The Asian Age
‘ IF YOU DON’T UNLEARN, YOU WILL NEVER LEARN’
One of India’s greatest modern artists, Akbar Padamsee, takes a walk down memory lane to tell the story of how he found himself
We were called the ‘ masters’ while contemporary art was what youngsters did. The categorisation did affect us for a year or two, but we were not bothered –– Akbar Padamsee Artist
When I was on my way to spend an afternoon with the legendary painter Akbar Padamsee, I had very little idea about how it would turn out. Would it be a discussion on modern art, replete with its history and theories, or would it be a routine Q&A — I didn’t know what to expect. So, as I rang the doorbell, while my mind was furiously speculating the possibilities, one can imagine my surprise to see the man himself come to receive me.
Barring a voice that is barely audible and slow footsteps due to a pain in his knees, Padamsee’s youthful enthusiasm betrays his age — he’s 85 years old. Once through with our cursory hellos, he asks me, “Would you like to see my new painting?” By the time I could get over the fact that Padamsee actually did ask me the question ( as if I would say ‘ no’) I found myself following his delicate footsteps into his study. What I saw inside was a 15 feet long, freshly painted metascape, one of Padamsee’s signature styles and one that was yet to be displayed to the world. Padamsee began to talk about the painting and just like that we were already ten minutes into the “interview” without me even realising it.
The artist had set the tone for the afternoon that was to be of not questions and answers but stories. And his storytelling paints as vivid images as his brushstrokes do. He moves from anecdotes to comments to confessions to trivia without a hiccup. “When I was about four or five, I was drawing but I had no idea what art was all about. We used to subscribe to the Illustrated Weekly and I would just copy the images I saw. My father was a businessman and I would visit his office on holidays and sketch on the margins of his account books to pass my time. When he finally saw those books, he exclaimed, ‘ Oh my God! How am I supposed to do the accounts now?’ But he never shouted at me.” Padamsee got admitted to St Xavier’s school in Mumbai and it was in his fourth standard when he came across his first drawing teacher Shirsat. “I would watch him paint during recess and seeing my enthusiasm, he offered to give me special lessons. “We would go to Chowpatty beach and Charni Road garden and draw the trees, then we would sit at stations and draw human figures.”
It was Shirsat who first introduced him to nudist paintings. “I was 14 years old when I went for my first class. I had never seen a nude woman. I was stunned,” he smiles. At that time, who knew that he would grow up to become a legendary name in nudist art. In his later years, he even got arrested for his paintings on charges of obscenity. “The reason I got arrested in 1954 is due to Morarji Desai. The person who would go to nightclubs in Paris to see nude women got me arrested for obscenity. These are the fellows who are perverted. If you want to make love, make love… who is stopping you… but don’t resort to perversity,” he says.
After Xavier’s, he joined the J. J. School of Arts and things started to get more serious for him. Throughout his student years there and even years later, as a teacher, Padamsee campaigned for the importance of reading. When his headmaster shut down the library calling it a waste of time, an undeterred Padamsee joined the Royal Asiatic Library. “I still retain my membership there,” he beams.
Padamsee’s theoretical knowledge impressed his friend S. H. Raza, a member of the Progressive Artists’ Group at that time. “After I passed out of J. J., Raza said to me that he had a scholarship to go to Paris, why don’t I join him. Maybe he had meant it in a light way but I thought it was a fantastic idea. Because on my own, I couldn’t go beyond Bori Bunder,” he laughs. “We left for Paris in 1951 in a ship called Straitchmager. We shared a cabin and had many interesting conversations. He knew more about the technique of painting while I knew of its history because I was in the library all the time. He was surprised to see how much I knew about art and became more friendly when he saw that I was really interested,” he says.
Padamsee has fond memories of M. F. Husain too. “Husain was always very helpful.” He shares an anecdote, “Once when he came to Paris and I had gone to meet him, he asked me, ‘ teri gaadi kahan hai ?’ I told him, ‘ gaadi nahi hai’. So he said to me, ‘ I will put wheels under your feet’ and gave me the keys to his Volkswagon. As I was driving it around, the police stopped me and said that no duty was paid on the car!” The memory still seems to startle Padamsee. “It was a Z plate and even Husain was unaware of it,” Padamsee laughs.
The most silent artist of the Raza, Husain and Padamsee trio says, “We were called the ‘ masters’ while contemporary art was what youngsters did. The categorisation did affect us for a year or two, but we were not bothered.” Of young artists, Padamsee says, “Their works are made for the market. The temptation ( of big bucks) is there. Who is going to wait 20 years to become famous? But it’s working for them.” He credits the auctioneers for bringing Indian art into the global market. “Bids are invited from all over the world and price often goes up due to egos. But it benefits us,” he smiles.
Padamsee is known for his versatility with different artistic mediums such as sculpting and photography. “But I don’t do sculpting anymore — it’s too much effort. I am 85 and need to take care of my health,” he smiles. “When you get into something new, you have to unlearn a lot of things. Else you won’t learn. Every time you make a discovery, things get undiscovered. You must learn to reject,” he adds.
Over the two hours we spent, every time before moving on to the next trivia or anecdote, Padamsee would offer a disclaimer: “Many things that I am telling you are irrelevant. But this is how I found myself.” But as he took me on a walk though his world of memories, I realised that any set of prepared questions would always be irrelevant to what the master artist has to offer.
Padamsee’s exhibition on Giclée prints is on till March 4 at India Fine Art Gallery,