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The brown affair


CELESTIAL SPHERE: The artist's show of 40 new oils includes Metascapes of various configurations (top), 'heads' and a collation of other faces, some in the colours of the earth, others muted in shades of grey

At 85, Akbar Padamsee is still vigourously at work conjuring up the many moods of the sun and moon.

He may be 85 years old but the wicked glint in his eye and his obvious appreciation of female beauty has not faded. He may need a supporting hand and a cane to help him walk, but his mind is as agile as ever, his grasp even more so.

In Past Forward, Akbar Padamsee's new show at Priyasri Art Gallery, there are 40 new oils. Some of them are large (Sun and Moon series), others smaller 'heads' that include Prophet, Christ and Couple, and a collation of faces, some in the colours of the earth, others muted in shades of grey. The Mirror Image diptych glows across one wall, while Metascapes of various configurations reflect its colours, bringing swatches of light into the gallery. And the smile on the artist's face as he sits in his chair sipping a cup of chai adds another shade of warmth. Conversation flows easily from a Wisconsin village store stocking cheese to the philosophy of the colour brown. When Padamsee talks, it is not about any particular work, but a way of working, which is, for him, a way of living.

"Sometimes, I get up at two o' clock in the morning to go to the bathroom, and I look at my work and think that there is something missing, something that has to be done, " he says. On another trip out of bed, it could happen again. "So an artist", he explains, "is always working". There is always something going on, a new work to be conceived, given birth to, pondered over. And that work is the inspiration for the next, in a way. As Padamsee says, his radiant smile making it all perfectly logical, when he looks at a 'finished' piece, there is always a way that he believes it could be improved or maybe even painted differently. That is his 'inspiration'. "From that is born the next painting, " which could include the thoughts he had about the previous one, in a kind of evolution through stages of creation, each not too radically different from the one before. As gallerist Priyasri Patodia has said, "One cannot categorise Akbar Padamsee or confine him to a period or category;he occupies a very experimental space of his own. "

But the stories are great fun and Padamsee a good raconteur. His eyes twinkle and his fluff of white hair seems to glow like an impish halo when he talks about his stint as an artist-in-residence at an art college (University of Wisconsin-Stout ) in a small Wisconsin town. "There was a small store in the village, " he remembers, "where there was cheese...and more cheese, but no art. " He chortles as he tells the story, remembering how he persuaded - conned? - the store owner into giving him mural space and his students into creating art there, pushing, coaxing, rejecting, praising...all finally resulting in a work that attracted viewers from everywhere and led to real commissions for both teacher and his pupils.

Padamsee's body of work is large and varied. As one of the 'pioneers' of modern Indian painting, he is grouped with the other great Progressives like Souza, Husain and Raza. And like so many who did so much, he has also worked on print making, sculpture, photography - aha, there is that wicked glint again, when he suggests a photography session, talking about the nudes he has captured on camera. "They are like art forms, not naked women;you see the curve of the back... sometimes you cannot tell it is a woman!" he protests. He made films long before most artists did, Patodia says.

His work sells excellently at auction. Reclining Nude, for instance, sold last year for an astounding $1. 4 million. Among his many awards is the French magazine Journal d'Arte prize that he shared with Jean Carzou, who was twice his age. It's a long way from his roots as the son of a businessman from Vaghnagar, a village in Kathiawar, Gujarat, who would draw in his father's account books. "My father had to buy new books, " he laughs. "And then he told me I could draw in them, in the margins!" But he is quick to add, "I did not choose to be an artist. I was chosen. It is who I am. Art is me, I am art. "

His Metascapes are rooted in the concept of the two comptrollers of time, the sun and the moon, as described in Kalidasa's Abhigyanam Shakuntalam in the original Sanskrit. "The metascapes represent the sun, moon and the water needed for the seeds to grow. They also speak of the eight basic elements of life. " The verse made him want to paint it, to grasp it, to understand it, but since that was not possible, he depicted "all the elements in red to show their natural synergy". Acting as a kind of foundation to emphasise the reds and the blues is brown, the importance of which the artist serendipitously discovered a few years ago and now uses in all his works. "Brown is a tertiary colour, " he explains, "made up of red, yellow and blue. And I could use more red to bring out the redness and blue to bring out the blueness. "

'Past Forward' is on at Priyasri Art Gallery, Mumbai, till May 15

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