A genius of colour and craft (1928 – 2020)

Akbar Padamsee, one of the pioneers of modern Indian paintings, was best known for his radical paintings, but was also a sculptor, photographer, engraver, lithographer, art critic, film maker and one of India’s biggest names on the art circuit. He was one of the eight children, which included the late Ad man Alyque Padamsee, born in a traditional affluent Gujarati Khoja Muslim business family.

Akbar`s first mentor was his teacher Shirsat, a watercolourist at St. Xavier’s High School, Fort. This was followed by classes on nudes at Charni Road.  He graduated with a diploma in painting and series of sculpture classes from the Sir J.J. School of Art. He joined the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) formed in 1947 by Francis Newton Souza, S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain that reacted against both Western classicism and folk-art revival to establish modern and personal styles.

Raza, awarded a French government scholarship, invited Padamsee to accompany him to Paris. In 1951, artist Krishna Reddy introduced him to the surrealist Stanley Hayter, who became his next mentor. He soon joined his studio, Atelier 17 and by the age of 21, had converted a small rented hotel room into a studio and in 1952, held his first exhibition in Paris. Akbar married Solange Gounelle, in Paris in 1954 and had one daughter, Raisa Padamsee.

He courted controversy with his very first solo show in India held at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1954 with the Bombay police arresting him for obscenity as some viewers were upset by the content of a painting titled ‘Lovers’. Subsequently he was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin – Stout, on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1965. Moving to Mumbai in 1968 with his second wife Bhanumati, in the last years of his life, he moved permanently to the Isha Yoga Centre, Coimbatore.

Taking to drawing at the age of four, in a prolific illustrious career he produced thousands of works in a variety of media. He curated major cultural events and developed the collections of the Bharat Bhawan Museum of Bhopal, and created the VIEW (Vision Exchange Workshop), for artists and filmmakers to experiment across various disciplines and practices. Not averse to using latest e-technology, he stressed on the need for an artist to continuously reinvent himself.

Alternating between two major genres, luminous metascapes – his signature works, and the human figure since the seventies; though he was primarily interested in constructing form, he was well known for his metascapes (combining cityscapes and landscapes). He believed a lot in the Hindu philosophy and was deeply influenced by Vivekananda’s commentary on the yogasutras of Patanjali, and studied Shilpa Shastra, the ancient text on the art of sculpting and confessed to spending hours perfecting the dimensions that the text specified.

Managing to remain fiercely experimental and individualistic, his oils have been characterised by a deep intensity and luminescence, while his drawings exude a serene grace. Padamsee remained relatively low-profile in the art market and it’s only in the last decade of his life that prices for his work shot up. His painting ‘Reclining Nude’ was sold for US$1,426,500 at Sotheby’s in New York on 25 March 2011. He was bestowed the Padma Bhushan in 2010, the Lalit Kala Akademi Fellowship (Lalit Kala Ratna) and a gold medal in 1962, the JD Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1965, the Kalidas Samman from the Madhya Pradesh Government in 1997, Lalit Kala Ratna Puraskar in 2004, the Dayawati Modi Award in 2007, Roopdhar award by Bombay Art Society in 2008 and the Kailash Lalit Kala award in 2010.

Gentle and humane, Akbar Padamsee died aged 91 in Coimbatore. Generations to come shall relish and be inspired by his magic of colours.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.