Though widely spoken of as a modernist, Akbar Padamsee continued to resist easy categorization. Throughout his illustrious career spanning almost seven decades, he had remained fiercely experimental, individualistic, and original. Born in Mumbai on April 12, 1928, Padamsee has been referred to as an intellectual artist, inspired by formal conundrums and conceptual schemes. He had always been interested in the science of art, always investigating. From an early age, Padamsee had been attracted to colorful pictures, whether they were gaudy depictions of Hindu divinities with many arms and weird body colors or solemn portrayals of Jesus Christ that hung in classrooms at his school. An aloof, self-absorbed, precocious child, Akbar turned to books and to draw to amuse himself. When he grew older, he wanted to learn painting and joined the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1951. By the time he graduated from the institution, he knew that he wanted to become an artist. His decision caused consternation among his family members; they were at a loss to understand why he was eager to lead the life of an artist with all its uncertainties instead of involving himself in the flourishing family business. Akbar’s future was settled by the Aga Khan - the religious and spiritual head of the Khoja Muslim community to which Akbar’s family belonged - who, at that time, was visiting India. The Aga Khan not only endorsed Akbar’s desire to specialize in art but also suggested he should go to Paris for further studies. The Aga Khan’s approval and blessings, in effect, sealed Akbar’s destiny.
Paris was all the Akbar had expected to be and much more. For a whole year, he neither attended an art school nor painted, but immersed himself in getting to know the contours and contents of his chosen profession. He systematically set about achieving his goal by familiarizing himself with masterpieces in museums. Poring over books in libraries, and frequenting art galleries. It was a period of intense study during which he absorbed and imbibed various aspects of the art world around him. To nurture and guard the process of introspection, he lived in self-imposed isolation. At the hotel on Boulevard Montparnasse, where he stayed in a garret, he was known as the “Monsieur of the tower”. Albas protected his privacy fiercely; he recounts how he told a neighbor “who asked me why I didn’t greet him on the stairs, he didn’t exist for me”. During this period of cogitation, he processed and distilled all that he had seen and read. When he felt he was ready to paint, he decided to participate in a prestigious art competition organized by the Journal d’Arte. His work, imbued with energy, reflected the rigor with which he had conducted his explorations and investigations in the field of art. It won him the third prize, a laudable achievement considering that all the other competitors were older, established artists. “All of a sudden many doors were opened to me and everyone in Paris knew my name, all art dealers and the press”, says Akbar.
His solo shows include those held at Mumbai from as early as 1972 to 2010, In Paris, in 2008; New York and Palo Alto, in 2006-07. Retrospective exhibitions of his works were organized in Mumbai in 2004 and New Delhi and Mumbai, in 1980. His group shows include those held at Dubai, in 2013; New Delhi in 2012; New York and London, in 2010-11; The Museum of Fine Art, Boston, in 2009; London, in 2009; Nehru Center, London, in 2005. Padamsee passed away in Tamil Nadu, India on the 6th of January 2020, at the age of 91.
An excerpt from ‘shades of grey’ by Saryu Doshi in the book Akbar Padamsee: Work in Language, Pundole Art Gallery, Marg Publications pg. 175-179