FACE TO FACE, Akbar Padamsee resembles the academician rather than the artist at first sight. For his eyes are keenly in quest of insights behind his gold-rimmed glasses. For his mind veers down avenues of thought with amazing grace. For his life appears to be an open classroom, where encounters with the unknown result in illuminating lessons.
Padamsee, at 65, has a reputation that precedes him. As a philosopher, as much as a painter. As a scholar of Sanskrit linguistics. As a creator of mathematical colour graphs. And as a self-defined ‘grammarian of art.’
Trained at the Sir J J School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai), Padamsee ventured abroad ~ in pursuit of knowledge ~ in the early 1950s. With Paris and Mumbai as his dual home bases since then, his eclectic obsessions have led him down rare and rambling routes ~ delving into Chinese painting, discovering the planes of African sculpture, wandering through the treasures of Italian art. Yet, underlying each phase runs a river of questions, arising from an unbounded desire to seek, to find, to know.
As a result, Padamsee’s work seems like a celebration of cerebration. Whether expounded as ‘metascapes’ or landscapes of the mind, or the much-debated Christ series, or the lauded and luminous nudes. No matter what the theme, the form is subjugated to what he defines as the ‘look’ ~ the underlayers of depth, of emotion, of revelation.
The ‘look’ pervades the series of heads by Padamsee exhibited at the Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore (July 8 to 27, 1993). The paintings, in Chinese ink on handmade paper, are ascetic yet emotive, recalling an atavistic lode inherent in all humankind. The stain, the stroke, the wash, the line are suffused with undercurrents, with thoughts unspoken, with questions unasked.
Seeking to demystify the man behind the mask, one chances upon a sure-footed explorer into uncharted realms, whose open-ended answers spark debate and ignite initiations afresh. He does not shy away from ideas or argument. Quietly, with humour and without dogmaticism, he shares both perceptions and views.
Because, with this artist who carries his fame almost reluctantly, the mind is eventually the man.
To encounter Akbar Padamsee in a 90-minute interview is to be refreshed by frequent surges of discovery, as the following excerpts illustrate:
Do you see yourself as part of the mainstream of 20th century modern art?
I don’t know what the mainstream is. It’s so vast and varied, and everybody seems to think they are the centre of the world. (Laughing) When Gauguin was leaving France, all his friends said: ‘Why are you going to Tahiti when Paris is the centre of the world?’ He replied, ‘The centre of the world is in my brain.’ Fantastic answer! Every painter should feel that way.
Having lived 20-odd years of your life in Paris, do you feel cut off from your Indian roots?
I went to Paris when I was 21. Luckily, my father ~ a businessman ~ had left me an independent source of income. So, that’s how I went to Europe on my own, not on a scholarship.
Almost all the access I have to India is through books, through literature, through reading. I’ve been studying Sanskrit for the past 15 years, reading texts in the original. The Gita. The Vedas. The Upanishads. To me, that is India.
It all began with a chance encounter in Paris. I came across Vivekananda’s Rajayoga in an American bookshop. He wrote it in English for the western reader. It was so beautiful that I learnt all the sutras by heart.
I said to myself, ‘One day, I must study Sanskrit and read it in the original.’ Twenty years later, I asked my professor at the J.J. School if he’d help me to learn Sanskrit. He asked a Dr. Godbole, who said, ‘I hope you know Devnagiri.’ I didn’t. ‘Then, how do I teach you?’ he asked. (Eyes crinkling with humour). So, I started from scratch, without even knowing the script. I came very late to Sanskrit, which had an advantage because I’m constantly surprised. I read English. I read French. I’m so used to the script that I even prefer Sanskrit in the Roman script!
Has all your life been a quest for learning? Perhaps you’d define it differently….
No, it’s absolutely true. I read for several hours every day. I’m very fond of it. A great source of richness. It gives me access to knowledge. I’m very fond of studying.
Is that a childhood trait? Or one evolved over the years?
I had a very strange school life. I was daydreaming all the time upto the age of 14. When the exams came, my elder brother helped me to study. Maybe I was saved from the kind of education doled out in those schools.
My father died when I was 11. My elder brother, six years my senior, introduced me to good books. Shakespeare. Psycho-analysis. At 14, I read introductory lectures on psycho-analysis, dream interpretations, even the psycho-pathology of everyday life, not quite realizing what it was about. It was like tasting in advance what was going to come.
Besides daydreaming, did you doodle? Or sketch?
There was never a time when I didn’t draw, even at three or four. My father had this idea that business should enter your blood. Every Thursday, he’d take us to his office ~ to do whatever we wanted, even play! So, I’d draw in his account books.
