Akbar has passed on and left us with the sense of an absence that will evolve into grace. A remote presence with a visible aura. A year ago, in January 2019, I spoke on him, and to him, at a felicitation function organized by the Asia Society in Bombay. On this occasion, when he saw a row of us speaking in praise of him, he looked vulnerable, and benign. But he was already unreachable. And I said there what I say today -- to him who has gone away; and he did then, as he will do now, smile and twitch and raise his tapered fingers to his face in a nervous gesture of self-protection.
So, I start with Akbar’s eyes, with the look that was always so deeply inward. And his persona that was grave and liminal. It was the presence of one who may be the ‘blind’ oracle, whose stare frightened his teacher when he was a little boy and whose gaze, when he became an artist, claimed access to esoteric ‘truth’. We look at him and look at the eyes of his masked portraits- sockets with dilated pupils, heavy-lidded omniscience. I had known him to assume on occasion the solemn expression of one of his 1950s Prophets. Yet, Akbar’s hypnotic look was intensity that redoubled as anxiety.
Akbar as artist was positioned in the space where precarity characterizing existence translates into what the artist believes is a metaphysical understanding of the universe. In this meta sphere, the image reveals itself. This revelation continued from the 1960s to the end of his life. Conversely, his landscapes rest in a condition of hypostasis; a condition that combines essentialized substance, an eruptive substructure and impending stasis.
“I don’t seek an image”, I can hear Akbar say; “I create conditions whereby it may come to be.” It is a matter of systematic practice and a form of signification that is material but is also, equally, a spectral double of emergent thought. Like his great Grey paintings of the female nude in 1960. In both senses the image is immanent: whether embedded in a conceptual schema or in the density of pigment. The image is to be ‘lifted’ from the grid and made to endure, and it will gain its own philosophic dimension at some moment of its becoming.
When, as a very young man, Akbar met Giacometti, the artist he admired most, he was told by Giacometti in cryptic terms that he should be interested “not in art but in life”. It is difficult to say whether Akbar lived more life or more art, but Ashim Ahluwalia’s short film on Akbar titled Events in a Cloud Chamber (2016, when Akbar had turned 88) is precisely about this interposition. Akbar as painter-philosopher and conceptually inclined artist. He is seen to calculate spaces, calibrate colour, devise schema and animate geometry. And he holds the brush in his fingers with mannered elegance, just so it touches the canvas and deposits the load of pure pigment on its surface. He is also shown exercising his enfeebled limbs, and dreaming. He passes the test of time and appears as an ascetic of mid-twentieth- century modernism who ‘mastered’ the medium and offered a vision. The film is oneiric: the submission of this painter’s life to the space of the unconscious is peculiarly appropriate. Akbar’s prescience included always a chance encounter with the uncanny.