One of the pioneers of modern Indian art, Akbar Padamsee gives a peek into his world

A master artist and a master raconteur. Akbar Padamsee is both and at ease with himself . But it is rather surprising that the man with such a penchant for stories, has not really had a prime space for narrative on his canvas. Padamsee has been essentially engaged with ‘form’ and ‘space’. Not even form, the artist clarifies that he is singularly interested in spaces. “I am more interested in spaces. People look at my drawings and say ‘It is very nice’. But do they look at space? No they don’t. I tell them to look at space. Faces are just an emergence from those spaces,” says Akbar Padamsee, an important figure in the world of modern Indian art.

The 85-year-old artist is in Delhi after some years for his exhibition of lithographs and photographs at Art Heritage gallery and a booth of Mumbai-based Priyasri Art gallery displaying his oils at the fifth edition of India Art Fair (On till 3rd Feb at NSIC Grounds, Okhla). The great modernist travels back and forth in time to relate riveting stories from an eventful career.

On being a “conservative” and a “recluse”

The reason is I didn’t go to parties or art openings. When you are not seen people call you a recluse. There was a whole new movement of abstract art. One of my good friends was Gaitonde (V.S.Gaitonde) who started figuratively but then went into abstract art. Even Raza was doing abstract. So in abstract art they have gone advanced but I stayed representational. So people say he is still in the old way of painting. Even in other centres of art, like in Baroda, Sheikh (Gulam Mohammed Sheikh) was also thinking of non-figurative painting as more advanced and Kolte (Prabhakar Kolte) teaching in another school of art said abstract art is real form of art, though he himself was a portrait painter.

On his early days with the Progressives

I was still in art school (Sir J.J.School of Art, Mumbai) when the group was formed. I passed out from Sir J.J. School of Art in 1950. We used to go and see their exhibitions and help them in installation and printing the catalogue. At that time it was just a list but they were happy that their catalogue is done. When the diploma results came out Raza (S.H. Raza) came to the school to see if we had passed. All of us had passed. And then he asked ‘what do you plan to do now? I am going to Paris in three months. Come with me.’ I decided to go along. Palsikar (S.B. Palsikar), who was at that time the dean of the school said, ‘You haven’t seen India properly and you are going to Paris. First see India.’ I had three months time so I bought plane tickets to Madurai and went to the Meenakshi temple. It was superb…I stood at the entrance of the temple and had never been to a temple. I saw some marvellous art there.

On painting for art

When I came into art, I knew that art had existed 1000 of years before I became part of it. So my dialogue is with the 1000 years of art. If I can add something to this... If I repeat myself. I like and appreciate so many 14th Century painters. I can’t paint like them but I appreciate them. And I know the science of painting. And If I don’t add something then I am no good. There was a wonderful German painter Paul Klee and he had written a very good book Thinking Eye. When I went to Paris, I bought that book even though it was in German. I thought I will at least be able to see the reproductions. I saw them and understood everything he was trying to say.

On meta-scapes and elements

When I came back from US, Palsikar told me to come and teach at the art school. Language was a problem as they were Marathi speaking and I didn’t know Marathi so Palsikar suggested that I learn Sanskrit from a friend. Dr. Godbole introduced me to Kalidas’ Abhijanasakuntalam and its introductory verse says “ye dve kal vighattah” (“sun and moon are the controllers of time”) and “sarva beej prakriti” (“water is the source of all seeds”). Then he goes to fire which is Shiva. All the eight elements are there. So I thought if I were to paint, how would I paint it because I have got to paint sun and moon, water, fire…I said ok I will use forms and put the sun and the moon together. People said how can these two be together and I would say please read Kalidas. He became my authority and they were like meta-scapes, metaphorical landscapes. I fell in love with Sanskrit and continued learning it for 15 years till my Prof. died.

On the most influential artist figure in his life - Paul Clee

I always say that this book should be introduced to all the art schools…he doesn’t only speak about theories. He goes to history of theoryThinking EyeI had received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation. So when I went there I told them I wanted to see an art school. I was told that Wisconsin University needed an artist-in-residence. I began with a lecture on Paul Klee and the students were quite interested. The teachers complained to the dean that Mr. Padamsee is teaching something that doesn’t exist. He called me and said ‘I saw the notes of the students and it is all nonsense.’ I told him I am following Paul Klee’s books. Do you know who Paul Klee is? And if you don’t know Paul Klee then you are still in the time of Rembrandt. Then I asked him if they know that Matisse (Henry Matisse) has written a book on art. So I asked him if the teachers didn’t know Paul Klee or Matisse they are 20 years behind in time.

On his dissimilar heads

In this exhibition, I have done only heads but no head will resemble another. It is like nature where except twins no two faces look same. When artists repeat themselves it means they aren’t observing. I go on drawing the lines and I call it grid and it from this grid a face emerges.

On his nudes

The first time I painted a nude was when I was 15. I was still in high school and during the recess I would see my art teacher paint. Seeing my curiosity he asked me to come to his studio and once he had a nude model. My brother saw my sketchbook and he was shocked. Even I was shocked when I saw the model the first time.

The faces of my model are not shown deliberately because they have got jobs and they will lose their jobs. One of them is a receptionist in a hotel. Once the model coordinator got a girl in a burqa. When she was taking it off she said she feels liberated but she has to wear it. She turned out to be one of my best models. My nudes are not pornographic. They don’t titillate. I like the way light falls on them. I don’t show them naked. I cover them in shadow.