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Celebrated and cerebral


It is difficult to define an artist like Akbar Padamsee. He has been acknowledged as a self-defined "grammarian of art". He is articulate, a non-conformist thinker with a predominant philosophical streak. His explorations of art as academia have proved as fertile as his interfaces with Sanskrit linguistics or Chinese painting.

All the world's his classroom even today. At 72, he has exhibited a versatile range of his colour graphics at the Pundole Art Gallery at Mumbai and the Gallery Sumukha at Bangalore last year. Over five decades, Padamsee has relied on more conventional media and themes to express his creativity, celebrating cerebration through both his work and his conversation.

In conversation with Padamsee, his keen eyes glinting with receptivity behind gold-rimmed glasses, chance encounters with the unexplored seem to be the norm, the touchstones of his artistic quest. To joust with him is to learn through the perceptions of a darting mind on an untiring, unerring journey into the unknown.

Trained at the Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay, Padamsee left for Paris in 1951. For the next 15 years, Paris and Bombay became the twin bases of Padamsee's artistic life, until he returned to live in India in 1967.

His life took another pivotal turn in 1969-70, when he was awarded the prestigious Nehru Fellowship. During its tenure, he explored film as an alternate means of expression, resulting in four short films.

One of them was SYZGY, which animates a set of his geometrical drawings.

His work includes the hotly-debated Christ series, the lauded and raw nudes and the almost atavistic series of heads. Are all of these in touch with his current computer graphics? Or the strong and sensual nude studies and faces in oils on canvas that will mark a future phase at Pundole Art Gallery from March 2001?

Padamsee, in an informal interview at his flat in Bangalore, proves to be surefooted on the discovery trail, his quicksilver mind a clue to the essential man behind the mystique.

Here is Padamsee, in a wide-ranging discussion beyond the recent computer graphics that he shared with the viewing public.

Excerpts from the interview with ADITI DE.

How did computer graphics come into your life?

I HAVE always been a graphic artist. I have done etchings and lithography. I worked with Stanley Hayter in Paris. I was always interested in printmaking, though never exclusively.

This computer came into our house two years ago because my wife chose a sophisticated computer. But after a week or 10 days, she got fed up. (Laughing) We had even hired a teacher. One day, she just walked off in the middle of the lesson. The poor teacher looked at me and said, "Why don't you learn something?" I said, "The only thing that interests me is form." He said, "I know how to make an ice-cream cone." So, we decided to start there. I asked him to show me all the tools in CorelDRAW. So, we went to the hexagon, the spiral, the grid. Next, I asked him how one puts colour on. I took 15 days to work on this. That is when I made my first graphic, which is in this exhibition.

But I am not interested in computer graphics beyond a certain sphere. What I have done is to build up a library of CDs. There is one on human anatomy that has a skeleton that I can turn any way. I can even change the hands and feet. I know how the rib cage will look from a certain angle.

(Reflectively) Thames and Hudson had advertised a World

Encyclopaedia of Art. I went to Paris to look for Picasso. I came across my name there. How did my name get there? I found a full biography, but not very exciting. I wondered: where did they get this information? It was from the Festival of Indian Art in London. Raza, Husain, eight or 10 of us are there, but there were no visuals of our art works. When I bought it, I had no idea that I would be in it.

Computer-generated graphics are a very popular tool with young artists today ....

When I started working, I was very curious to see what other artists were doing. So, I started looking about, even visiting certain people. But most of them use the scanner. (Passionately) What is the use of that? You might as well take a painting, scan it, then make a print of it. It does not make sense to me.

One other thing. I have not used the mouse to draw. I only use the mouse to select, to pinpoint. I like geometry. I thought I would use equations. What are the readymade equations? The simplest is y=x or y=x2. In a book, I found Bezier's curve, which allows you to make any kind of curve you want. It is a curve you can recognise by its sections.

Once I got a graph, I transferred it to the computer. But it was very complex. You need a lot of mathematics to feed the graph into the computer.

At the back of my mind, I always wanted to find a way of designing my own equations, but practically, not numerically. (Smiling) Otherwise, I will need to study algebra all over again.

I thought I would generate forms. One way to do this was to superimpose two forms. You can impose a square in a circle, and get into greater complexities. In order to avoid undue labour, I thought I would make a separate vocabulary of forms. So, I kept designing forms on a CD, without the idea of making a graphic. Sometimes, I take a form from this CD, then design around it.

In terms of artistry and design, how would you compare computer graphics with traditional printmaking?

This is far superior. Take the variations you can get in terms of printing. The shift in tonalities from here to here. (Pointing to a print) If I was doing etching, I would have to use aquatint, then bite it and scrape it. It would be so laborious, I would be working two or three days without getting this degree of finesse.

No, I do not miss the touch of the hand on paper because, even in etching, it is done with stone. These effects would be very difficult for an etcher or lithographer to achieve. Look at this line, where the tone goes from white to black. The artist has to intervene with the designing. The choice of shading. the choice is mine if I wanted this dark and this light, the play of space is mine.

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 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 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 Stout State University, Wisconsin, in 1965 (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 Mumbai, I chose to speak on the Eleven Senses, based on ancient Indian 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 about were the latest things in art ... I said, "The latest thing in art is that painting is out!" I was disgusted.

Can you visualise a time when art teachers will be rendered a redundant?

Already, we find advertisements about CD-Roms on physics, chemistry and so on. So, if these come out on art, we will not need these teachers any more. We could have Picasso explaining to us. Because Picasso used very few words, but highly imaged words.

There is a funny story about when Jean Cocteau once showed his drawings to Picasso, who said, "Something is missing." What? "Salt and pepper."

On TV, I saw an interview in which Picasso, who is a Spaniard, was talking to a Frenchman. You know how vain the French are. Asked what French had given to him culturally, he said, "Camembert!" (Laughing heartily) That is cheese!" The right answer from someone who has shaped the culture of France. Besides, France is known to be an agricultural country ...

I was once invited to a meeting in Delhi about the new Gandhi school at Wardha. I said, "You are now in the electronic era, so you do not need buildings. Nobody needs to come to school. You can design and relay the courses. The student does not need to meet the teacher, except by appointment."

A teacher from America confirmed this. He said, "I do not go to class every day. But I am busier than when I went to class because anybody can access me at home. They ask me questions and I reply."

Do you still feel enriched by your exploration of Sanskrit? In what direction is it taking you?

You know the Rasa Sutra? The rasa is produced by the sahayog. Now, the word is anubhav, what you experience, while anubhaav is what you receive as experience. This distinction is not made in European aesthetics at all. When you see a painting, yours is anubhaav, the experience received.

Or take the voyage from a to aa - a is an interior sound, while aa is an exterior sound. The voyage from anubhav to anubhaav is the aesthetic experience. When we look at a painting, which is the result of somebody else's mind, who are we to experience it unless we internalise it? This is a deepening of the sutra.

Of all the media that you have explored down the years, which was the most satisfying to you personally?

Film. During my Nehru Fellowship. I had started a film workshop in Bombay. We had a compact group of eight or 10 and we worked together for four years. The group included Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, K. K. Mahajan, Nalini Malani, Gieve Patel (he is a pschyo-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 he 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 for close-ups.

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 ...

Does your exposure to film continue?

Well, I have recently bought a digital video camera. I am shooting my own paintings and keeping a record of them.

I also use it for models. If you take a school of art model, they are trained to sit still, which is no use at all. If I take a professional model, they cannot sit still at all. So, I shoot them from every angle, going around - standing, sitting, lying down, turning ... Later, I draw while watching the video on my TV set. I have superb drawings and paintings from it, which you will see at my next exhibition.

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