Obituary | Mumbai

Akbar Padamsee: colossus of the art world

Akbar Padamsee was also known for his vast knowledge, voracious reading ability and multidisciplinary practice.   | Photo Credit: Picasa

Multidisciplinary artist Akbar Padamsee, died at the age of 91 in Coimbatore on January 6. A former Mumbaikar, Padamsee had moved to the city a few years ago and was living at the Isha Yoga Center at Coimbatore when he passed away due to old age.

Early genius

Padamsee was born in what was then known as Bombay in 1928. He studied at the city’s Sir JJ School of Art and after completing his art education, was persuaded by one of the founding members of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, artist S.H. Raza, to travel with him to France in 1951. Padamsee, then 21 years old, rented a small room in a hotel in Paris and converted it into his studio. His first solo show was at Jehangir Art Gallery, in 1954. In 1962, Padamsee was awarded a gold medal from the Lalit Kala Akademi, and in 1965, a fellowship from the J.D. Rockefeller Foundation. Subsequently, he was invited to be an artist-in-residence by Stout State University, Wisconsin. In 1967, a solo exhibition of his paintings was held at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, Canada, after which he returned to India.

“I first met Akbar Padamsee close to 30 years ago as a young art writer and poet and got to know him through multiple platforms,” said cultural theorist and curator, Ranjit Hoskote who considered the artist to be his mentor. “We shared a deep interest in Sanskrit, rasa theory and Shaiva thought.” For Mr. Hoskote, the artist was a “formidable presence” in the Indian art world owing to his vast knowledge, voracious reading ability and multidisciplinary practice.

Padamsee’s oeuvre was a formal exploration of a few chosen themes — prophets, heads, couples, still-life, grey works, metascapes, mirror-images and tertiaries — across a multitude of media — oil painting, plastic emulsion, watercolour, sculpture, printmaking, computer graphics, and photography.

Experimenting with form

In 1969-71, with the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship funds, Padamsee who was by then a well-known painter, began experimenting with new forms of visual craft. He set up the inter-art Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW), in a South Mumbai flat where artists and filmmakers could freely experiment across various disciplines and practices. Padamsee, himself made two abstract films – Syzygy and Events in a Cloud Chamber – in which he animated a set of geometric drawings. The space had a 16mm camera, along with facilities for editing and projection, an etching press, a dark room, and a number of books and slides, all rare resources for artists at the time.

Recalling his collaboration with the artist, filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia said, “When I met Akbar Padamsee, he was 87 years old. He was still very sharp, but also very gentle and secure in his own art practise. I knew he was one of the pioneers of Indian modernist painting but I had no idea that he had made two forgotten experimental films. He showed his films around when he made them, a few private screenings, a gallery or expo screening here and there. But they were basically laughed at. He was so ridiculed for making them that he put the films away and never mentioned them. I was keen to dig out that side of his career and we ended up collaborating on a film together. It was truly beautiful since we were so many years apart but we got so much joy working together.” Events in a Cloud Chamber which was exhibited at the art gallery, Jhaveri Contemporary in 2016, then became a quest to retrieve that lost film.

The only surviving film, Syzygy, said Mr. Ahluwalia, “Is an absolute beauty made up solely of lines and dots and the connections between them. There is nothing else in Indian cinema history like this. This film has recently been rediscovered and museums have started screening it internationally. It is now seen as something truly remarkable in world cinema, so his impact cannot be underestimated.”

Rediscovering the oeuvre

Syzygy is currently showing in CCCC ‘Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art’ at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Nancy Adajania, cultural theorist and curator of the show said, “At a time when modernists like Padamsee were expected to sit in their studios and meditate in solitude on the singular image, he initiated the VIEW a trans-disciplinary space that brought together artists, filmmakers, photographers and a psychoanalyst. At CCCC, the viewers can see some incredible archival material — the colour axis that Padamsee wrote for Kumar Shahani’s film Maya Darpan for instance.”

Art critic Phalguni Desai said, “What I found exciting about Padamsee was his interest in various mediums outside of his more popular paintings.” Citing the Vision Exchange Workshop, Ms. Desai said, “We were lucky enough to show a 1969 stop-motion animation work by Nalini Malani [at VIEW] at a recent show at Gallery MMB, which she made upon invitation to the workshop.”

Padamsee’s first art show is now the subject of what will be his last exhibition. The show, from January 10 onwards, focuses on a landmark 1954 court case, a seminal moment in Padamsee’s life, in which he was acquitted legally. When Padamsee returned from Paris for his debut solo show at the age of 25, he was charged under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for two paintings — ‘Lovers 1’ and ‘Lovers 2’ — that were exhibited in the show. Both — currently in the possession of two established art collectors — showed a man’s hand on a woman’s breast. The expression had been labelled as obscene and was seized by the police. But a defiant Padamsee chose to fight the battle for artistic freedom.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 8:53:59 AM |

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