Akbar Padamsee: Body of Work

Rohit Chawla
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Akbar Padamsee has discovered a new colour and it adds an extra dimension to the structural compositions of his canvas

BHANU PADAMSEE IS miffed. I should have been at her doorstep at least three hours before, but my body had been so fatigued by over-zealous travelling, I was late. By the time I arrived, the sun, gauzed over by monsoonal clouds, had begun to slip into the horizon. I could see it being swallowed by the sea from the glass windows of Akbar Padamsee’s studio, an extension of his apartment on the eighth floor of a building in Prabhadevi. To be fair, I was in Mumbai to see family. On a whim I’d texted Bhanu, asking if she and Akbar might consent to have me over. Akbar, 87, had been recovering from a recent indisposition, Bhanu informed me, rendering him weak. But I was still welcome to visit.

Ten years had passed since I had last been inside Akbar’s studio. As I made my way in a cab via Tulsi Pipe Road, I remembered a line from Hans Ulrich Obrist’s book, Ways of Curating. ‘I was born in the studios of Fischli and Weiss,’ he had stated, crediting artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss with expanding his definition of art. It could easily be argued that, in the absence of befitting academic qualification that would otherwise have entitled me to write authoritatively about art, it was the time I’d spent as a novice researcher and transcriptionist assisting Bhanu Padamsee in the final stages of the production of Work in Language (2010)—still the most definitive monograph on Akbar Padamsee’s impressive career—that had marked me for life. Returning after a decade had all the significance of a homecoming. I was annoyed at my tardiness, for it cut short my time with them.

Akbar Padamsee wasn’t in his studio when I entered. Bhanu, his wife of 35 years, offered me tea while showing me an inscribed copy of his contemporary, the painter Gieve Patel’s latest collection of poems. The two of them had recently attended its launch in Mumbai. Several titles in the contents page had been highlighted. Akbar wanted Bhanu to mark the ones that Patel had recited then. I read it as among the many gestures that offered a glimpse into the marvellously interdependent nature of their relationship. I saw the title of one of my favourite poems by Patel, How Do You Withstand, Body? that I had read as an adolescent. Ten years ago, when I was frequenting his studio almost daily, I’d had a conversation with Akbar about it. He was perched on his wheelchair then, too, and he said something very profound and almost Buddhist about his ageing, ailing body that had been ravaged by cancer and other illnesses. “This is just a body; it shits, it farts, it suffers, but it is just a body,” hinting at the supremacy of every other faculty that one attributes to the mind that he preferred to detach from the material existence of his being. I wondered if this perspective was one he had adopted and honed from being a long-time disciple of Isha. Bhanu and he were both followers of Sadhguru.

He remembered me though, a fact that seemed significant to me. So much of my informal education had happened within the confines of this apartment. So much of my learning, my writerly vocabulary and its feminist nature had been shaped by my exposure to Bhanu’s library in her one-room basement space, to which she had generously granted me access when I was assisting her. When I’d sit in her study to help her edit the transcripts of Homi Bhabha’s extensive interview with Akbar, I’d spy on Akbar as he sat in his studio painting his metascapes. Bhanu had inadvertently taught me so much about what it meant to really love someone despite an almost 30-year age gap. For years, I’d wondered what it must have been like for a scholar like her with an artistic predisposition and background to dedicate herself to nurturing the man she loved, possibly at the expense of her own potential career. Now, ten years later, I realised she had managed to align her own research proclivities with her conviction for Akbar’s artistic merit and practice.

It seemed inevitable, given the sexist nature of most art historical writing, that her emotional, scholarly and physical labour would be erased from the official record that would inform his legacy; because art historians and curators have traditionally displayed a callous irreverence towards the manifold contributions of male artists’ wives to their trajectories, as if they were merely corollaries, side narratives, even when they themselves felt so differently about it. I thought of how devastated Ram Kumar was when his wife died. I’d recently met Ganesh Haloi in Kolkata who was only just beginning to revisit his studio while still mourning the loss of his wife. His daughter mentioned how dependent he had been on her to sustain his practice. I thought of Judith Reddy and how instrumental her labours have been in promoting and conserving her ageing husband, Krishna Reddy’s artistic legacy. I thought of Velu Viswanadhan’s long-time partner, Nadine Tarbouriech, who’d excused herself at one moment during my visit to his studio in Cholamandal, Chennai, some years ago, when she realised the lateness of the post-noon hour. She headed to the kitchen to prepare lunch. Art history has a way of delegitimising, through erasure, so much of the emotional labour that makes the very art it is canonising possible to begin with.

