Akbar Padamsee: A Thinker's Artist Who Explored the Intricacies of Existence

Creators And Collectors

Fondly remembered as the “thinker’s artist,” Akbar Padamsee was one of the pioneers and stalwarts of Indian modern art. He was not just a prolific painter with a highly refined aesthetic – his impressive oeuvre also covered a range of different interests, including photography, sculpture and film. The interdisciplinary modern Indian artist was the most experimental among the progressives, known for his tendencies of pushing the boundaries. In a huge loss to the art world, Akbar Padamsee passed away on January 6, 2020, in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.

An Early Flair for Art

Born in 1928 into a traditional Khoja Muslim family hailing from Gujarat, Akbar Padamsee took a strong liking to art from his childhood. Hailing from a privileged family, Padamsee’s father was an affluent businessman who ran a glassware and furniture business. As a child, Padamsee would copy images from ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’ magazine in his father's accounts books at their store on Chakla Street, in South Mumbai. His fondness for art grew through the photographs of gods and goddesses his grandmother shared with him, and the antique furniture and flower vases that adorned his home.

Padamsee’s first mentor was his schoolteacher, Shirsat, a watercolourist. He learned the medium of watercolour from his mentor, which was followed by lessons in nudes. With his passion for art only growing with time, Padamsee joined the Sir. J.J. School of Art in 1948 with considerable support from his family.

An untitled watercolour painting, 2013 (Source: Artsy)

A Pioneer of Modern Indian Art

While he was still a student in his early 20s, Akbar Padamsee became involved with the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Bombay, which was formed in 1947 by F.N. Souza, S. H. Raza, and M. F. Husain. Though not a formal member, he was the youngest associate of the PAG and formed lifelong friendships with its members. The group changed the landscape of Indian Modern Art forever by combining the traditional Indian art styles with modernist styles.

From left to right: Souza, Raza and Padamsee (Source: santhalika.blogspot.com)

The PAG eventually dispersed, with Souza making his career in London, and Raza in Paris. It was Raza’s move that prompted Padamsee to move to the French capital to study painting. Raza, Souza and Padamsee became the trio of modern Indian artists whose canvasses were influenced by French avantgarde sensibilities. It was in Paris that Padamsee developed his own artistic language.

Man and Cityscape, 1953 (Source: The Indian Express/Akbar Padamsee and Priyasri Art Gallery)

Working from surrealist artist Stanley Hayter’s studio in Paris, ‘Atelier 17’, an experimental workshop for graphic art, Padamsee studied the works of western masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, which left an impression on his art. His first solo show was held in Paris in 1952 at Galerie Saint Placide. He was recognized for his work while he was in Paris, and in 1952, his painting, ‘Woman with Bird’, won him a prestigious prize judged by French writer and poet Andre Breton.

A Bittersweet Homecoming

Padamsee visited India to present his first solo in Mumbai in 1954. The show featured the artist’s cityscapes, heads and nudes, and a controversial set of works titled ‘Lovers No. 1’ and ‘Lovers No. 2’. Accused of obscenity, the artist was taken to court, and though he won the court case which went on for almost a year, the incident left him bitter. Padamsee returned to Paris, and while he kept frequenting India over the years, he moved back to his motherland only in the late ‘60s.

Head, a signed serigraph by Akbar Padamsee; click to purchase on Artisera

The Grey Series

Akbar Padamsee’s figurative artworks and portraits gave way to his much-admired Grey series. The interplay of light and shadow on his canvasses in the mid ‘50s eventually led to a complete purge of colours from his palette by the end of the decade, resulting in the creation of some massive monochromes. The panoramic grey paintings were dense landscapes with no linear narrative and filled with architectural forms. Colours were suffused for Padamsee, who 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.”

Arguably featuring some of Padamsee’s finest works like ‘Greek Landscape’, ‘Reclining Nude’, ‘Juhu’ and ‘Cityscape’, the paintings from this series have made for some huge auction house sales. ‘Greek Landscape’ was auctioned for a whopping Rs 19.19 crore at a Saffronart auction in 2016.

Greek Landscape, 1960 (Source: businessworld.in)

A Sanskrit Scholar Among Progressives

Akbar Padamsee is fondly remembered as an intellectual artist, with his great love for reading and philosophy seeping into his art as well. Padamsee travelled to North America on a Rockefeller scholarship and this was where his paintings took on a more experimental character – his cubist architectural forms gave way to earthy hues with a sensory semblance.

In his 40s, Padamsee took lessons in Sanskrit in Mumbai, and verses from the Gita, Vedas and the Upanishads became a part of his life. This reflected in his Metascapes in the ‘70s, which brought together landscapes and cityscapes. Padamsee said that the idea of using the sun and moon in his Metascapes originated when he was reading the ‘Abhijnanashakuntalam’ by Kalidasa. The concept of the simultaneous presence of both the celestial bodies was drawn from the play, which is one of Kalidasa’s most well-known works. “I was exploring adding poetic meaning to create new forms from nature,” Padamsee was quoted by the media.

Sun-Moon Metascape, 1978-2005 (Source: Reader's Digest/Bhanumati and Akbar Padamsee)

A Multidisciplinary, Introspective Artist

Akbar Padamsee ventured into literature, mathematics, photography, critical theory, psychoanalysis and sculpture, and also made his own short abstract films, ‘Syzygy’ and ‘Events in a Cloud Chamber’. Although both films fared badly, they are remembered as a part of the artist’s transcendental and diverse body of work. He also initiated ‘VIEW’ (Vision Exchange Workshop), which brought together artists, filmmakers, photographers and psychoanalysts.

Untitled photograph by Padamsee, 2005 (Source: gallerythreshold.com)

Padamsee spent a lifetime probing the subtleties of human existence through his work. His series of Heads is believed to have been born out of his concerns relating to the archetypal figure of the isolated survivor or questor. His heads, torsos and nudes were painted with mathematical precision. Padamsee’s art was highly introspective; his mirror images came from his meditations on duality. An old soul, Padamsee told a journalist in an interview in Paris in 1952, “I am 25,000 years old." He was only 25.

Head, 2009 (Source: Artnet)

Awards and Accolades

Akbar Padamsee was conferred with the prestigious Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awards in 2009 and 2010, respectively. He held numerous solo exhibitions in India as well as abroad. Padamsee was part of prestigious group exhibitions at the Centre National des Arts Plastiques in Paris, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, amongst several others. His work has also been exhibited at the São Paulo, Tokyo and Venice Biennales.

An Inspiring Mentor and Witty Friend

While his contemporaries remember him as a master colourist, interdisciplinary artist and intellectual, Akbar Padamsee was also an inspiring mentor to the younger generation. His studio was always open to them, and he would buy artworks of young artists to support and motivate them.

A signed giclée print of a metascape by Akbar Padamsee; click to purchase on Artisera

Padamsee taught at the Stout State University in Wisconsin in the late ’60s, taking art classes in the grounds, under trees. While many disagreed with his unconventional way of teaching, the students loved Padamsee, and he always remained a teacher in some way, fertilising talent wherever he saw it.

Krishen Khanna, the last of the progressives of Indian art, remembers Padamsee as a terrific teacher. In remembrance of his extraordinary artist friend and fellow progressive, whom he admires and describes as large-hearted with a fantastic sense of humour, Khanna mulls: “He was an incredible human being and was painting till the very end. How many artists can go like that?”

Akbar Padamsee, the great modern Indian artist, continues to live on through his artworks, which are a lot like him – profound, transcendental, and not bound by time or space.


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