Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Art: K K Hebbar ~ Questions from a quest

K K Hebbar

I have traced my evolution from the Ravi Varma type of painting to an expression of mere abstraction. During this journey, I have met with failure, as well as success. At times, I have been criticised as an imitator, sentimentalist and an illustrator. I have never felt bitter towards my critics. I believe that a work of art bears the stamp of individuality and the national bearing of its creator when it springs from self, devoid of hidden sense. All artificial otherness and novelty leads one to sensationalism, which is short-lived. In the end, I submit to my own humble test. It is on myself alone that I must rely. My works are generated by my intense feeling for my environment. I seek to find myself by following whatever course it leads to
~  K K Hebbar, ‘An Artist’s Quest’

THE TWILIGHT on the terrace fans shadows across his face ~ as memories, experiences, relationships, observations and responses tumble quicksilver through his mind and off his tongue. His now frail frame, racked by a prolonged bout of ill health, takes each idea by the scruff of its neck and explores it threadbare. Not for him the easy conformity with current trends, not for him the comfortable acceptance of the status that is his today, not for him the cliché-ridden paths of the mainstream.

For, even at 84, Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar is a feisty, outspoken non-conformist, towering as a colossus amidst mere mortals ~ whether amongst contemporary artists in Karnataka or when measured against other creators on the contemporary Indian canvas. He draws his lines spontaneously, with an intensity that sears ~ even when  they are alive with the sound of music. He reacts with integrity, whether as an individual interacting with an interviewer, or as a human being concerned with the state of his world, or as an elder statesman assessing the Indian art scene. His words, like his works, are shaped by candour, more driven by belief than by everyday acts of survival.

His humanism surfaces in any encounter. His recollections are tinged with warmth, with razor-edged wit, imbued with his love for the arts. As is evident from this conversation we had in Madras (now Chennai) in 1987: “I have heard every musician in our country. I have watched every dancer. But, tell me, how many musicians or dancers have seen my work? None… Once, when Girija Devi, the famous ghazal singer from Benaras, was a member of the Khosla commission on the fine arts, I was interviewed by them. I said: ‘Girija Devi, I don’t understand how you happen to be on this commission. I have been listening to you for the past 30 years, but have you seen one of my paintings?’ Afterwards, I felt I shouldn’t have said these things in front of the whole commission, but I was talking to the whole of society.”

He brooks no nonsense, curbs no sentiments, spares no emotion for idle words. His sincerity is moving in an art world thronging with wheeler-dealers. Typically, Hebbar’s response to the commerce in art today is tinged with empathy for the buyer. As he once narrated: “I had borrowed one of my paintings (Cattle Market, gouache, 1942) from the owner and taken it to London for a show. There, an American gentleman kept wanting to buy it. I told him it was sold. He persisted: ‘Tell the owner I will pay whatever he asks.’ But the owner refused to sell. When I returned to India, I learnt that the owner, a big businessman, had lost all. His business, his palace-like house, were gone; he was a pauper. I asked him again why he hadn’t sold the painting when the American was serious in his offer. He said, ‘Hebbar, I will go with that painting under my arm and beg in the streets, rather than part with it.’ I was so touched.”

What forces have shaped a life so rich and vivid? Hebbar, who was born in Kattingeri in Dakshina Kannada in 1911, was formally trained at the Sir JJ School of Art, Bombay (now Mumbai), where he was awarded a diploma in painting in 1938. After teaching there briefly, Hebbar did a course at the Academy Julian in Paris in 1949-50. “Normally, while drawing a table, parallel lines converge to a point,” he recalls. “But in Paris, it was not so. A table was only a base on which to keep your objects. You could change the perspective as you wanted. From a distance, it could become wider, rather than narrower… I picked up so much in a short time.”

Nominated to the new national Lalit Kala Akademi in 1954, he won its national award for three consecutive years, 1956-58. He was head of the Karnataka Lalitakala Academy from 1978-80 and chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, from 1980-1984. Recognition that came his way, initially as gold medals from the Bombay Arts Society and the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta (now Kolkata), was crowned by a Padma Shri in 1961.

Hebbar’s paintings, whether relating to topical events like the birth of Bangladesh or the Latur earthquake, amaze by their range of medium as by their intensity of expression. His drawings ~ often inspired by music or dance ~ were once described by him as characterised by ‘the singing line.’ He delineates why in a book of the same title: “In the beginning, I used to draw with the intention of reproducing the object of my choice… But once I achieved that skill, I started searching for the hidden beauty in the interplay of lines, the evocative quality of straight and curved lines. This quality of rhythmic movement of lines began to engage my attention more and more. I realised that lines are capable of singing and dancing. These lines are creative, rather than imitative.”

Both as an artist and as an administrator, the essence is never peripheral to the overview in Hebbar’s world. He reacts immediately to causes and to people alike. Because it is the human being within the celebrity who sparks thought, even in a chance encounter.

Hebbar, who’s lived in Bombay for decades, was in Bangalore in March 1995 for a homecoming of sorts ~ when a permanent Hebbar wing, compiled by his daughter Rekha Rao and S G Vasudev, both artists, was unveiled at the local Venkatappa Art Gallery.

Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview, spanning three 45-minute sessions, during Hebbar’s recent sojourn in Bangalore:

How do you feel about your homecoming to Karnataka? And your ties with the state?

I am not a sentimental person. (Reflectively) After I left Karnataka in disgust, for about 25 years or so, I have not kept up any kind of a relationship. Look here, Karnataka is known for literature, music, to some extent dance and theatre. But not for painting, although at one time it had a rich tradition of sculpture.

