Akbar Padamsee: The Sanskrit scholar among the Progressives
Striking a balance between modern art and Indian philosophy, Akbar Padamsee strived to bring the conscious and the unconscious on the same plane
Akbar Padamsee’s passing away invited an elegiac silence in the contemporary art world. India has lost the Sanskrit scholar among the Progressives. Padamsee, as an artist, led us into a space of refined aesthetic, balancing between the hieratic and the human.
In the best of two centuries, Padamsee nourished himself as the fountainhead of regional and ancestral traditions to translate an epoch of modernism in his sensibility and language. Born in Mumbai on April 12, 1928, into a Khoja Muslim family with intellectual leanings, Padamsee joined Sir. J.J. School of Art in 1948, with considerable support from his family and the blessings of Aga Khan.
Padamsee drew from Kalidasa’s “Abhijnanasakuntalam” extensively. The principle “Ye dve kaal vigattah (These two controllers of time)” indicate the simultaneous presence of the sun and the moon. In the same way, each aspect of his paintings was elemental: “Sarva bija prakruti (That which is responsible for the growth of all seeds). This duality, at once spiritual and aesthetic, and the core of much of Indian and Chinese philosophy, defined Padamsee’s art.
Post Partition, it was Sayed Haider Raza’s moving to Paris that prompted Padamsee to move to the French city to study and peruse painting. Raza, Souza, and Padamsee became the trio who whose canvas was fermented by French avant-garde sensibilities.
His first show was held with Raza and Souza at Gallerie Saint Placide in 1952 and a two-person show with Raza, Indian Painters in Paris, in 1953. His first solo in India was held at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1954. By then, there were influences of Picasso, Braque, and Modigliani that had formed their own impressions on his palette.
The Jehangir solo saw him execute four paintings. They belonged to his ‘grey period’. Greek Landscape, Reclining Nude, Juhu and Cityscape were arguably among the finest of Padamsee's oeuvre. His figurative works and cityscapes were preludes to the panoramic paintings – they had no linear narrative nor definite beginning and end, dense landscapes were almost entirely filled by block-like architectural forms, abutting each other on what looked like a gentle hillside.
Another salient solo was his 1960 solo exhibition, in which he decided he would not paint indoors, but out in the open and only at night. Spreading a huge canvas on the floor of the lighted court, he would start to work, confining himself to the use of two colours: black and white.
Reflecting on this change, Padamsee said, “Painting in my Juhu flat I started working on it for three or four nights because the sunlight was too much in my open courtyard, I had to work at night. And a dog used to come and sit next to me. He was so wonderful and really became a friend of mine. He didn't budge, he would just sit in his own place looking at me. Not barking or anything, all night as I worked.”
Portraiture as a pretext
Among his greatest works were his early portraits. Padamsee treated portraiture as a pretext, approaching it only to leave it behind. At the Saffronart’s September sale (2018) his Untitled portrait had an elusiveness and aura of exclusivity. The English scholar and critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha wrote, “...this illusive, enigmatic look is what gives the work its presence... the look here, is not the kind that makes the spectator feel immediately identified. It invites and at the same time elides his look, so it is more like a gaze.”
It was in the late 1950s that Akbar Padamsee first turned from figuration to the landscape as the primary mode of his artistic expression. The period coincided with frequent travels betweenMumbai and Paris. These two cities inspired monumental grey landscapes and architectonic views of city roofs respectively. Subsequently, in the mid-1960s, he travelled to North America on a John D. Rockefeller III fellowship where his landscapes took on a more experimental character, laying the foundation for a major transformation in his practice in the 1970s.
Colours for him were soft and suffused. He would say, “It’s far more exciting for me as a painter, to work in grey or sepia. The brush can move freely from figure to ground, and this interaction offers me immense formal possibilities.”
Landscapes for Padamsee represented experimentation and expression. In later years, he favoured a perceptual and atmospheric style. His cubist architectonic forms gave way to warm earthy hues translating into an experiential and sensory semblance. Deliberately nebulous, Padamsee perfected the terrain between representation and abstraction.
Metascapes and Shakuntalam
Padamsee’s works were born out of literary reflections and in-depth philosophy. He chanted shlokas/verses with a gentle eloquence. When one asked him about the idea of using the sun and moon in his metascapes, he said, “This originated when I was reading the introductory stanza to ‘Abhijnanashakuntalam’. Here Kalidasa speaks of the eight visible forms of the Lord without mentioning them by name, the sun and the moon as the two controllers of time, water as the origin of all life, fire as the link between man and god, and the earth as the source of all seed. I was exploring adding poetic meaning to create new forms from nature.”
In 2005, at his studio in Mumbai, in front of a magnificent Metascape, he explained. “It talks about all the senses and the eight elements. I use the sun and moon and water. Earth and water and fire I use. It is actually Shiva’s Metascape. Shiva, as an element, is fire. But I don’t use the word Shiva, I call it Metascapes,” he explained to the writer. “Expression must contain its dialectical opposite, the conscious and the unconscious on the same physic plane. I have two eyes, two retinas, but the mind compounds the two images into one.”
Dynamism of movement
Padamsee spent a lifetime probing the subtleties of human existence through his work. The critic who offered in-depth insights into Padamsee’s works is Ranjit Hoskote. “With Akbar's passing, I lose another early mentor – one who offered me his generous guidance both in aesthetic and practical matters. Among the shared interests that brought us together was our common preoccupation with Sanskrit and rasa aesthetics. I was 20 when I first met him, at which point he had long ago mastered both the language and the theory, and I was studying both formally. Akbar could open up enormous horizons, whether on colour field abstraction, mathematics, language, yoga, or Shaiva philosophy. Over the years, I wrote about various bodies of work that he produced, ranging from his metascapes through his series of heads to his experiments with computer graphics. He, for his part, always responded with intensity and generosity to my writing across genres. ‘People will always be asking for your writing on art,’ he would tell me. ‘But never forget that you are a poet.’
Akbar was a great inspiration. His affinity for the most essential forms and colours came from early childhood impressions, and his work, despite being quite abstract at times, can be very emotional. I find this stuff more inspiring, more future-looking than anything going on today in the art or film world.
Akbar Padamsee: The Sanskrit scholar among the Progressives
Spiritual and truly transcendental quality
Among the Progressives, Akbar was one of my favourites. He was gentle, thoughtful, deeply philosophical and truly committed to his work. He stood apart because he had a rare understanding and immense knowledge of Indian history and ancient literature. Remember he was not born into a Hindu family but he was so well read, so informed about Kalidasa and great works of Indian poets including ancient texts. In today’s world he sets a great example for other artists to follow. The beauty is that he successfully implemented all that he knew and felt into his metascapes. They had a spiritual and truly transcendental quality. We have lost a great artist and thinker who had invented his own language in his works over more than six decades.
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