By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi: Akbar Padamsee is one of the of the last of the surviving masters of modern Indian art, who unlike his peers, has diversified his oeuvre to include paintings, nude studies, sculpture, photography, print-making and computer graphics in sync with time.
At 85, he still rules auction sales and is back to the India Art Fair 2013 with a series of new “metascapes”, a metaphorical mirror-image landscapes inpsired by the works of Kalidas and a collection of lithographs, presented by the Vadodara-based Priyasri Gallery.
“I have been constantly evolving as an artist in the last 60 years. Now, I am painting metascapes in oil on canvas, deeply psychological landscapes in bright colours. The paintings originated when I was studying ‘Abhigyanam Shakuntalam by Kalidasa in Sanskrit. I came across the concept of the two controllers of time – the sun and the moon. The metascapes represent the sun, moon and the appropriate water needed for the seeds to fructify. They touch upon the eight basic elements of life as well,” Padamsee told IANS in an interview at the India Art Fair.
Padamsee said when he read the verse about the elements of life in Shakuntala, he “wanted to paint the verse. It was not possible. So, I decided to paint all the elements in red to depict their natural synergy,” Padamsee said.
Born in Mumbai in 1928, Padamsee traces his roots to Gujarat. In his youth, he copied images from the Illustrated Weekly of India and met his first mentor, a water colourist, at the St. Xavier’s High School, Fort. His intitiation into water colour was followed by classes in nude studies in preparation for J.J. School of Art, which admitted him directly to the third year.
By the time Padamsee graduated, the first generation of progressive artists like S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain had assembled under the umbrella of the Mumbai Progressive Group in 1948 to create an Indian metaphor in art.
Padamsee, though younger, was influenced by the progressive movement.
“Before the progressive movement, the predominant influence on the artists was Amrita Sher Gil. She may have been a great artist, but the (European) influence she had was not good,” Padamsee said. He was personally influenced by German artist and thinker Paul Klee.
Padamsee’s exposure to western art was due to friend S.H. Raza’s inviting him to Paris in the 1950s. In Paris, he joined Stanley Hayter’s studio, “Atelier 17”. He exhibited in Paris in 1952 for the first time and shared a prize with French artist Jean Carzou.
He showed solo in India for the first time at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1954.
Padamsee, despite the encroaching vagaries of age, believes that “if an artist has to do something new, he has to get started somewhere”.
“When I started sculpting 15 years ago, I realised that sculpture should engage my hands. I crafted manually in clay and then cast it in bronze. I spent six months a year doing sculpture. Then I went to photography,” Padamsee said.
Photography was for practical reasons, he said. “I couldn’t find models for paintings. Then I met a person who said he could find models who are film extras. I paid the girls Rs 3,000 and began to photograph them,” he said.
Initially, Padamsee used the photographs for drawings but then realised that the “photographs were wonderful”.
“I began to study the effect of light on the body. This impact transformed the figure from naked to nude. A body is naked when undressed, but beomes a nude – in a work of art – when bathed in light. Then I began to play with light and shade,” Padamsee said.
A collection of seven nude studies in black and white is on display at the Art Heritage Gallery in the capital.
Critics say Padamsee’s practise is based on meticulous revisiting of three genres the nude, the landscape and the head.
“I drew heads at the ashram of seer Jaggi Vasudev in Tamil Nadu. It was not on purpose, but the atmosphere was so wonderful that the heads came naturally,” Padamsee said. His human heads are serene and mystical.
Padamsee, who won one of the highest bids by any modern Indian artist at Sotheby’s in 2011 for his painting, “Reclining Nudes” at $1,426,500, rues that “younger artists now come from a school of art that teach them to sell immediately and they soon develop a common language, accepted by the west”.
“For the first 40 years, I did not sell a single painting, barring one in Paris. Van Gogh had to leave his paintings on the field… But then, to invent, you need money,” Padamsee said.
“And this dilemma has no answer”.