Akbar Padamsee | The socratic artist

The intellectual among artists, Padamsee’s bastion among the Moderns remains his devotion to a mathematical rigour, which he wields with scholarly wit

Askeleton hangs by a thread from the corner of Akbar Padamsee’s Prabhadevi studio. In front of it, on an easel, is a canvas still wet with a work in progress. It is an older work: Head. A collector with most of Padamsee’s series Head s had bought it for Rs85 lakh from the Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, in 2008, but brought it back when he damaged the paint while trying to wipe away fungus. He asked 83-year-old Padamsee to fill in the colours. “But I am not a restorer. I am a painter," Padamsee says, so soft-spoken that even the hum of the fan is louder. “I told him, if you want, I can repaint it."

Facing the Head, at a distance of about 4ft, is another, larger canvas, recently finished. It is a vertical Metascape: one of Padamsee’s “metaphysical landscapes", his preoccupation for the last decade, and a continuation of a series he began in the 1970s.

Aesthetics of colour: Padamsee explains at his Prabhadevi studio how deeply he was influenced by Gandhi, whose talks he would attend as a boy. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Lower in profile than his associates, among the Progressives, it is now, with earlier works coming into the market, that Padamsee is scaling the heights of valuation. Collector and industrialist Harsh Goenka admits he takes inspiration from a Padamsee Metascape (Mirror Images series), which has hung in his office since 1994. “The Metascapes he did in the early to mid-1990s are what I have found greatest interest in. There has not been much hype around his work, but he is not an active marketer like Husain. He is a wonderful human being, well-versed with scriptures. His paintings are getting the good prices, which they deserve. The proliferation of his small black and white paintings in the market may be affecting the overall pricing of his works," he says.

There is word of at least three major early works scheduled to come into the market—one via an international auction house, another two from private collections—by mid-2012. “Christie’s sold his canvas Jeune femme aux cheveux noirs, la tête inclinee in March 2010 for $578,500 (around Rs3 crore)" says Sonal Singh, associate director, Christie’s India. In 2011, a work that had hung over the doorway of Hotel Chelsea, New York, for 50 years peaked the price for a Padamsee. Maithili Parekh, director, Sotheby’s, which sold the work, says: “In 2011, Padamsee’s Untitled fetched a record price of $1,426,500 (estimate $500,000-700,000) in March at an auction. It was executed in 1960, a critical period in the artist’s career, at a time when Padamsee produced few paintings and only worked in shades of grey." The work was described by the artist himself as one of his “best" paintings, and is part of the important Juhu series. Padamsee says, “There are, in fact, six in the Juhu series: two with Husain, one of which we can’t find, two with Chhabda, one with Krishen Khanna and one was with Shammi Kapoor." Dara Mehta, 42, Modernist collector and managing director of one of India’s oldest investment banking firms Darashaw & Co., pegs the one in the private collection of fellow Modern Krishen Khanna, as “Akbar’s finest work".

The reclining nude (1960) that hung above the doorway of a Chelsea hotel for 50 years. It earned a record price at a Sotheby’s auction in 2011. Photo: courtesy Sotheby’s

An early Padamsee Metascape hangs on a wall in Bombay House, across from Ratan Tata’s desk. Padamsee is the thinker’s artist. He is a Socratic figure: full of anecdotes about his evolutionary journey. About Husain, who named Padamsee’s daughter Raisa; Raza, who, when awarded a French government scholarship, invited Padamsee to accompany him to Paris in late 1950; artist Ram Kumar, who received the duo at Paris, and artist Francis Newton Souza, who would hop over from London. He speaks of Le Dôme Café at Montparnasse, where he met surrealist influences Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. About artist Krishna Reddy, who introduced Padamsee to his surrealist mentor Stanley Hayter, whose studio, Atelier 17, Padamsee joined. He bursts with provocative metaphysical questions and a boyish humour, which he uses to punctuate years of study and dogged devotion to form. Padamsee told a journalist from The Statesman, Kolkata, in an interview in Paris in 1952: “I am 25,000 years old." He was 25. When someone asked him why he had said that, Akbar said: “A boy of 25 cannot paint. You need age and experience." Even then, he was an old soul.

Padamsee has had a categorical, lifelong stance against the perception of art as a mystic, soul-driven activity. He was the first Indian artist to dethrone subject as superior to form. “Akbar’s handling of his materials has evolved like an exquisite handwriting. His subjects are only hooks on which he hangs his formal and conceptual concerns," as critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote puts it. It is a language that Goenka too finds compelling: “Akbar Padamsee has been quite reclusive. Though he has done a large body of work, he was still not as prolific a painter as Husain or Raza but his style and the way he articulates himself in his paintings is spellbinding. The use of the palette knife gives his paintings a distinctive quality and depth, setting him apart."

The front door to collector Mehta’s south Mumbai home swings open to reveal a 1962 Nude. “It is the one that hung in Padamsee’s Paris home for over 20 years," he says, pointing out the variations in texture and light within it. “Padamsee’s nudes are not sexual in nature. They are crafted with a brush stroke and technique similar to a landscape within the outlines of a human figure. If you hid the face, you would see that it is a landscape," he says.

To the immediate right is the rare 1977 Metascape—an immaculate study in the properties of light. It is one of the few with an identifiable house—a physical object in an otherwise metaphysical plane—in the lower right-hand corner.

