Akbar Padamsee 1928-2020: At 25, he was 25000

Updated: Jan 14, 2020, 11:50 IST | Team SMD | Mumbai

Ali Akbar Mehta recalls his journey growing up studying and understanding Akbar Padamsee's work.

A 2007 photograph of Akbar Padamsee at his Prabhadevi studio. Padamsee, a painter, sculptor, photographer, engraver and lithographer, passed away in Coimbatore on January 6. 
Pic /Getty Images
A 2007 photograph of Akbar Padamsee at his Prabhadevi studio. Padamsee, a painter, sculptor, photographer, engraver and lithographer, passed away in Coimbatore on January 6. Pic /Getty Images

I have a faint memory of the first time I met Akbar Padamsee, but I vividly remember the first time I saw his Metascape series in the late 90s, a decade and a half after they were conceived and executed... At the time, I didn't know that the controlled colours and formal lines indicated a Parisian influence, or his use of symbols like the sun and moon (as the two controllers of time), portrayed a deep engagement with Sanskrit texts such as Kalidasa's Abhijnanasakuntalam. To the 16-year-old me, they were sci-fi landscapes, of a distant world waiting to become known. They were 'cool'. Even more fascinating were his computer generated images that looked like psychedelic explorations totally out of character of an engaged mind. Akbar's many reputations preceded him, he was as much a philosopher as he was a painter, and a scholar of Sanskritic linguistics. He was known to be the creator of mathematical colour graphs in paintings and an aptly self-defined 'grammarian of art'.

"The subject matter is chosen to allow for the possibility of using colour,'' Padamsee says, "but there must be something uncanny there. Unless it is a disquieting, uncanny landscape I would reject it." This preoccupation with the "disquieting feeling" has been the foundation of Akbar's work. Not a roaring fire, but a slow kindling, rising to a pitch in intensity, ongoing to ensure that a deep inner glow will pass from image to image to counter all that which is stable, complacent and normative. Akbar's work explored the boundaries of the untested and untried more than any of the Progressives or contemporaries of his time, whether it be his exploration of digital media in the early 80s, or his use of paint in the juxtaposition of his abstract and figurative work. Akbar never shied away from unsettling himself, his subject, or his viewers in his search for a formal logic.

Akbar with Raell, Sudhir Patwardhan, Pheroza Godrej and Meher Pestonji at Essar House where Avid Learning was felicitating himAkbar with Raell, Sudhir Patwardhan, Pheroza Godrej and Meher Pestonji at Essar House where Avid Learning was felicitating him

But Akbar's work does not shout out at you. Like Akbar himself, his work is not loud. It waits patiently for you as a viewer to recognise it. Akbar, at 25, is quoted to have said that he is in fact 25,000. "A boy of 25 cannot paint. You need age and experience." And there is much in the logical discipline of his practice that I could only appreciate later in life. As an artist creating archives that orbit the notions of "violence, conflict and trauma", I find strength in his convictions that the role of art is to be an enquiry, a way of thinking. He often spoke about his practice in terms of building, of constructing a matrix. The point, he said, was to share a process rather than a message, where the artist and viewer were the ends of a spectrum rather than a polarity—the goal to co-invent a language and revel in it together.

Akbar devoted his life as an artist, who more than painting, sculpting, and filmmaking, excelled as a performer living "at split-levels-both doer and watcher, horse and rider the functions fused, boundaries merged, an interlocking of bodies, many and one." His life exemplified how we may separate our own biases from ourself, to embrace our many identities, our own pluralities—and those of the beings around us. If there is one thing to take away from Akbar's life and practice, is that individuals are of course thinking and feeling beings, but that criticality must be developed and nurtured as an ongoing, often lifelong process. Today, in times that are anything but stable, settled and/or normal, my namesake would probably like nothing more than to be with those at the helm of it all, although his was a quieter and softer revolution.

Ali Akbar Mehta is a Transmedia artist. Through his research-based transmedia practice, he creates immersive cyber archives that explore collective memetic histories, narratives of memory, identity, violence, and conflict. He is a founder-member and current Artistic Director of Museum of Impossible Forms, Helsinki, and pursuing a Doctoral Research program at the Contemporary Art Department at Aalto University, Helsinki.

Priyasri Patodia, Co-Founder and Owner of Priyasri Art Gallery

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Akbar definitely operated from a spiritual plane, a life state that was so high that I seldom saw him disturbed angry for long. He was able to control his thoughts, words and action several times. I have seen him composed in such challenging situations that I have wondered what courage does he have and how he is so wise.

He once told me most people are unhappy because they don't listen to their heart. For him, he said his dharma, his joy was his work, his art. Even the Sadguru once told him that it's meditation which is bringing all your senses to one point. He told the Sadguru that he felt one-pointed while painting and thus, he was in a state of meditation when he was painting.

And the one thing I will always remember is how much he enjoyed his tea. He'd visit the gallery often and we'd have hours-long conversation over several cups of chai. Like a child, he would also get very enthusiastic about his birthdays and the parties we'd throw for him.

Dadiba Pundole, gallerist, Pundole's

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This is a photograph of Padamsee with Masanori Fukuoka in front of a work in progress at the Glenbarra Art Museum in Japan. What struck me about him was that he was not just a great artist, but also a great mind.

Shireen Gandhy, director, Chemould Prescott Road

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Our family and Akbar go back many years. Years of friendship that extended beyond the borders of art. Akbar was one of the few artists who lived his life as one, but his interests went way beyond and conversations were never just about art. For instance, Akbar was an astute investor (few artists would have that skill). He enjoyed talking about money, property, shares and revelled in the fact that he did that well, too. He had a wicked sense of humour, never let a joke go past him... and conversations about art were steeped in philosophy. With Akbar there wasn't a dull moment. In short, the Indian art world, has lost a giant, but his greatness will continue to live through his wonderful metascapes, his strong figurations and his more gently rendered charcoal drawings. Go gently into the night, you giant among men. You will be missed by all those who loved you.

Sanjana Shah,Creative Director at Tao Art Gallery

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This picture was on the gallery's 13th anniversary seven years ago. We have had a long association with Akbar and this year, on our 20th anniversary we are showcasing his works as a tribute.

Ali Akbar Mehta is a Transmedia artist. Through his research-based transmedia practice, he creates immersive cyber archives that explore collective memetic histories, narratives of memory, identity, violence, and conflict. He is a founder-member and current Artistic Director of Museum of Impossible Forms, Helsinki, and pursuing a Doctoral Research program at the Contemporary Art Department at Aalto University, Helsinki

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