Akbar Padamsee: ‘Art for me is to express the invisible’

A tribute to one of the great figures of Indian post-war art, whose career was defined by free-thinking and experimentation — and whose works are offered during Asian Art Week in New York this September


One of India’s greatest modern artists, Akbar Padamsee (1928-2020), always approached his art with deep thought and intense focus. Constantly pushing boundaries and innovating in his creative process, he remained fiercely experimental and individualistic throughout a career that spanned six decades.

‘You need the mind of a mathematician and poet to be a painter,’ Padamsee explained in 2018, when we visited him in his studio in his native Mumbai. 

‘At the age of 12 he was reading Freud’s lectures on psychoanalysis, and at 90, when we last met, he continued to read, study and paint tirelessly,’ reveals Nishad Avari, Head of Sale for South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘Over the course of his career, he absorbed the conventions of various Eastern and Western artistic traditions, identified which had the greatest expressive effectiveness, and synthesized them into his unique visual vocabulary.’ 

Working in a variety of media, from oil painting to watercolours, sculpture, printmaking and photography, Padamsee concentrated on a few chosen genres: prophets (including Jesus Christ), heads, couples, still-life, grey works, metascapes and mirror images. 

His obsession with depicting the human face was clear from his earliest paintings. As he explained, ‘Expression is all the more powerful when it is about a solitary figure’.


Akbar Padamsee in his Mumbai studio, 2018

After graduating from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai in 1951, Padamsee moved to Paris, where he was particularly influenced by the work of Fauvist painters such as Georges Rouault. In 1952 he was awarded a prize by André Breton on behalf of the Journale d’art; the following year, he was the subject of his first-ever solo show, at the Galerie Saint Placide. In 1954, he successfully defended himself against obscenity charges that were brought over two pictures, Lovers No. 1 and Lovers No. 2, that were exhibited in his first solo exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai.

After returning to the city in 1959, Padamsee embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of his career. Progressively eliminating colour from his work, he began to paint only in shades of grey, and on a scale he had not attempted before. In purging colour from his palette, the artist began to develop a painterly language that was distinctly his own, and the small number of imposing works he created with this palette from 1959-60 are among his finest.

‘I was not rejecting colour,’ the artist explained. ‘It was an exploration of colour as quantities of black and white. It's far more exciting for me as a painter to work in grey or sepia. The brush can move freely from figure to ground, and this interaction offers me immense formal possibilities.’

Rooftops, a monumental 1959 landscape and a key work from this period, sold for $912,500 in September 2018 sale at Christie’s in New York. The first of his scroll-like paintings of his ‘grey period’, it clearly illustrates the artist’s transition to a new method of working with paint and a unique way of visualising colour, scale and composition.

Rooftops  was exhibited at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai for just one week in March-April 1960, along with his other monochromatic paintings. The show proved to be a breakthrough event for Padamsee, as well as for the Indian art community, which had never seen anything like it. The sheer scale of his canvases and their unique palette created much excitement. In 1969, Padamsee was awarded the prestigious Nehru Fellowship.

Padamsee was the subject of several solo exhibitions in India, culminating in retrospectives in Mumbai and New Delhi. He participated in important group exhibitions at the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, in Paris; the National Gallery of Modern Art, in New Delhi; the Museum of Modern Art, in Oxford; and at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London. His work has also been exhibited at the Biennales of São Paulo, Tokyo and Venice.

In 2018, we asked him how he would describe his artistic philosophy. ‘Art for me is to express the invisible,’ he replied. ‘No morality, no values, no hierarchy can enter its field.’

When considering what his advice would be to younger artists, Padamsee paused. ‘I don’t think we are on a journey,’ he said eventually. ‘We are a presence, the here and the now. All that matters is that we have to deepen our existence.’

‘From beating the obscenity charges, to his forays into animation, film-making, computer-generated art and photography, the milestones in Padamsee’s life and career help describe the arc of modern Indian art history over the past seven decades,’ says Avari. 

‘Although his death is a great loss to the art world, he is survived by an impressive and diverse body of work, and the many artists and friends he inspired and mentored over the years.’

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