Lining the extended passageway are the monochrome watercolour Nudes that depict the deep Chinese influence on Padamsee’s art. A brilliantly reflective diptych, a Mirror Images, stretches across the wall of the living room. This is one of the most definitive privately owned Padamsee collections, inclusive of paintings from each phase of his work, from the 1950s on. Mehta and his brother Baman acquired their first Padamsee in their 20s. Mehta explains why any collector would be drawn to Padamsee’s art: “First, the depth and quality of thought that finds expression on canvas, second is his individuality, and third is the sheer breadth of Padamsee’s work. You can hang a room full of Akbars, one from every phase of his work, and each would be different."

The Meta view: The 1995 Mirror Images from the Darashaw & Co. collection. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Padamsee says he draws from Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam: The principles “Ye dve kaal vigattah (These two controllers of time)" indicate the simultaneous presence of the sun and the moon. Each aspect of the painting is elemental: “Sarva bija prakruti (That which is responsible for the growth of all seeds)," Padamsee says. This duality, at once spiritual and aesthetic, and the core of much of Indian and Chinese philosophy, defines Padamsee’s art. An almost spiritual creativity across mediums is his signature. “Do not label me or my art," he says, wagging his finger. Padamsee waves his hand in the direction of the 15ft Metascape (Mirror Images). “It talks about all the senses and the eight elements. I use sun and moon and water. Earth and water and fire I use. It is actually Shiva’s Metascape. Shiva, as an element, is fire. But if I put the word ‘Shiva’, they will say ‘See what this Muslim is doing’. So I just call it Metascapes," he says.

As gallerist Dadiba Pundole puts it, Padamsee’s art “doesn’t even have to be about anything. They are landscapes, abstractions." If you were to simply follow the lines in his work through the decades, their composition changes from knots, to nets, to diffusions of light. He diffuses lines, Padamsee explains, to allow for movement between colours, and oppositions.

“Padamsee is a painter’s painter," Parekh says, and Sudhir Patwardhan, whose essay on Padamsee’s Grey period (Akbar Padamsee: Work in Language, Marg Publications) spans the senior artist’s preoccupation with monochrome, explains why a classicist like Padamsee is an abiding influence on artists of his generation. He says: “My first references in Indian art were people like Tyeb, Husain and Akbar. One, of course, is influenced by Western art but you tend to translate that influence through artists like Akbar. While Husain was about his engagement with the overall landscape of India, Akbar is about structure: how a painting is built." Padamsee’s elevation of form to a riyaaz is obsessively mathematical at a time when, with the influence of various media upon art, the focus has turned to sociocultural narratives, most insufficiently mediated.

Padamsee in Paris in 1952. Photo: courtesy Pundole Art Gallery; Akbar Padamsee

Pundole explains the pact Padamsee had with his daughter, Raisa, who comes to visit him from Paris once a year: “He told her, ‘if you read one good book of philosophy to discuss with me, come, otherwise, don’t come.’ I don’t know if they kept the pact, but that is how important the elevation of discourse is to Akbar." The quest for learning has dominated Padamsee’s entire career. “He emphasized the specific importance of a larger culture of which art was a part," Hoskote says. “If you were only focused on art, you would probably be a good professional artist, but to be visionary, you had to be active in a larger culture. Akbar has always been insistent that art should relate itself to philosophical discourse."

In Paris in 1954, Padamsee came across Vivekananda’s commentary on Patanjali’s yogasutras in Brentano’s, an American book store on Avenue de l’Opera. Deeply influenced, he requested his friend Prof. Godbole, then head of the department of Sanskrit at Wilson College, Mumbai, to teach him Sanskrit. He then studied theories of aesthetics in their original Sanskrit. Now, on a Mac desktop and with his iPad, he works on the Shilpa Shastra. “I spend hours trying to form the dimensions it specifies for the perfect human earlobe," Padamsee says.

Padamsee’s grandfather, sarpanch of a village in Gujarat, earned the title “Padmashree" or “Padamsee" after distributing his entire granary to the village during a famine. The family’s original name was “Charanyas", their ancestors being court poets. His is an inherited creativity, Padamsee says. As a child, Padamsee began copying images from TheIllustrated Weekly of India across his father’s accounts books at his Chakla Street, south Mumbai, store. His first mentor was his teacher at St Xavier’s School, Mumbai: Shirsat, a watercolourist, who tutored him in the medium, wines in Khandala, and nudes at a special class on Charni Road, in preparation for his studies at the Sir JJ School of Art, enabling him to join the course directly in its third year. His first exhibition in Paris, which required artists to stay anonymous, saw Padamsee sharing the prize awarded for it by the French Journal d’Arte in 1952 with the surrealist Carzou, then in his 40s.

Hayter once told Padamsee, “Do not try to be influenced by me." Despite a world of influences, Padamsee’s work is sustained by a fierce individualism. “When we went to Paris, we didn’t go to learn from them, we went to show them. Now, when artists go, they find out ‘What do they like?’ and think ‘We must produce that’," he says.

Incandescence filters out of the 1962 Landscape in a home in south Mumbai, transforming its viewers instantly. This is what Padamsee calls “anubhaava", or “receiving the experience". The greatest Padamsee ever painted sublimates viewer, painter, and the painting itself eventually, to light.

gayatri.j@livemint.com

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