(Chuckling) We met somewhere in the middle. I’d been going towards June from December. Laughing, he said, ‘What have you done? Look, if you have to, draw in the margins.’ So, I did, and left the page for his accounts.
How did your stay in France shape you?
To me, the most extraordinary thing about life there was the access to art. Even at the J. J. School, I’d read about Chinese and Egyptian art, my first loves. But it was not until I went to the Louvre that I could see the Egyptian section, the Chinese paintings.
But my great discovery was negro sculpture. The originals were most extraordinary. So radically different from European art. They touched a dimension in me that European art left cold.
I’ve lived in Paris. I recognise that Cezanne is a great artist, but even he leaves me cold. I’m not involved in his work. But when I see African sculpture, I’m deeply moved. But I do have a great fondness for Italian art. Giotto. Piero della Francesca. Cimabue…
(With irritation) In some way, I feel history has been falsified. The Europeans have come up with a cut-off point, the Greeks. The European ego says, ‘We owe nothing to any other tradition but ours.’ No European book on grammar even mentions Panini or Indian linguistics! This is a reflection of not art, but politics. It has nothing to do with culture or thought; it has to do with political decisions. When they talk of world art, there is only Europe for them, with north America on the fringe. But then, they should refer to western art, not world art. The world doesn’t belong to them.
What of the influence of your travels abroad? Has it had an impact on your work?
About a year and a half ago, I went to China with Ramachandran and Nilima Sheikh. But it made a world of difference because, though I knew the theory of Chinese painting, I’d never seen a Chinese painter use the brush. I even asked a gentleman who was not holding the brush right, ‘If you don’t mind, this is not the way to hold the brush.’ He said, ‘When I teach, I show them the classical method, the way you are showing it. But, when I paint, I hold it like this…’
According to the principles of Chinese painting, the yin-yang, you must load the brush in water first. That’s the feminine force. Then, in the ink. But in China, this isn’t the way they do it now, though that’s how the method originally evolved. They explained, ‘The paper we use is very thin. If we use water, the paper will tear.’
How does Indian art today measure up in the world context?
I feel contemporary Indian art is very important. Only we’ve no throwing power. I’m bombarded with European books, American books, but there is no book on Indian art that measures up. Our publications are miserable. The paper is bad, the ink is bad…
So, we have nothing to show because the infrastructure is not there. (Reflectively) But I don’t think we’ve anything to be scared about. The work is there. Our time will come.
How do you feel about the recent boom in the Indian art market?
(Sighing) To my regret, the painters who’ve got the highest prices are mostly mediocre artists. But there’s nothing you can do about it because bad taste prevails. In the market, those who’re buying have no idea of what art is. They value art according to their measuring rod, which is of no great consequence.
What would you pinpoint as the basic problems facing Indian art schools today?
The problem is not teaching, it is learning. If you can teach somebody how to learn, then you have achieved something. Most schools have instructors, not teachers. They are just there for the job, or for the money. (Reflectively) You cannot really teach anyone art. But if you can draw somebody’s attention to a book, that is learning. One of the most incredible books that has appeared in the last 50 years in Paul Klee’s The Thinking Eye. It is in two volumes; the other is Nature of Nature. Another great book is by Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian who was part of the Bauhaus at Weimar.
The way art schools enforce discipline is by making students work. There is no time to ask questions or to think. It is a magnificent method to stop you from thinking. In some prisons, they give you certain drugs to make you sleep. This is a different way of drugging you with work, so that you do not ask questions.
Are you still active in art education?
I love talking and teaching, but the opportunities are not there. The last chance was at the Stout State University, Wisconsin, in 1967 (on a Rockefeller III Fund fellowship), where I was teaching about Paul Klee.
After a week, I was called by the department chairman, who said, “There is a complaint that you are teaching all the wrong things.” I asked others on the art faculty, “Let us compare notes. Do you know The Thinking Eye and Nature of Nature?” They did not. “Do you know that Mondrian has written a play?” They did not. “Do you know Kandinsky’s spiritual notes?” They did not.
So, I said to the chairman, “Sorry to say this, but your staff is ignorant. Your library lacks these books. I think you need to stock these books and ask your teachers to read.” It is very strange. To go to America… and find this.
(Sadly) Once, at the Artists’ Centre at Bombay, I chose to speak on the Eleven Senses, based on ancient India treatises. There was not the slightest interest or curiosity or astonishment in the audience. So, I said, “Either you are very aware of this and I am saying nothing new. When I discovered this a few months ago, I was totally elated. Were you aware of this?”
No. What they wanted to hear was about the latest things in art… I said, “The latest thing in art is that painting is out!” I was disgusted.
How did you experience film during your Nehru Fellowship in 1969-70, when you set up the Vision Exchange workshop in Bombay for artists and filmmakers? And made four short films, including SYZGY, which animates a set of your geometrical drawings?
