“Painting is man face to face with his debacle,” someone has said. “Why not face to face with his despair, his anguish, his loneliness or his sense of bewilderment?’ Akbar Padamsee is apt to ask, “Or why not, in a moment of felicity, face to face with the love that wells up in his heart?” Though young in years he does not like any easy summing up of the meaning of art. There is a touch of irony in the smile with which he dismisses the view that art must hold a mirror to nature or man. "Why should art cling to something outside itself so desperately as to lose its sense of freedom?" he asks. He has also no use for those who claim absolute autonomy for works of art. "How can a painter ever aspire to complete self-sufficiency," he argues, "except by giving himself up to self-abuse?" That is the end of the matter so far as he is concerned.
It is absurd, indeed, he explains, to ask whether painting should cling to or give up the very thought of a subject. What matters is not the presence or the absence of the trace of a face or a tree or a street in a canvas but the integrity of the image. A painting is first of all a living whole. Alter a line or a tone and it is no longer the same. The very distinction which so many seek to draw between objective and non-objective painting is misconceived. Every painter who has something to say is abstract to the extent that he follows the logic of line and colour and a realist in the sense that he cannot altogether do away with, however hard he tries, the reality of the outer or inner world. Even a blank canvas can suggest empty space or the void in the mind.
Few young artists in this country take as exacting a view of their vocation as Padamsee or care to justify it in terms of a logic half as rigorous as his. M. F. Husain is too aware of the irrational and the demoniac in life to trust reason. When he feels the urge to translate one of his works in words he writes a poem which is a complex of vibrant images. When Gaitonde wants to say something about one of his canvases he merely keeps quiet. With his love of Zen which is written into each one of his recent canvases he knows that the meaning of a work of art can be sensed only in the depths of silence. When S. H. Raza claims that the dialogue between a patch of red and a stretch of blue on a canvas can be as moving as the words exchanged between Christ and his disciples on the eve of the Crucifixion we know it is a sort of poetic hyperbole.
Padamsee is more precise. So much as hint at the casual element in painting and he will at once start on a long discourse on the way Uccello and Massachio build up their canvases as if they were cathedrals where the displacement of a single slab is likely to bring the whole building toppling down. And if there is a Rembrandt re-production lying nearby he will pick up a magnifying glass and show with its aid how the great master painted every square inch of the canvas according to a strict logic in which every stroke of the brush was in place. There is nothing whimsical or arbitrary in a work of art, he will explain. Not even in a work of Klee. To the unwary the dreamlike forms of this artist may appear to be the result of the free play of a child-like fancy. But each of his canvases is what it is because of a certain inner necessity. How can the seed of an oak ever hope to grow into an elm or a birch?
Padamsee is fond of quoting the passage in which Klee compares the sense of direction in nature and life to the root of a tree and that in a work of art to the crown of a tree. "From the root the sap rises up into the artist, flows through him, flows to his eyes. He is the trunk of the tree and overwhelmed and activated by the force of the current, he conveys his vision into his work. In full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, and so with his work. Nobody will expect a tree to form its crown in exactly the same way as its root. Between above and below there cannot be exact mirror images of each other.” Padamsee also likes to point out, like Klee, that “art does not render the visible; rather it makes visible.”
It is this impulse "to make visible" which forces the artist to impose a certain order on the flux of things. In Akbar Padamsee's aesthetics this order is not only one of pure geometry but one of intuition. It is an order which shows the hidden side of things. Listening to Padamsee one can at times be misled by his over-emphasis on the mathematics of art. What impresses him in the best of Indian bronzes, for instance, is as much their “mathematical precision” as their “stillness, perfect equilibrium and poised tension.” Mathematics and art, he once told me, are by no means peculiar to Indian art. The great Italian masters like Piero della Francesca, and Uccello are experts in geometry and perspective and even the Chinese masters have delved, with the help of I Ching, into the mysteries of numbers and magic squares. But Padamsee is always careful to point out that pure geometry by itself can only produce arid works; it is only in combina-tion with poetry that it can hope to produce works of art. For art is not “a replica of the image perceived by the eye” or “the record of the flitting shadows and lights on vagrant objects” but rather a representation of “the spirit of the seasons, the anguish in the lover's heart, the poetry of longing.” And all these belong to the world of intuition.
His main charge against abstract art is that very often in its preoccupation with plastic problems it becomes wholly oblivious of poetry. He is drawn to Klee more than to any other modern master precisely because he combines intuition and pure research, poetry and mathematics, as no one else has ever done. “What the academicians did to Rembrandt,” he once said to me, “the abstract painters are doing to Paul Klee and Mondrian. The abstract artist today is as keen to flatter the eye as the artist of the post-Renaissance period was to flatter the body.”
