entered in a competition held by Journal d’ Arte and awarded to him by none other than the celebrated Surrealist writer Andre Breton. ‘All of a sudden many doors were open to me and everyone in Paris knew my name, all the art dealers and the press’ Akbar had shared his excitement about his first flush of success in Paris. In his little studio on the Boulevard Montparnasse Padamsee continued to be preoccupied with his paintings for nearly four years, isolated and aloof, except on the occasions when he met Souza, who was then based in London, and Raza, to exchange ideas and update views. The trio bonded well, with Padamsee showing his works in a group show along with Raza and Souza at Gallerie Saint Placide in 1952 and a two person show with Raza, Indian Painters in Paris in 1953. His subjects around this time included a series on women such as Woman with Flower and Woman with Lizard, heads, nude studies, and occasionally religious imagery such as prophets or heads of Christ. The return to India in 1954 saw him exhibit his paintings in the first one man show at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. The body of work included heads and torsos, nudes, couples and a few cityscapes. This show was to win him bouquets as well as brickbats. The day after the show opened on 29th April, the Bombayman’s Diary published an article, describing the exhibition as ‘one of the most significant one in recent times’ and went on to add how ‘even a cursory glance reveals a satisfying solidity of perception, a quiet expression of strength and a feeling with sudden glimpses of joy stealing in’. The editor also went on to add how viewers had found some of the exhibits to be offensive. The painting in debate, Lovers, depicted a man with his lover and was declared objectionable owing to the gesture of the male’s hand resting on his beloved’s breast. After a gruelling time marked by public outcry, removal of the offensive works from the show, rallying of his artist friends and supporters, which included artist Ara and the art critic of Times of India, Rudy von Leyden, and a turbulent court case which Padamsee can recall even today with crisp detail, judgement was delivered in -favour of Akbar Padamsee. ‘In depicting a subject such as lovers, you can’t have a brotherly embrace and the tendency and object of art is not to deprave or corrupt morals but to elevate the mind.’ was how the judge, Nasrullah, summed it up. Reflecting on Padamsee’s Lovers, art critic Geeta Kapur observed that ‘though Akbar’s images have a plausible Indian-ness, an aspect borrowed very likely from Souza who was among the first among his contemporaries to refer to Indian sculpture, Akbar handles the sacred rather than the profane aspect of the image, whereas Souza has done exactly the opposite, taking up religious subjects for the express purpose of committing sacrilege.’ The show despite garnering critical acclaim, left a bad taste in Padamsee’s mouth, prompting him to return to Paris. One the personal front the year saw him marrying Solange Gunelle, his friend of several years in Paris, and the subsequent birth of their only daughter, Raisa. Padamsee and Souza shared another subject in the formative years of their career- Prophets. The early works of Padamsee date from around 1952 and like the numerous heads from this period, the prophets, with their large circular eyes and oblong faces from this stylistic phase possess a distinct archaic quality. It is only a little later that Padamsee’s prophets changed and as Geeta Kapur puts it, ‘with their massive bodies and grave portentous presence carried all the authority necessary for divine vocation.’
The few paintings based on still life that Padamsee painted in the fifties are in tune with his scientific bent of mind and owe a debt to Cezanne. The objects are humble and uncluttered, such as the egg beater, the spoon, or kettle. The artist handles them with infinite care with orchestrated colour shifts of pinks, reds and yellows that make them appear to be lighted from within and lend the mundane objects an aura. The exciting discovery of light with Yellow Landscape, the first painting Padamsee completed after his return to Paris in 1955, proved to be for the artist a lifelong engagement, essaying a vital role in his subsequent evolution as an imagist. Akbar Padamsee reappeared on the Indian art scene in 1959, showing his works in Bombay when good friend and fellow artist Bal Chhabda opened a gallery at Bhulabhai Desai Institute, named Gallery 59 after the year it came into existence. He now displayed a remarkable maturity of style and clarity of thought in his show of Grey paintings. The magnum opus of this series was the 20 feet long canvas worked on with plastic emulsion, titled Juhu. ‘Grey is without prejudice. It does not discriminate between object and space. The object is space.’ Padamsee thus explained his stand about the grey series and even went on to display a painted cupboard and door for the show. The press also reacted favourably, with the comments that ‘though the work (Juhu) typifies Padamsee’s world, stark, pessimistic and bereft of laughter, it seethes with a taut, hidden energy’. Juhu was bought by Husain, while Bal Chhabda acquired Nude in Landscape. A third, Greek Landscape was bought by Krishen Khanna with whom Padamsee formed a lifelong friendship.
Padamsee’s career in India post the sixties was to be a profound journey of self discovery wherein his experiences and encounters as a painter in Paris and India would be distilled to produce paintings of immense maturity and depth like the evocative metascapes, the intense heads or the contemplative nudes. It was also marked by his experiments with the medium of filmmaking- the animation film Syzygey, conceived as a part of the project of the Nehru fellowship Padamsee received in 1969, and the flowering of another lasting passion from his youth–photography.
For Padamsee his art has consistently been entwined with science. He professes that he likes work done ‘with contemplation’ and admires Piero della Francesca’s emphasis on grid and geometry and is enthralled by the way the brush strokes are elucidated in different ways in Chinese writings- the finger stroke, the wrist stroke and so forth. He is often referred to as an ‘intellectual artist’ Art historian Homi Bhabha in his insightful essay observes ‘Akbar ‘s painting shuttles between a moment of emergence and a moment of execution, and between them we witness the ‘work’ of art as a creative labour that is engaged in deep dialogue with the passing of time.’ Or, to quote painter Atul Dodiya ‘Structure is of paramount importance to Akbar, be it the structure of an image or structure of thought.’ It is this philosophy that keeps Padamsee engaged with his art practice with the same vigour till date.
1. Bhanumati Padamsee and Annapurna Gharimela, (Ed) ‘Akbar Padamsee: Work in Language’, Marg publications, Mumbai, 2010
2. Yashodhara Dalmia ‘The Making of Modern Art’, Oxford University Press, 2001
3. Geeta Kapur’s ‘Contemporary Indian Artists’, New Delhi, 1978
4. Personal Interview with Akbar Padamsee, January 2012