It was hard not to notice the fragility of Akbar’s body as his caretaker wheeled him into the studio. I couldn’t not see his receding hairline, his swollen feet

IT WAS HARD NOT TO NOTICE the fragility of Akbar’s body as his caretaker wheeled him into the studio. I couldn’t not see his receding hairline, his swollen feet. The tenor of his voice had grown so soft one had to sit close to him just to catch its drift. Bhanu, on the other hand, looked even younger than in my memory. Her hair was shorter, her body toned. Her smile was as enthusiastic and welcoming as ever. She stood over Akbar, smiled at him and placed her fingers above his on the desk fitted onto his wheelchair. “Akbar Padamsee,” she said, enunciating the last syllable of his surname with an unmistakable ‘sh’. “This is Rosalyn, she’s a poet and a writer, and she likes to write on art nowadays. She was supposed to come at three, and she ditched me. She was tired and she slept,” she said, establishing herself as an interlocutor between Akbar’s memory and me. She was not in the room some moments before when he had already acknowledged me. I chose not to interrupt this moment and its preciousness.

On the wall across from us, on the far end of his studio, lay two metascapes Akbar had recently finished. Bhanu noted to me the emergence of radiant yellows in his newer work. Both moon and sun were absent from these new canvases. The yellow in the smaller painting to the right was glowing indeed. Akbar asked for the lights to be adjusted so I could better see. On a drawing board before it was an old blueprint- like drawing, one that offered a glimpse into the structural compositions of the metascapes. To the right, on a canvas board was an old figural painting that Akbar had been re-examining; one that had been left unfinished. While Akbar had been painting, Bhanu had decided to undertake fresh research into the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW), a culturally significant moment he had pioneered between 1969 and 1972, when Mumbai was still Bombay. Padamsee had well settled in the city after his stint in Paris where he’d been awarded a prize by Andre Breton on behalf of the Journale d’art in 1952. Seventeen years later, he won the Nehru Fellowship, affording the modernist painter a then handsome sum of Rs 3 lakh. Though initially reluctant to accept the money, a discussion with fellow painter Krishen Khanna provoked him to change his mind. Upon Khanna’s suggestion, Padamsee chose to match the sum with his own savings to evolve VIEW. Akbar conceived it in order to facilitate and foster a range of interdisciplinary collaborations between participating artists through an osmatic format. The VIEW, run out of Akbar’s Napean Sea Road apartment in Mumbai, was an unprecedented success, bringing together now iconic painters like Gieve Patel, printmaker PD Dhumal, and a very young Nalini Malani, who would go on to make pioneering work using the visual medium of film, as well as noted directors like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, cinematographer KK Mahajan, and sculptors Adi Davierwalla and Pilloo Pochkhanawala; and photographers Jehangir Guzdar, Nicky Padamsee, Navroze Contractor and Bhupendra Karia.

It was during VIEW that Akbar produced Syzygy, an 11-minute animated film essentially expounding a theory of programming form. When Jean Bhownagary, then the chief producer at Films Division of India, introduced Akbar Padamsee’s experimental film, Syzygy, prior to its screening at a UNESCO gathering in Paris in the early 70s, he cautioned its viewers to take an aspirin. “This film will surely give you a headache,” he purportedly said. Recounting the humiliating incident years later to filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia, Akbar spoke of how most people walked out, unable to comprehend the mathematical precision that was at the heart of it. A lone gentleman requested a copy from the artist. Fifteen years later, Akbar’s Paris-based daughter, Raisa (who had been named by MF Husain), called him to share the news—the Cinémathèque Francaise intended to screen the film alongside those by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, having acquired a copy from the anonymous gentleman. In the last decade, Syzygy has been witnessing a revival through a more contemporary lens. It was shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York in 2012 as part of Modernist Art from India: The Body Unbound. It was also shown at the Dhaka Art Summit in February 2016.

