Amaster artist and a master raconteur. Akbar Padamsee is at ease with both identities. 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. The 85-year-old artist is in Delhi after some years.
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 was 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 saw some marvellous art there.
On painting for art
When I came into art, I knew that art had existed for thousands of years before I became part of it. So my dialogue is with the 1,000 years of art. 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 the United States, 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 Professor died.
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.