Akbar Padamsee at his home in Mumbai.
The artist MF Husain used to say that there was only one real thinker in their group and that was Akbar Padamsee and that he had learnt a lot from him. This claim was not unfounded. Akbar was a giant of an artist, and, with his passing away, we have to contend with the loss not only of a masterly painter but a man of vision who was a scholar of Sanskrit, well-versed in the Upanishads and other Vedic texts, and was also knowledgeable about Western thought. His early paintings mark the figure with a thick black line, lending it an iconic stature. One of these, titled Lovers, referring to Shiva and Parvati seated on Nandi, has the god’s hand placed over her breast, which prompted the government to file a lawsuit against him for obscenity. Padamsee, along with the help of art aficionado Rudolf von Leyden, persisted and fought and, eventually, won the case.
The artist left for Paris in 1950 where he stayed and worked until his return to Bombay in 1967. For a period he was to make works solely in grey, exploring the tonalities of the colour, which led to masterpieces like Juhu Beach, painted in 1960. The apocalyptic landscape with the horizontal, stretched figure of a woman, who seems to be falling off the canvas and is yet embedded in all her vulnerability, would make a powerful impact. He used to say, “I am the first spectator watching the creation.” And as an observer of human relationships, his forms would emerge with unmitigated tenderness and nuances.
In 1969, he was awarded the Nehru Fellowship which allowed him to start a Vision Exchange Workshop in Mumbai where multicultural experiments, including Mani Kaul’s film Duvidha (1973) and Padamsee’s own Events in a Cloud Chamber (1969) and Syzygy (1970), were made.
Padamsee’s metascapes burst upon the scene in the mid-’80s and created spell-binding mythical landscapes, where the natural order was turned upside down. The splendid hallucinatory order of blue streams above and the sky below was astonishing and gave a viceral jolt as well. According to Akbar, “The landscape has no boundaries — I can abolish mountains, create rivers but I can’t take away the eyes from the human figure.” The artist could reverse the order to create a new sensual logic of reality. His series ‘Mirror-Images’ comprised diptychs which combine metaphysical landscapes with their dialectical opposite based on the premise that the visual experience is akin to the mirror image where the object, together with its reverse, forms the whole. Was this the philosopher speaking in the guise of an artist? At any rate, the effect was equally mesmeric.
It’s a little known fact about Padamsee that he had also made about 200 sculptures in plaster, some of which were cast in bronze. This interested him. “There is never a contour of a pronounced nature — the moment you shift your head, the contour changes. So you never know which position is the right position. It has one billion possibilities.” And these heads constantly, evocatively shifted their viewpoint, much like the artist himself.
A series of brush paintings, on the other hand, made with an ink-loaded brush in the Chinese manner, were lyrical nudes, dexterously intertwining the individual and the universal. Yet, in contrast to the sensuous depictions of nudes, he is also known for his austere images of Christ, which are solitary figures in deep anguish. It was the flip side of exuberant lyricism and the pain expressed was that of the seer overseeing the devastation of humanity. The saddened, deeply expressive features of Christ were, in one magnetic stroke, casting their reaction to the increasing turbulence of the reality around him and the world. But pain and joy went hand-in-hand, and the artist continued to mould his paintings, expressing these emotions which seemed to arise from deep within him.
At his passing away at 91, we have lost one of the few artists left of the epic generation, who were deeply involved with their art and engaged with an emphathic humanism with the people around them. All through the ’70s and ’80s, when I was living in Mumbai, he would be a vital presence — at his studio explaining a brushstroke, at the gallery where he would chat over endless cups of chai, and at social gatherings when people would hover around him. But my most touching memory of him is when, wheelchair-ridden, he was bought to the Amrita Sher-Gil centenary show, curated by me, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, in 2014. He wanted to see the entire show running up to four floors but, since the lift was not working, he looked sad, and said he would only be able to see the works at the ground level. At this, the excited staff rushed up to him and, picking him up in his wheelchair, took him through all the upper floors, so that he could see the entire exhibition. This, more than anything else, speaks of his immense empathy with the ordinary person and his humanistic works.
The writer is an art historian and an independent curator based in New Delhi