Akbar Padamsee 1928-2020: At 25, he was 25000

I have a faint memory of the first time I met Akbar Padamsee, but I vividly remember the first time I saw his Metascape series in the late 90’s, a decade and a half after they were conceived and executed… At the time, I didn’t know that the controlled colours and formal lines indicated a Parisian influence, or his use of symbols like the sun and moon (as the two controllers of time), portrayed a deep engagement with Sanskrit texts such as Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam. To a 16 year old me, they were sci-fi landscapes, of a distant world waiting to become known. They were ‘cool’. Even more fascinating were his Computer generated images that looked like psychedelic explorations totally out of character of an engaged mind. Akbar’s many reputations preceded him, he was as much a philosopher as he was a painter, and a scholar of Sanskritic linguistics. He was known to be the creator of mathematical colour graphs in paintings and an aptly self-defined ‘grammarian of art’.

“The subject matter is chosen to allow for the possibility of using colour,‘’ Padamsee says "but there must be something uncanny there. Unless it is a disquieting, uncanny landscape I would reject it.” This preoccupation with the ‘disquieting feeling’ has been the foundation of Akbar’s work. Not a roaring fire, but a slow kindling, rising to a pitch in intensity, ongoing to ensure that a deep inner glow will pass from image to image to counter all that which is stable, complacent and normative. Akbar’s work explored the boundaries of the untested and untried more than any of the Progressives or contemporaries of his time, whether it be his exploration of digital media in the early 80’s, or his use of paint in the juxtaposition of his abstract and figurative work. Akbar never shied away from unsettling himself, his subject, or his viewers in his search for a formal logic.

But Akbar’s work does not shout out at you. Like Akbar himself, his work is not loud. It waits patiently for you as a viewer to recognise it. Akbar, at 25, is quoted to have said that he is in fact 25,000. “A boy of 25 cannot paint. You need age and experience." And there is much in the logical discipline of his practice that I could only appreciate later in life. As an artist creating archives that orbit the notions of 'violence, conflict and trauma’, I find strength in his convictions that the role of art is to be an enquiry, a way of thinking. He often spoke about his practice in terms of building, of constructing a matrix. The point, he said, was to share a process rather than a message, where the artist and viewer were the ends of a spectrum rather than a polarity – the goal to co-invent a language and revel in it together.

Akbar devoted his life as an artist, who more than painting, sculpting, and filmmaking, excelled as a performer living “at split-levels-both doer and watcher, horse and rider the functions fused, boundaries merged, an interlocking of bodies, many and one.” His life exemplified how we may separate our own biases from ourself, to embrace our many identities, our own pluralities – and those of the beings around us. If there is one thing to take away from Akbar’s life and practice, is that individuals are of course thinking and feeling beings, but that criticality must be developed and nurtured as an ongoing, often lifelong process.

Today, in times that are anything but stable, settled and/or normal, my namesake would probably like nothing more than to be with those at the helm of it all, although his was a quieter and softer revolution.

– Ali Akbar Mehta


This text was written for and published in MID-DAY as a tribute to Akbar Padamsee