The insistence on knowing the whole truth at times impels him to take up an attitude of “all or nothing” in life. I still remember my first meeting with him in 1954 after the police had removed one of his paintings from an exhibition in Bombay on the charge of its being “obscene.” A few friendly artists and critics called a meeting to discuss what they could do to protest against this act of philistine stupidity. But Padamsee was sceptical about the efficacy of mere expressions of protest against the action of the police. He stood up and told his sympathisers that he would like to have the support of only those who believed in the artist's freedom intensely enough to accept the risk of going to jail with him. I reasoned with him and told him that he had no right to prescribe this severe test for all and that eve ne had as much right as he to choose his form of protest. But his “all or nothing” attitude isevidence not so much of a fanatical streak in him as of his utter sincerity.
It is his sincerity which made him faithful to his own vision even when he was a student at the J.J. School of Art in Bombay. The academic training did not stifle or cramp his style. He spent as much time in the school library as in the class-room and made his first acquaintance there with the old masters. This acquaintance was deepened when he went to Paris where he has stayed since 1950 except for brief visits to this country. In Paris he did not join any art school. Such schooling as he received was entirely in the museums. And here, too, he learnt more from the African masks in the Musee de l'homme than from the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art. He was attracted by the paintings of Picasso, Rouault, Braque and Chagall but as he confessed to me, “I could not feel one with them. It was more like being an intruder than someone belonging to their world. There was no like-mindedness.”
From the very start of his career as an artist Padamsee has cut out all element of make-believe in presenting the image of man. What characterises this image in his work is not merely the mark that suffering has left on it. Modern art is in fact replete with images of men who have suffered in body and in spirit to the very limit of endurance. Often the image is touched with a delicate pathos as in the paintings of Picasso's blue period, or with compassion as in Rouault's portraits of clowns and whores, or with nostalgia for a lost innocence as in Modigliani, or with a sense of disgust over the corruption and decay of the once undefiled body as in Soutine. What makes Padamsee's image of man different from all these is that it is free of all pathos, sentimentality, nostalgia and even compassion. It is as if he wants us to see that what man needs is not pity but understanding.
All this is said without any loud gesture or drama. There is no protest because there is no social comment. It is not because Padamsee turns a blind eye to that part of suffering which is the result of poverty and injustice. “Our social environment in India numbs our aesthetic sensibility,” he once said to me in a bitter tone. “If I stifle my revulsion at the stub of a leper's arm stuck under my nose, if I refuse this visual rape, if I do not register it, I must equally benumb my sensibility to a work of art. This gradual process of not seeing kills my eye.” The suffering in his image of man is not the one which is the lot of the poor and the halt. It is rather the suffering which is the lot of every man-the suffering that is inherent in the human condition.
There is a slight edge of irony in the labels he gave to this first significant series of portraits. He called them “prophets.” But they have nothing in common with the grand men of the Old Testament who have seen God face to face and who know what is in the womb of the future. All that Padamsee's “prophets” starting with the one with a cadmium yellow face know is their past and the shadow it casts on their future. And all that they have seen face to face is themselves. If they have any prophecy to make it is that there is no defence against the ravages of time and no escape from despair. In fact they know no more than the lovers in the two canvases which Padamsee painted during the very year when he began his “prophets” series. They see that their passion has been spent, that a raw sensuality continues to eat into their body and spirit and that it can only end in dissolution and death. That is why the two couples look less like lovers and more like masked figures celebrating death.
Padamsee continues to be obsessed with the same image of man. But with the passage of years he acquires better mastery over the means to render that image. His colour gains a new resonance and the image itself comes to acquire a new depth and intensity. The prophets speak to us only through their silence. They do not have to speak because there is nothing to express, nothing worthwhile that can be said in words. Whatever they tell us is through their half-shut eyes which do not even need to look at the world around to realise what is what.
In his first landscapes as in his first faces Padamsee cuts out the sentimental. What marks these canvases which he painted in 1953 is a simple order in which everything that smacks of the romantic is cut out. The moon which shines on the church steeples in one of these paintings is not the kind which makes young lovers swoon but one which reveals to them the frailty and ambiguity of their love. Again, though there is a perfect balance in the arrangement of the trees in the landscape painted in 1956 there is nothing pretty about it. It has rather a starkness which without being drab makes one think of the essential loneliness of man. Even the kitchen utensils painted in the same year bear witness to the same sense of desolation. These are not things with whose aid a man cooks food to nourish his body. They look more like strange instruments with which he tortures his spirit. And yet there is not even a hint of the macabre about all this. Every-thing is said simply with an almost classical restraint.
