Akbar Padamsee, whose six-decade output of paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and film made an inestimable contribution to the development of modernism in postcolonial India, died this week at the age of ninety-one. Marked by a rich poeticism and smoldering color palette, his expressionistic landscapes and portraits were influenced by ancient Sanskrit texts, mathematical structures, and the formal experiments of Cubism and Fauvism: a syncretic mix of tradition and cosmopolitanism that brought him into association with the Bombay Progressives Artists’ Group.
Formed shortly after India gained independence from England in 1947, the Progressives, who counted F. N. Souza, Ram Kumar, S. H. Raza, and V. S. Gaitonde among their members, shared a left-leaning, anti-nationalist politics and a spiritual individualism that they channeled through “almost anarchic” artistic techniques (per Souza’s description of the group’s inaugural 1949 exhibition), laying the groundwork for India’s globalized contemporary art scene.
Born in Mumbai in 1928, Padamsee studied at the city’s Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art before moving to Paris, where he encountered the work of Fauvists such as Georges Rouault and surreal Expressionists including Paul Klee. He had his first solo show at the Galerie Saint Placide in 1953, and in 1959 returned to Mumbai, where for one year he distilled his color range to shades of gray.
“I was not rejecting color,” said Padamsee in a 2018 interview. “It was an exploration of color as quantities of black and white. It’s far more exciting for me as a painter to work in gray or sepia. The brush can move freely from figure to ground, and this interaction offers me immense formal possibilities.” Of his approach to art, he said: “Art for me is to express the invisible. No morality, no values, no hierarchy can enter its field.”
Padamsee was the recipient of the Nehru Fellowship, the J. D. Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, and the gold medal from India’s National Academy of Art. His work has been included in exhibitions at the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris; National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; Museum of Modern Art, in Oxford; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Rubin Museum, New York; and the Biennales of São Paulo, Tokyo, and Venice.