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Akbar Padamsee
Akbar Padamsee
Age: 81
Profession: Artist, famous for his mythical landscapes
Occupational hazard: If you ever meet him, you are likely to end up in one of his paintings. This despite his lack of interest in portraiture Photo: Anay Mann

THE FIRST time you meet Akbar Padamsee, he is likely to draw you into his studio in his Mumbai flat and give you a quick tutorial on charcoals and water colours. His excitement about painting — over 60 years old — is still as fresh as a novice’s first swab on canvas. He is equally likely to discuss Sanskrit texts and with deadpan earnestness talk of how clitoral orgasms were deemed by the ancients as the quickest route to divine understanding.

In fact, at 81, Akbar Padamsee’s querulous voice and shifting gait are the only signs of his age. Otherwise, he brims with childlike enthusiasms. “Only the body grows old, the mind does not. I am painting more than ever before,” says he. “When I was younger, I spent too much time socialising.” Padamsee was a key member of the Progressive Artists Group and is best known for his subjective cubism and works in signature sepia. He paints human figures only out of an interest in structure, not portraiture. (The only portrait he has ever painted was one of Gandhi at a time when the reigning Shiv Sena was having images of Gandhi removed from government offices.)

He paints slowly — often no more than eight ten canvases a year — but little else is slow about him. “The speed of looking has changed today, even the speed of wooing has changed,” he laughs, “but I am not afraid of change. I am sensitive to it, not victim to it. I am an observer of change.”

A lot has gone into configuring this state of existential fitness. Padamsee’s day begins at 6.30am, followed by a session of Hatha Yoga learnt at Jaggi Vasudev’s ashram near Coimbatore. An hour of that equals 24 hours of energy. “I can tell you about it, but unless you experience it, you can’t know what I am talking about. It’s the difference between watching rain and stepping into it to experience it.”

But neither the yoga nor the daily discipline of painting his mythical landscapes from 9am to noon is the secret of his attractive hopefulness. Padamsee will be exhibiting a new body of work in Mumbai in November: it is likely to be imbued with his extremely agile mental state. “Life is so rich. How can you stop being curious? The birth of a child is a miracle; the fact you don’t dissolve in water is a miracle, the way a tree grows is a miracle. If your mind goes lazy, if you stop thinking, if nothing excites you, if you stop being curious — then you are finished,” says he.

Old age he has already mastered; and death holds little fear for Padamsee. “It’s the second miracle after Life,” says he. “If there was no death, there would be no change. Once you understand that there is a kind of psychic space in which we all live, there is no feeling of hopelessness. The next generation will inherit our thoughts. As Swami Vivekananda said, if a thought comes to me, it will affect others too.”

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.