With the passing away of the great “grammarian of art”, Akbar Padamsee, we have lost a true legend of multi-disciplinary progressive art. His oeuvre of art includes 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, water colour, sculptures, engraving, lithography, print making, computer graphics and photography and above all 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. About his only surviving film “Syzygy”, veteran filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia said, “This 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.”
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 transdisciplinary space that brought together artists, filmmakers, photographers and psychoanalysts. Padamsee also wrote the colour axis for Kumar Shahani’s film “Maya Darpan”, based on legendary Nirmal Verma’s story of the same name. It is still revered as an incredible archival specimen.
Padamsee earned notoriety with his very first art show in 1954 at the age of 25, in which two of his paintings- “Lovers 1” and “Lovers 2” exhibited in the show were seized by the police and he was charged under Section 292 of the IPC for obscenity but a defiant Padamsee chose to fight the battle for artistic freedom and he won.
This landmark art show of Padamsee, including 22 of his artworks from the Jehangir Nicholson Collection, dating 1957 onwards, is presently going on at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, marking the celebration of the victory for artistic freedom, in memoriam of his first art show, at the age of 91 (posthumously).
Considered as one of the pioneers of Progressive Artists Group along with SH Raza, FN Souza, MF Hussain and others, today Akbar Padamsee’s paintings are among the most valued artworks of modern Indian art. His painting “Reclining Nude” was sold at a record price at Sotheby’s in New York on 25 March 2011. He was awarded the Lalit Kala Akademi Fellowship in 1962, the Kalidas Samman in 1997 and the Padma Bhushan in 2010. Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder of the Kochi Muziris Biennale recalls how Padamsee always encouraged young artists. “He was a university himself, a voracious reader who called Sanskrit his first language and mentored many young artists in his life.”
Gallerist Arun Vadehra recalls Padamsee as a young artist in Mumbai in the 40s, who was extremely generous and painting till the very end of his life, even when he was on a wheelchair. “He was a great scholar. When he did his figures, anatomy was not his concern, it was basically reform and formalism involved in the work. He had a very distinct style and was a great colourist”, added Vadehra. Today Akbar Padamsee remains a true seer of art, a proponent of artistic freedom and a follower of Paul Klee in terms of “The Thinking Eye”. Akbar Padamsee’s pioneering works is a true heritage of the free spirit of India and also of the free artistic expression. He will always be remembered for his optimism and progressive ideas reflected best in his belief, “Art is always undergoing change. It is the artist’s prerogative to embrace change.”