From among the Progressive Artists, Akbar Padamsee has been the quietest. Not that the 84-year-old doesn't have an immense body of work, but he wasn't as prolific as MF Husain or SH Raza. FN Souza sadly passed away too early, thus missing the art boom of the last decade.
Almost as if to catch up, Padamsee now finds himself in the news often enough. His last exhibit of canvases was only two years ago. A year ago, his Reclining Nude fetched a record price at Sotheby's. "Six crores," he says, as if we didn't already know.
February sees him partake of a remarkable exercise: Mumbai's India Fine Art Gallery has put together a showcase of some giclée prints. Priced at Rs 1.5–3 lakh, these are prints on canvas produced on large-format high-resolution inkjet printers and are serious collectibles. Among these are four landscapes and two signature heads. "I've also decided to add some 20 lithographs and one or two canvases," he adds.
We are meeting at his Prabhadevi home, where one luminescent room has been turned into a studio for the master. The space is filled with works-in-progress, boxes of Winsor and Newton tubes of colour, a freakish hanging skeleton and not much else. A 30-year-old fractured knee cap makes him hobble now, and Padamsee's voice is just about audible. But he shows a boyish glee when he discusses his photographic nudes, wishing he could do more. "I have no models. I can't get the ones from the art schools because their breasts hang. I can't ask people I know, naturally. Like, if I asked you, would you?" he says.
He is a master colourist, as almost every response delves into an analogy from the palette. "Paul Gaugin said if you use a blue, use a Prussian blue. He meant everything must be utilised to its optimum. Edgar Degas was a master of drawing, he would peep into keyholes to see bathers and then draw them," he avers.
Husain's career — especially the later years — was marked by controversies. But few know that Padamsee went to court in 1954, trying to protect his right to display his nude, Lovers, at the Jehangir Art gallery. "A policeman, Inspector Kanga, came and asked me to pull it down," he recounts proudly. "But I had rehearsed my lines, I told him to bring me a court order," he recalls. He won the case, even in the high court.
Padamsee admits to being befuddled about art's rising prices. "It isn't my career, it's my calling. But who wouldn't like to sell at the highest price. An artist is not a mystic, only fakes call themselves mystics," he says. Padamsee has often stated that the Progressives were not rivals, since they all barely sold anything. "Husain priced his paintings from Rs 700 to Rs 3,000 only because Raza's was priced at Rs 2,000. But we were all friends," he says with a smile.
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