“Painting can’t be like a business”

Abstract in sensibility, Syzygy marked Akbar’s organic assimilation of a range of textual influences from Paul Klee’s pedagogical diagrams that facilitated his own mathematical pattern, as well as John Cage’s experiments and writing in the 60s and the work of Iannis Xenakis. Based on a mathematical principle and linking together alphabets, numbers, spaces between numbers, triangles, and a series of dots and dashes, Akbar referred to the film as “seven stars in a line”, associating it clearly with the astronomical symbolism of the Latin-derived title. Ram Mohan, an animation whizz, collaborated with Akbar to produce the synergetic work. “I did 1,000 drawings on a transparent cell animation sheet over three months. I’d draw a line, Ram Mohan would shoot it, then I’d draw another line, he’d shoot that,” Akbar told Meenakshi Shedde in an interview that informed her essay contribution to Work in Language. Originally shot on 35 mm, using an animation camera, Akbar and Mohan later transferred it to 16 mm.

Sadly, Events in a Cloud Chamber (1969), Akbar’s only other film, did not share the same fate. Though originally screened at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, and Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, no traceable copy remains of the film, which, at the time, was lauded for its delicate poetic allusion to natural space, corresponding to his metascapes. Akbar can no longer recall to whom he had lent the film, which was never returned to him. Given he produced it as a positive print, no other copies exist.

Shot entirely in the darkroom on 16 mm over a week, using professional lights, ground glass and coloured filters, he used stencils of a landscape on paper, with cutouts of a sun, moon, and trees. “I would keep changing the stencils, shoot a yellow moon or red sun, rewind and reshoot the film,” he told Shedde. The brilliance of this avant garde experiment and the tragedy of its loss is the subject of Ashim Ahluwalia’s 23-minute 2016 film which shares its title with Akbar’s only other cinematic work. Ahluwalia spools through reams of found footage from the Films Division archives, and, in collaboration with Akbar, reconstructs the film’s climactic crux: a backlit, constructed metascape. Ahluwalia’s Events in a Cloud Chamber references Akbar’s Syzygy mid-way, occasionally mourning its ill reception that prompted the artist to give up on film and focus wholly on painting.

“SO, AKBAR, YOUR STUDIO visit has gone for a toss,” Bhanu chimes in an hour later; after we’d spoken about her other area of research within Akbar’s artistic trajectory; the letters he exchanged between his contemporaries like FN Souza, Krishen Khanna, and his own brother. “We’ve done the transcription for all of them, but we’re not sure how to bring it out,” she says.

It is time for me to go because they are now anticipating another visitor. I linger on a little to ask Akbar whether he paints every day. “No,” he whispers. “Painting can’t be like a business.” Does he still make photographs? “Not right now, its monsoons, the light is not very good,” he responds. On the table behind him, I spot a book, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, by Edward W Said. Since Akbar told me he’s currently not reading anything, I figure it must belong to Bhanu. “It’s a marvellous book,” she tells me when she notices my interest in it. “It’s been put together by his wife, after he died.” I can surmise why Bhanu is reading it, considering she mentioned she was planning to bring out a book called Late Drawings. “It’s as if he’s challenging his own genre [metascapes],” she had said. “They’re beautiful works, very moving.” I take a photograph of her copy of Said’s book, and later find a scan of it online.

I stop at the final paragraph of the first essay, Timeliness and Lateness, that resonated greatly with Akbar’s own conception of his body and Bhanu’s remark about his emerging yellows. ‘Late style is in, but oddly apart from the present. Only certain artists and thinkers care enough about their métier to believe that it too ages and must face death with failing senses and memory. As Adorno said about Beethoven, late style does not admit the definitive cadences of death; instead, death appears in a refracted mode, as irony. But with the kind of opulent, fractured, and somehow inconsistent solemnity of a work such as the Missa Solemnis, or in Adorno’s own essays, the irony is how often lateness as theme and as style keeps reminding us of death.’