Others may deplore the density of things which refuse to reveal their secret. Padamsee is upset by how much they reveal. The red-and-green nude painted by him in 1956 shows us more than we can bear to look at. What is oppressive about this woman is not the weight of her flesh but her immense weariness of spirit which fills the whole picture. She cannot even wish, like Hamlet, for the too, too solid flesh to melt. She knows it is no use. She must carry it like a cross with her. The next two years are a time of waiting for Padamsee or rather a time of preparation. In the landscapes painted by him in 1957 he does not make any new discovery but steels himself to the rigour of a new discipline. There is an almost ascetic restraint in his use of colours. His palette is still bright despite the intrusion of greys now and then. But he does not yield to the charms of orange and red and blue. He does not allow them to cast their spell on his landscapes. He knows that there is no more dangerous temptation in the way of the artist today than the lure of the decorative. He builds each landscape slowly, brick by brick, almost as if it were a building, always intent on the rhythm inherent in the point counter-point of planes. He shuns easy colour harmonies and in the process nerves himself up to renouncing the pleasures of colour.
In the case of an artist less sure of him-self such renunciation might have been fatal. With Padamsee the renunciation becomes an act of self-discovery. By restricting himself to greys, like the Chinese masters who confine themselves to the various shades of black, he strikes the richest vein of poetry in his art. In the paintings of 1959 and 1960 there is a lyrical intensity which comes from a passionate love affair. The affair is betweenthe artist and his art, naked and defenceless. Padamsee is still obsessed with images of loneliness and despair. The face of one of the grey nudes painted in 1959 is so ravaged by sorrow that the very thought of any solace becomes a sacrilege. And the grey faces of a man and a woman in a canvas painted in 1960 could as well be two death masks.
But this is by no means the whole of Padamsee's world. Having seen how men suffer in body and mind he knows how vulnerable they are. This is the source of a new note of tenderness in his work. The atmosphere of the reclining nude painted in 1959 is that of an autumn morning after a dark, stormy night. The wan, fragile beauty of the woman's face has nothing maudlin about it. She almost seems to feel the approach of the day when all passion will have been drained away from the heart. The painting is a paean of joy and a cry of pain at the same time. What the picture lacks in colour it more than makes up for in tonal intensity. The same is true of the other large grey painting done in 1960 at Juhu in which we see two women against a landscape of thick foliage. The whole canvas has a melancholy but tender atmosphere. There is no defiance of destiny. There is only silent submission.
The silence that is ours would make a hurricane dumb
And give more wisdom to the depths of leaves (Eluard)
The end of 1960 marks the beginning of a new phase in Padamsee's art. After having wrung a new world of meaning from shades of grey he slowly returns to a richer palette. In 1960 itself he paints an orange nude. This is not the colour we associate with sorrow, but Padamsee imposes his own mood on this colour. There is no hint of sensuality in this orange nude. We are in fact not even conscious of the body. In subordinating the physical to the spiritual Padamsee strips away all non-essentials. The deep expressiveness of his paintings comes not so much from face or gesture as from the total design.
It is always the composition of planes and colours which give form to what Padamsee has to say. This becomes all the more clear in his paintings of 1961 and 1962. His method is quite contrary to that of the expressionists who use colour directly to express the turbulence or violence of their emotions without subjecting it to any discipline. In Padamsee's work colour is always subordinate to a structural basis. The texture of the paintings done in this period is by no means a superfluous detail; it is part of the meaning of the picture. It is not only the richer design of these paintings but their more mellow use of colour which distinguishes them from Padamsee's earlier work. What strikes us in these portraits is not the corruption of decay or frailty of the flesh but the torment of the spirit to which they are a mute witness. It is a torment which is suffered in silence-a silence before which even the highest art can do no more than admit its own inadequacy.
Having reached a state of anguish which can only be expressed by silence, Padamsee in his paintings of 1963, leaves the human form alone and takes to contemplation of nature. In fact to call it contemplation of nature is itself a hyperbole. There are already hints at a new kind of silence which comes with the realisation of the nothingness at the heart of things. The objects get lost in a sort of haze as words get lost in a melody.
Padamsee feels he is giving shape to the essential. But has the essential, the mystery at the heart of things, a shape? Who can tell? Perhaps there is no one shape; there are shapes which transcribe the innate rhythm of things. All that an artist can do is to search for images which in dramatising his own experience catch something of this rhythm. Akbar Padamsee's art is in the nature of a quest. He will not rest for long at the point at which he has arrived.
Text by Shamlal, Ed. Mulk Raj Anand, Sadanga Publications