Akbar Padamsee was an artist and painter, considered one of the pioneers in Modern Indian painting along with Raza, Souza and MF Hussain. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)
Having moved to Paris in 1951, Padamsee was influenced by European Modern masters as well as tribal works of art, such as African masks. This was when his famous ‘Prophets’ series began. Critic Geeta Kapur writes in Akbar Padamsee: The Other Side of Solitude (1978) that the prototype of these early portraits was that “magnificent little sculpted head from Mohenjodaro, the bearded man wearing a decorative robe”, who evolved into a Semitic prophet in Padamsee’s works. The title of the series was suggested by the late SH Raza.Most critics read the Prophets as figures that embody suffering.
Prophet (1953) from the Prophet series. (Courtesy: Saffron Art)
Seen as his most exciting phase, the ‘Grey Works’ sit between his early cityscapes, and, later, metascapes. The limited set of six was shown for one week only at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1960. The works were bought by his artist friends Krishen Khanna, MF Hussain, Bal Chhabda and actor Shammi Kapoor. Greek Landscape, formerly owned by Khanna, became Padamsee’s most expensive painting to be sold in an auction. Padamsee eliminated the use of several colours and settled on a monochrome palette in this series. A flat grey became multidimensional greys.
Though a talented painter, Padamsee did not confine himself to the genre. In 1969, he received the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship and used the award of Rs 3 lakh, along with his own funds, to set up the pathbreaking Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW) from 1969 to 1972, at his apartment. At VIEW, Padamsee made two films — Syzygy, in collaboration with animator Ram Mohan, and Events in a Cloud Chamber. The films presaged new media works in India. Syzygy refers to the union of opposites or the linear alignment of celestial bodies. Padamsee used 1,000 drawings to make the stop-motion animation film that features numbers, dots and dashes. These are an example of his engagement with grids.
Alternating between the landscape and the figurative, Padamsee made a variety of ‘Heads’ — lone figures shown from the neck above, their faces resting at an angle. The ‘Heads’ seem to acknowledge the presence of a viewer, but are aloof, having turned away.The starting point for the first ‘Heads’ were Padamsee’s mirror reflections. But, the final outcomes have been more complex, with melancholic men and women inhabiting their solitude. With the passage of time, the ‘Heads’ aged as well. Ella Dutta in Akbar Padamsee: The Spirit of Order writes, “The mood is one of irrevocable sadness. The heads are turned away from the aridity which life holds.”
Untitled (2000) from the Lovers series (Courtesy: Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation)
Padamsee painted his first metascape — spaces that do not specify location or geography, but seem to hold a subliminal mix of sky, earth and water, creating a landscape of the mind — in the early 1970s . The prolific metascapes became Padamsee’s signature genre.They were also Padamsee’s opportunity to exhibit his obsession with finding the right colours for his works. A bold palette of stark reds, glowing yellows and deep blues are mixed with earthy tones, creating what art historian Yashodhara Dalmia calls “the controlled cadence of the colours” that allow Padamsee to evoke infinite time and space.
Unlike the imaginary figures of the Heads, the only historical person that Padamsee brought into his works was Mahatma Gandhi. Though there is a portrait of his contemporary MF Husain that Padamsee made in 1970, Gandhi is a recurring figure. Padamsee made several Gandhi portraits on paper in watercolours from 1997, which marked 50 years of independent India. Padamsee relies on the iconography of Gandhi — the distinctive spectacles, the bald head and often has a hint of a serene smile.
Gandhi (2009) from the Gandhi series (Courtesy: Priyasri Art Gallery)
Padamsee’s achievement as an artist lies in his experimentation with form, as seen in the Mirror Images. These were similar to the metascapes but had deeper, earthier colours, and were often presented as diptychs. The two halves don’t reflect each other exactly, which allowed Padamsee to toy with perspective and dualities, a recurring theme in his works. He spoke of Mirror Images as how we inhabit two worlds, similar and dissimilar at the same time, a space between waking and sleeping.
A significant theme, Padamsee painted several couples across his artistic career, some of which he overtly titled Couple. In many of these paintings, Padamsee’s interest in mathematics is evident, as art historian Dr Annapurna Garimella points out. She says, “He might have been interested in two geometries converging on the picture plane and then using a limited range colour to mingle and connect them. If you see the white, lit areas on the faces, they make three points of a triangle spread on two faces. The triangle locks in the zone of intimacy. He prepared for such geometry.”