The occasional sepias of autumn
In a departure from convention, the Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, recently celebrated five decades of Akbar Padamsee's career by mounting a major exhibition of his works on paper. RANJIT HOSKOTE comments.
Apparently remote figures...
AT 76, Akbar Padamsee is a magisterial presence in the domain of post-colonial Indian art, his imaginative universe identified with figures splendid in their hieratic isolation, landscapes that transcend local bearings, and couples so complete in their communion that they disdain the annotation of identity. In an admirable departure from convention, the Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, recently celebrated five decades of the artist's career by mounting a major exhibition, not of his canvases, but of his works on paper. This retrospective mobilised, for the first time, a substantially large and varied body of Padamsee's drawings, watercolours and mixed-media improvisations executed between 1951 and the present (the earlier date marks the year in which the raw young member of the Progressive Artists' Group left Mumbai for Paris, spending 16 years there, mastering his chosen idiom and coming to maturity). The exhibition also provided the occasion to release a handsome volume reproducing more than 400 of these works, introduced with an essay by the Bangalore-based critic Marta Jakimowicz.
By choosing to mount a retrospective of works on paper, the Pundole Art Gallery has boldly rejected the hierarchy between "major" and "minor" forms. This has had the salutary effect of proposing an alternative to the stereotype of the great master suffocated by his reserve. When exhibited at the amplitude of a 50-year record, Padamsee's works on paper reveal themselves as the result of his commitment to an autonomous practice that has been explored consistently, and not treated as an offhand aside or a holiday from a grander vocation. Indeed, while he is often regarded as a conservative artist, confined within the hard edges of formalism, Padamsee's practice has been varied and manifold. Viewers fascinated by his activity in the genres of figure and landscape often ignore the parallel journey of discovery he has made, compelled by the impulse to experiment. During 1969 to 1970, he improvised with film; in 1982, he innovated with Chinese ink-and-brush techniques, then devoted himself to metal sculpture. In the early 1990s, he embarked on a series of drawings, heads and nudes, rendered in charcoal and linseed oil. Unusually for an artist of his stature, Padamsee displayed a willingness to risk failure or ridicule in 1998 to 1999, when he engaged with computer graphics, momentarily exchanging pigment for software and canvas for printout.
Discovery, for an artist, is rarely the much-advertised miracle of serendipity. It results, more often, from patient acts of rehearsal, a preparation to receive the visitation of the image. "The first strokes create a duality between the mark and the marked, positive and negative space, dark and light," says the artist, describing his process. "But the effort is to achieve an advaita of action, by which doer, subject and process become one, and overcome the inevitable duality introduced by the act of mark-making." Even so, says the artist, he cannot foretell whether the stipples and washes he enacts on the gradually covered surface will deliver themselves as a head study, a nude, an approach to the portrait, or a landscape. Padamsee's avowed need for a strict conceptual discipline underwrites his repeated engagement with the same themes and materials, each time coaxing new effects, unexpected turns of pictorial phrase, moments of surprise: releases of energy.
...through which we confront our own predicaments.
As part of his discipline, an asceticism by means of which he confronts his tendency towards sensuous opulence, he limits himself to a few elements in his works on paper. He renounces the epiphanies of colour, refines the intimacies of line, allows for the load of water or the density of pigment to saturate a surface. Wash, edge, stipple and grain serve him well; these basic categories are as peculiar, perhaps, as the building blocks with which the contemporary particle physicist renders the world: up, down, charm, strange. Like the particle physicist's vision, the painter's, too, offers itself to the mind only by degrees.
Blurred, fleeting glimpses of the body animate these drawings and watercolours: hands translated as X-ray moments; the spine stretched out in pleasure like the languid margin of a landscape. The figure dances towards and away from the net of strokes, smudges and stipples that produces it: we see it in abandon, and in repose, striking a pose, or caught off-guard, inhabiting a ground that shifts without warning from the carnal to the transcendent. With equal felicity, the landscape's contours seduce us into imagining the warmth of the body at rest, in movement.
Padamsee delights in the greys of graphite, the blacks of charcoal, the occasional sepias of watercolour: these are only nominally monochromatic, for within each shade dwell others, which yield themselves only to the attentive eye. The artist savours the sensuous experiences that announce themselves as he works, variously, with Chinese brush or pen; crayon, ink, or watercolour; on different kinds of paper, each with its specific texture and thickness. He recalls the joy of running a line through grain, the percussion of a pen struck on paper, private experiences that often leave no trace in the publicly exhibited work; on the other hand, Padamsee's figures and heads attest to a subtle articulation of public concerns. Here, we find the heads of saints and martyrs, their features crystallising slowly, as though emerging from water or forming on a wet shroud. These are not portraits: Padamsee has always treated portraiture as a pretext, except in his unsuccessful Gandhi series (1997), in which, for the first and only time, he essayed a specific individual. The semblance of Christ or Sri Ramakrishna, exemplars with whom Padamsee has been preoccupied, is tempered with that of the Tollund Man resurrected from his sacrificial bog: a persona rendered beyond agony and ecstasy, but bearing the scars of both. Elsewhere in this suite, we encounter a sorrowing woman who might be a Madonna at the cross or the victim of a cyclone, a man gouged from darkness, and lovers surprised by their own reflections. In gazing at these apparently remote figures invoked by Akbar Padamsee, we suddenly confront our own predicaments, and are returned to the loom of time.
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