As he embarks upon his 10th decade, one of the great figures of Indian post-war art reflects on a career defined by free-thinking and experimentation. Three of the artist’s works are offered in New York on 12 September
‘You need the mind of a mathematician and poet to be a painter,’
explains Akbar Padamsee, now 90 years old, when we meet him in his studio in his native Mumbai.
Throughout a career that has spanned six decades, Padamsee has remained fiercely experimental and individualistic. Working in a variety of media, from oil painting to watercolours, sculpture, printmaking and photography, he has concentrated on a few chosen genres: prophets (including Jesus Christ), heads, couples, still-life, grey works, metascapes and mirror images.
An obsession with depicting the human face has been clear from his earliest paintings. As he has explained, ‘Expression is all the more powerful when it is about a solitary figure’.
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.
Upon his return to Mumbai 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 explains. ‘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, will be offered
on 12 September in the South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art 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 1960, Padamsee was awarded
To date, Padamsee has been the subject of several solo exhibitions in India, culminating in retrospectives in Mumbai and New Delhi. He has 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.
After all these years, how would be describe his artistic philosophy? ‘Art for me is to express the invisible,’ he replies. ‘No morality, no values, no hierarchy can enter its field.’
When asked for his advice to younger generations, Padamsee pauses to think. ‘I don’t think we are on a journey,’ he ventures eventually. ‘We are a presence, the here and the now. All that matters is that we have to deepen our existence.’