We had a compact group of eight or ten, and we worked together for four years. The group included Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, K.K. Mahajan, Nalini Malani, Gieve Patel (he’s a psycho-analyst)… They are all very well-known now.
Once, Mani Kaul wanted mist for a scene. But there was none at the location. Mani said, “Do not worry, just see the results.”
He shot normally, but when we viewed the film, it was all misty. He had pre-shot the reel against a dark wall with special lighting for ‘mist,’ then re-shot it with all the characters. (With animation) Gieve Patel wanted to shoot the Irani restaurant chairs. “I should see only the chair, nothing else,” he told K. K. Mahajan, who got exactly that by using a telephoto lens.
During the fellowship, we had only a vague aim: if people of different disciplines work together, what will happen? I thought we could educate each other. So, Mani Kaul learnt to do etchings. I learnt about photography and film-making…
Should reviewers bridge the gap between the artist and the public?
(Thoughtfully) Quite often, these people can write well, but they don’t have the right response, the knowledge, the sensibility to react. They confer their esteem upon a work that is unworthy. That creates confusion in the minds of readers. But that is a world problem. It is not specific to India.
Now, a place like Paris is very commercial. The art dealers have got the critics in their pay. With each magazine, they say, ‘We’ll give you so much of publicity per year.’ It’s an annual contract. It’s understood that all the exhibitions at the gallery will be well-reviewed. It’s done very subtly. The gallerists ask the critics, ‘Will you write the introduction for the artist’s catalogue?’ And they pay so well that it is disproportionate to his work. The rest is understood.
What phases has your work evolved through? Has your focus, your methods, your motivations changed?
I’d rather talk of some of my permanent preoccupations. Certain obsessions have remained, though the mode of inquiry has changed.
I’ve always been interested in the head and the look. Not the shape of the eye, but the shape of the look. The look has got no form. What is the form of a look? It is the formless aspect of the form. Why does a certain form move you? It’s not because of the form, no matter what its dimensions. It’s something else in it.
(With conviction) I’m very taken up by these three words ~ yantra, mantra and tantra. The suffix tra means instrument. When the mind is the instrument, I say mantra. When the conceptual side is the instrument, I say yantra. When action is important, it’s tantra. Today, people are only interested in doing it. Tantra. They only say, ‘Tell me how to do it.’
The grammar of art fascinates me. People keep saying, ‘Why do you make paintings like these? They’ll never sell.’ But that’s not my concern. I’ve never made a painting with a view to selling. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell.
In this series (at Sakshi), I’m inquiring into how to use a brush. (Forcefully) If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I haven’t done it so that you like it. I’ve not done it to please you or flatter you or tease you. That’s not my job…You see, I depend on very few people. If I have one collector, I’m saved.
Is there any one medium you find especially satisfying?
I’ve tried many media, but I always come back essentially to ink and brush. Because it is the most direct, the most simple. And I also like to take the unknown into confidence. If I work with brush and ink, I can’t completely do what I want. The ink takes over, the brush takes over, the paper takes over. All that is very welcome.
Some people say, ‘Isn’t that accidental?’ I say, ‘No, that is the unknown. You must have a partnership with the unknown. You are doing something to invite the unknown to express itself.’
But the unknown is so much a part of our daily lives….
In fact, by rejecting the unknown, we are impoverishing ourselves. ‘I don’t trust this. How did this happen?’ Trust it; it’s the only thing that matters. All that you think has been done wilfully is all nonsense. It is only this moment that is the truth. You are rejecting the truth. For what? You’re not trusting yourself. It’s a gift that comes to us, and you’re saying, ‘No, out! I want all the mediocrity of daily existence.’ That is the dross.
What are the greatest rewards of your life as an artist?
The joy of working. As Abhinava Gupta, the 9th century philosopher, once said, ‘I worship because of the rasaswad.’ There is no reason for distance during the act of worship. In the abstract, there is no duality. It is advait, it is oneness, until you are caught in birth and death, pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness.
The moment I dip my brush in black ink and put it on white paper, that is duality. After the rasaswad, what more than I ask for?
It’s not just painting. I love looking at work also. And reading. Watching films. Anything that gives me food for thought.
Like your favourite lines from the Upanishads?
Yes, I was very moved by these words from the Isa Upanishad. There’s a formlessness about great poetry that moves you. It’s the look, not the eye.
Addressing the sun, the speaker says, ‘Remove the glare, so that I can look at you face-to-face because I’m the very person that’s yonder; I’m the sun myself. When the heat of the sun reaches me, let the body be reduced to ashes; but may the mind remember, remember, remember… Om shanti, shanti, shanti…’
(Originally published in Sunday Herald, July 1993)