Akbar Padamsee’s apartment at Prabhadevi has no airs, nothing that tells you the man who lives here is one of the most respected and sought after artists in India today. His wife Bhanumati, an art historian, works quietly in the bedroom. The household help, who opens the door, directs me to the study where Padamsee is seated on a chair, wearing a white T-shirt and pyjamas. The barefoot octogenarian is a far cry from the image of a world-renowned artist whose works often fetch more than Rs 1 crore at premier auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
As we start talking, I have to strain my ears to hear his mellow voice. But soon I’m riveted by the story of his life and how he authorised six of his best works to be made into Giclee canvas prints to be on display for the first time. Giclee canvas printing is a technological art form that creates high-end prints on imported canvasses treated with a special veneer. Here’s what he shared with SUNDAY MiD DAY:
What prompted you to convert six of your masterpieces into Giclee prints and showcase them for the first time?
Actually, it was Penny Patel, partner of India Fine Art Gallery who approached me with this idea. Penny says the works of other artists that have been converted into Giclee prints earlier have got an amazing response. Converting any artist’s paintings into prints is an expensive process as you can do it with the works of only top calibre artists who use vibrant colours. It’s a cumbersome method where you have to get the shades right. This process took us a year and a half.
Going back to your childhood, how did you get involved in painting?
My father was a businessman, so I would often go to his office and draw on the pages of his account books. Then when I was in class four, I used to enjoy watching my drawing teacher Mr Shirsat paint. Soon, he started coming home on Sundays to teach me. I joined the JJ School of Art after matriculation. By the time I graduated, artists like SH Raza, FN Souza and MF Husain had formed the Mumbai Progressive Group in 1948. Raza who had come to our college to deliver a lecture and I became friends. He asked me in a light vein whether I would accompany him to France, where the French government had invited him to showcase his works. Both of us exhibited together in Paris in 1952. I showed solo in India for the first time at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1954.
In 1954, you faced state censorship on your nude paintings. Today, artistes in various fields are facing censorship. How do you feel about the current state of affairs?
Perversion lies in the mind of the person who raises an objection against your works. There was a lot of hullabaloo about my nude paintings, thanks to Dr Morarji Desai, later newspapers reported that Desai would go to night clubs in Paris during his trips to France. What do you say about this kind of hypocrisy? As artists, we are involved in our works. But in today’s scenario, people who are imposing censorship actually crave publicity.
You recently showcased a series of new metascapes (mirror-like images) inspired by the works of Kalidasa at the India Art Fair. How did you get inspired by Kalidasa and coined the term metascapes?
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. I was so impressed by the verse that I wanted to paint it. But that was impossible so I painted all the elements and coined the term metascapes as they are metaphorical landscapes.
What prompted you to learn Sanskrit and how did it influence your work?
I started learning Sanskrit in 1956 when I had to teach students at JJ School of Art. I studied it for 15 years. Earlier I would see Indian miniatures and landscapes as a foreigner but after learning the language, it helped me understand them better.
You are a painter, a sculptor and also a photographer. How have each of these media influenced your work in the other field and your overall personality?
I have always wanted to learn new things. Through sculpting, I learnt how to handle clay and use my fingers as much as my eyes. Painting is two-dimensional while sculpting is three-dimensional, you see it in every aspect. I started photography as I couldn’t find models for paintings at JJ School of Art and got hold of an agent who found me film extras. Initially, I used their pictures for drawings but then gradually started enjoying photography. I learnt how the human body could be transformed with the way you work with light. Today when I paint a nude, it helps me take a different dimension.
In your career spanning six decades, you have been fiercely experimental and individualistic.
When I want to do something new, I change the medium. Also, why should we copy from the past? I want to add new things to art.
Your wife is an art historian. Is she involved in your work?
I incorporate her comments about my work if I feel they are valid. I go by insight.
What kind of a relationship do you share with your daughter Raissa who stays in Paris?
She works with the cultural affairs ministry of France and organises art exhibitions. We often exchange notes on the phone about what is happening in the art scene across the globe.
For a world-class artist, you lead a very simple life.
I have been brought up in a frugal manner. We owned a house at Lonavla. Whenever we would go there during my childhood, my father would travel by first class while my mother, my siblings and I would take the general class. He would say, ‘You have to earn it.’
How do you relax after a long hard day?
I enjoy watching Sa Re Ga Ma Pa as it gives a platform to new singers to showcase their talent. I wish something similar would happen in art. But I doubt how artists would take to it as they resent being taught. They feel their individuality is affected.
What changes do you see in art today?
Today’s young artists make art especially for the market as they want quick money and fame. Also, now art is available through various mediums. It’s too early to say what the future beholds, we can only wait and watch!
Along with the Giclee canvas prints, Akbar Padamsee’s original works of oil on canvas and lithographs will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the India Fine Art Gallery, Tardeo from February 20 to March 4.