Akbar Padamsee - a painter, philosopher and a pioneer of modern Indian art

STIR pays tribute to the legendary artist, whose paintings and photographs were a combination of intuition, mathematical precision, creativity and subtle wit.

by Georgina Maddox Published on : Jan 11, 2020

It was a cold dark morning when I read the news on my phone that legendary painter Akbar Padamsee had passed away at a hospital in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India. It sent a great wave of sadness through my heart that I had not spoken to him for almost a year and I had not wished him farewell like I had done for his colleagues, SH Raza, MF Husain, Sadanand Bakre and even Tyeb Mehta.

Akbar Padamsee at Pundole Art Gallery, Ballard Estate, Mumbai (2017) | Akbar Padamsee Obituary | STIRworld
Akbar Padamsee at Pundole Art Gallery, Ballard Estate, Mumbai (2017) Image Credit: Courtesy of Pundole Art Gallery

When I met Akbar Padamsee in 2006, at his Juhu studio flat in Mumbai, then called Bombay, I was charmed by his beatific smile, his mild manners, and his love for the books that surrounded him. We drank our cups of green tea and discussed the latest exploits of the 'progressives', but then he puckishly winked at me and asked if I would like to see his latest experiments with nude photography. I was, of course, excited to see how the painter had transformed the body from the canvas to the lens.

After all, his rendition of the nude body, whether male or female, was so subtle and gentle in its approach that it straddles the worlds of the spiritual and the erotic. As I gazed at the light falling upon the sinew and skin of the models, I saw their backs, arms, legs and bodies bathed in sunlight. Padamsee laughed in his usual manner and said, “my objects could have been a bowl of fruit, it just so happens to be a nude.”

Akbar Padamsee, drawing on paper, 15x11in, (1995) | Akbar Padamsee Obituary | STIRworld
Akbar Padamsee, drawing on paper, 15x11in, (1995) Image Credit: Courtesy of Threshold Art Gallery

Padamsee could be casual with his comments on the idea of the nude, given that he had faced a fair amount of kerfuffle over it. In 1954 at his debut solo exhibition, the 26-year old artist had displayed two paintings at Jehangir Art Gallery that the police found 'obscene' and ordered removal of the works. The paintings were relegated as they depicted a nude couple, with the man’s hand on the woman’s breast. Padamsee had something interesting to say about this situation as well, which I remember emblazoned in by mind, “They got so worked up because the work was titled Lovers. Had I called it ‘Mother and Child’, I wonder what they would have said then?" he said, displaying his knowledge of Freudian analysis of painting and making us break into laughter. "I feel a fully clothed woman can be far more titillating like in certain Hindi cinema songs,” he mentioned further.

Akbar Padamsee, a pioneer of modern Indian art | Akbar Padamsee Obituary | STIRworld
Akbar Padamsee, a pioneer of modern Indian art Image Credit: Courtesy of Atul Dodiya

Interestingly, on January 9, 2020, an exhibition opened at Priyasri Art Gallery in Mumbai. Titled Judgment in the Trial of Akbar Padamsee, it revisits the trial and the Lovers series through re-tellings using archival material, a theatrical performance directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee, and video-projections.

In another part of Mumbai, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Padamsee’s works from the collection of the late Jehangir Nicholson will be on view. The collection consists of over 22 works, presenting an overview of the artist’s expansive range of experimentation — oils on canvas, charcoal drawings, lithographs and digital printmaking.

Sun-Moon metascape, by Akbar Padamsee. Oil on canvas, 90 x 180 cm, 1978-2005 | Akbar Padamsee Obituary | STIRworld
Sun-Moon metascape by Akbar Padamsee. Oil on canvas, 90 x 180 cm, 1978-2005 Image Credit: Bhanumati and Akbar Padamsee

As one knew, Padamsee was never one to shy away from experimenting with new mediums. His time spent in Paris was a romance with brushes, watercolours, oil and canvas, but when he came to India, he did experiment with photography and digital much more.

His work has also been celebrated at the auctions when his 1973 Metascapes fetched INR 1.35 crore, in 2012. The last sale record has been INR 19 crore for Greek Landscape at Saffronart auction in 2016. One can only imagine now, with the rarity factor kicking in, how Padamsee’s work will reach new heights in the art market. What he does leave behind as his legacy, more than his prices, is the love and mentorship he shared with the young artists.

Atul Dodiya remembers Akbar Padamsee

Atul Dodiya with Akbar Padamsee at the latter's house and studio in 2010 | Akbar Padamsee Obituary | STIRworld
Atul Dodiya with Akbar Padamsee at the latter's house and studio in 2010 Image Credit: Courtesy of Atul Dodiya

A lot of people mistake Bhupen Khakhar to be my mentor, but actually he was a dear friend. It was Akbar who was my true guru. I loved the way his work appeared simple, but it was deeply philosophical. His work was all about structure, he would make a grid; he approached his work as a mathematician and then he would take his creativity and intuition and add that to the composition and make it profound. The energy and the way he applied oil paint, the tonalities generated by his energy, that’s what makes him such an important artist. He worked with charcoal, conte, linseed oil, just ink or sheer watercolour. I believe that while his subjects were mostly landscapes and figures, when the medium would change the feel in his work would change as well. 

Personally, he was very generous to young artists. As a young student of JJ School of Art, I would regularly visit him at his Juhu studio, and he was always available and we would go with all sorts of doubts and questions that were not only philosophical or creative but also about the market, how to exhibit in a gallery, how we would approach the business of art and more. He had a fine business sense, which was visible in his appearance in a Safari suit and along with a briefcase! I remember he even loved metal Godrej office-furniture and one would find those desks, cupboards, and files around his home and studio. Once when I was in my fourth year, he came to my house, met my parents, and told them not to pressurise me to start 'working'. Instead he told them 'let him become an important artist and do what he wants to do'. He gave me a great sense of confidence.

He was witty and so well read, he would quote the French philosophers, from Sanskrit, the Natyashastra and also the parables of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa and how he saw life. I felt he was a mystic, the way he approached life and his work of art. He was a profound man and it is a great loss.

(Excerpt from a telephonic conversation with Atul Dodiya)

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