'The Grand Italian Vision': a repository of the Italian Transavanguardia movement
by Georgina MaddoxMay 31, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Apr 12, 2023
Two days into 2023, I received an email from Bhanu Padamsee, titled 'Late Work'. The brief email felt like a warm hug that transported me back to 2008, when I’d spent some weeks working closely with her on the monograph she was editing on Akbar Padamsee's practice (Work in Language, 2010, Marg)—my first ‘art’ gig. I was seduced into returning to work every day during that period, not by the opportunity to observe, first-hand, Akbar at work in their Prabhadevi apartment. Rather, what was appealing then and has endured in my memories was the chance to work so closely with Bhanu and to access her intellectual, scholarly rigour in a friendly, non-hierarchical way. Her Indian art historical analysis of Akbar’s work, as well as those of his contemporaries, felt sharp and poignant. I always thought, how privileged this man is to be loved by her.
The subject of Bhanu’s email—Late Work—felt intimate, too. Not only was she referring to a set of 'modest drawings on paper, largely 15” x 11” made in the ICU at Lilavati, end November 2013, and some when recovering in the Prabhadevi studio in 2014,' she was also reminding me of a conversation we’d had when I’d last visited them in 2018, ten years after my gig. Bhanu had been sharing with me her experience of reading Edward Said’s On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, a collection of his posthumously published writings around the subject of ‘lateness’ within artistic practice. Bhanu had indeed mentioned some of these drawings, but at the time I was distracted by her remark about the recent appearance of incandescent yellows in his recent metascapes. Akbar, at the time, was reading his friend Gieve Patel’s latest collection of poetry and had asked Bhanu to bookmark the poems that had been read at the launch. I took a reference photograph of Bhanu’s copy of Said’s book so I could put it on my reading list but eventually forgot about it.
Bhanu presented a small art exhibition from February 5 to 18, 2023, at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi; a selection of these works that she said were special to her because they seemed "to be falling off the grid" or "sliding down the paper." Titling it Late Works was meant not only to acknowledge Akbar’s passing in January 2020, but to contextualise it within the trajectory of his practice as well as bodily condition, which, conceptually speaking, traces back to Said’s book. The wall text Bhanu included in a follow-up email had the title, 'on lateness, the body, the heart, the head, the world & art making' and began with a quote by the theorist Theodor Adorno: “the power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves… it leaves only fragments behind.” Said’s essays on ‘lateness’ could be said to be prompted by Adorno’s fragment essay, Spätstil Beethovens, which was first included in a 1964 collection of essays on music, Moments Musicaux, and later in Essays on Music (1993), a posthumously published book on Beethoven. Said, in the first essay (‘One’) references this lineage of thought and specifies how Adorno, more than anyone else who wrote on Beethoven’s final compositions, when he was hearing impaired, known as his third period, situates them as an ‘event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works constitute a form of exile.' Adorno called Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis an 'alienated masterpiece' by virtue of its difficulty, archaisms and strange subjective revaluation of the Mass, Said says. Said himself is interested in ‘lateness’, he clarifies, not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction. 'What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of 'ripeness' at all?' he asks.
This is the poetic frequency within which Bhanu seems to have framed the selection of Akbar’s works that were part of this show. “There were 19 works of Akbar on display, out of which two small drawings were made in the ICU, where he had also mentioned that it’s for Nurse Lidya and Dr. Barve and the rest he drew while recovering at home in his studio in Prabhadevi," Bhanu shared as part of our correspondence.
In 2013, Akbar suffered a fall which necessitated hip surgery. An overdose of anaesthesia forced him to stay in the ICU for 27 days, which must have taken a toll on his will to live, which had been tested previously, as a survivor of cancer and cardiac arrest. I read in Dhriti Mankatalia’s preview in The Hindu that the doctors, upon seeing the slowness of his recovery, suggested he be taken outside to see the sunset and prescribed for him pencil and paper so he could draw. The medium—pen, water soluble chalk, pencil and watercolour washes—certainly offered room for immediacy and spontaneity. These late works embody his return to life.
When I met him in August 2018 in his studio in Prabhadevi, he had a drawing surface affixed to his wheelchair. His studio was anything but sparse. Everywhere were traces of an aesthetic consciousness still processing the world around it, playing with the spectrum of colours, and evolving new methodologies for abstracting landscape and different approaches towards depicting heads. Akbar had been drawing heads throughout his artistic career. Art historian Michael W Meister noted that "while Padamsee still draws studies of the nude body from models, and more recently photos and videos, his 'heads' are constructed from an underlying geometry, not from actual people (although some are used to ‘represent’ generic ‘prophets’, including Gandhi, Christ and Inayat Khan)." I think this is what makes Bhanu’s observation about these 19 heads seemingly sliding off the paper or falling off the grid so intriguing. Given that two of the heads were meant for his nurse and doctor, one could theorise that his daily acquaintances with the medical personnel attending to him found reflection in the drawings. The drawings are not specific, in that one would perhaps be hard-pressed to recognise any person on the basis of the information they convey, and yet they offer spatial dimensions and particularities that endow the heads with subjectivity, just as they are rife explorations of Akbar’s own subjectivity.
These heads were perhaps Akbar’s way of asserting the continuity of his own existence after encountering the depths of his body’s fragility. Maybe they are close to what Adorno theorised as 'unmastered material,' something closer to document than art, though I am not sure. To me the works feel wonderfully alive, even though I have only seen them in digital form. The quality of line still bears evidence to Akbar’s mastery of form and his eloquence with drawing. I find the works poetic also because they are possibly so detached from any notion of viewership. One could say that Akbar’s early life as an Indian artist must have been vitally connected to the artistic communities in which he participated or helped build himself, and so there would have been some sense of validation he derived from the appreciative gazes of his peers and contemporaries. In later years, market validation and art historical validation could possibly also have filtered into his process. These late works exist beyond those dimensions. They are, in that sense, in exile, outside of time because they are so intrinsically connected to bodily and spiritual survival.
In one email Bhanu wondered what Akbar might have expected from his viewer. She recalled a 1996 interview where he spoke about attention to process and language, and referenced the 2016 documentary by Ashim Ahluwalia (Events in a Cloud Chamber), paraphrasing 'something stunning' that he said: 'People buy a painting in charity auctions or from what they hear about it. Nobody understands art… and one day the artist is dead.' I imagine the painter would have returned to his own anecdote about the Rasa Sutra, and the notion of what is received as experience. 'When you see a painting, yours is Anubhāv, the experience received,' he told Adite De in 2001.
Responding to me after the finnisage, Bhanu said the show was 'subtle yet impactful,' She had hung the drawings lower than is the norm, which she said enhanced their connection with viewers. Those who knew him intimately seemed teary eyed, especially Krishen Khanna, who, she said, cried throughout.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)
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