It was mainly Nanjunda Rao who was responsible for bringing me back here. I appreciate his organizational capacity. I think his Chitrakala Parishad has done wonderful work. He brought me in for one thing or another. After I got my Padma Shri, the state authorities asked for my bio-data, offered me the Rajyotsava award. But I politely refused. Why should I accept an honour from people who haven’t seen my work?

When the Lalit Kala Akademi was set up in 1954, I was casually looking through their catalogue ~ and found not a single name from Karnataka. So, when I came to the state academy in 1978, I formed a committee including S G Vasudev and the art critic S A Krishnan. We asked local artists to bring in their work for the national exhibition. Of the 20 works we selected, 11 were hung. That’s over 50 per cent, which compares very well with the all-India average of five per cent. Out of the 11, six were sold. That caused a commotion.

For the first time, we instituted scholarships for bright student here to go to Baroda, Shantiniketan, JJ, wherever they wanted. In three years, we selected 11 students. Today they ~ including Pushpamala N, Sheela Gowda and Chandranath Acharya ~ are recognised as artists as talented as those anywhere in India.

How relevant is art education in the Indian context?

Look here, what you are learning is only the technique. When I passed my diploma at the J.J. School, the director was a European named Charles Gerrard (an impressionist painter). He once looked at my work and said: ‘Hebbar, you have technical competence at your fingertips. Don’t think that itself is art. Now, you have to find your individuality.’ Those are words I can never forget.

The question of educating or understanding an artist is perennial. In the year I spent in Europe, I saw all the top museums. At the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I realised how Picasso was inspired by Negro sculpture. He was not ashamed of it; his creative ability helped him to develop it.

(Passionately) If anybody thinks he knows everything, he’s a fool. When I came back from the Academy Julian, I was so confused. Now what to do? We lived in the small hill station of Mahabaleshwar then because we had no accommodation in Bombay. The eldest of my three children, Rekha, was four then. One day, we went for a walk, the two of us. We saw a blind man with a stick being led by his grandchild. Rekha asked about him. She didn’t say anything. On returning, she sat down to paint with poster colours in the verandah. She painted something like the man. His mouth was there, his nose was there, his hair was there, but no eyes. I asked: ‘Why haven’t you drawn the eyes?’ Rekha answered: ‘But what is the good of it?’

I was simply thrilled with her answer. That helped me throughout in my drawing, inspired me to leave out all unnecessary things. Many times, I draw the body, but don’t draw the face at all. If the accent is on the hands or the face or on the body, what’s the good of taking the attention somewhere else?

What about  your well-known passion  for music and dance….?

Yes, it’s true. I even studied dancing under Pandit Sundar Prasad in Bombay for two years. He included me in two of his programmes. His class was in the same building where my brother and I lived.

Once, when there was a curfew on because of riots, I knew M S Subbulakshmi was singing in Bombay. I was then teaching at the J.J. School. I didn’t tell anybody, but left our house in Andheri early as if I was going for a walk. I listened to her till 1 a.m. When I got off the local train at Grant Road, there was nobody in sight. I quickly crossed the road to the police station, which was a free area. When I returned home, my brother was furious! (Pausing) But I thought: ‘Even if I die now, it doesn’t matter ~ after such divine music!’

Have music and dance influenced your singing lines?

It’s not the mere line that is important. It’s the rhythmic quality. Whatever I have done came to me effortlessly, naturally. When Kamala Lakshman first came to Bombay as Baby Lakshman, I had never before painted or drawn a dancing figure. Nor had I earlier seen such a good dancer. She was just 14 or 15 then. I had a small book, in which I went on drawing dancing figures until the book was complete. The next morning, I added a few drops of colour. My friend, the artist N S Bendre, saw it then. Even 20 to 30 years later, he said: ‘You should get that book printed as it is.’ I’ve preserved it.

After that, I’ve tried to move my hand to the rhythm of dancing while it goes on. (Energetically) You place your hand at one place. Then, you go on drawing without lifting your hand. Automatically, you find your hand moves.

Now, I’m not drawing. Actually it won’t take more than four or five minutes, but so many factors have to be just right. It’s not within your control.

Does it require a special mindset to appreciate art?

Look, when people go to a classical music concert, they don’t demand explanations. Nor the meaning of words. They only want swara, alaap, melody, sound… But if classical music is appreciated by 10 per cent of people, 40 per cent like cinema music. People want it all to be easy, but nothing in this world is available easily.

That’s because of our education system. We want to know the story behind everything. What do they enjoy in a painting? The emotion it creates, the colour scheme, the space, the beauty, the rhythm. But our society of paper-flower appreciaters is such that people look at art and say: ‘I don’t understand it, I don’t care for it.’ I don’t mean to say you must be able to draw or paint, but you should appreciate everything good in life. Otherwise, what’s the difference between you and an animal?

Once  ~ don’t ask me when or where ~ I was invited to show my work. The chief guest that day said: ‘I don’t understand anything about art. However, it gives me great pleasure in inaugurating…’ 

(Energetically) When I was asked to speak, I said: ‘Sangeeta sahitya kala vihinaha sakshat pashuhu puccha vishana hinana.’ How many educated people are willing to accept the position of an animal when they don’t like what they don’t understand? Later, many people felt I’d been very harsh. It wasn’t the fault of the chief guest, but that of the education system.

Have your interactions with your buyers been positive?

(Smiling contentedly) I have got such customers and patrons, who’ll give me anything I want.

In Manipal, there was a man who wanted to possess one of my works. He worked in a bank, so he asked for my account number and put in sums until about Rs. 2,000 or 3,000 was reached. When I had a show in Bangalore, I wrote to him: ‘Here are some paintings. There’s one from your side ~ a bhootha. You can take it, if you like.’ He wanted to make a museum of my work, but the idea didn’t work out.

Why do contemporary Indian artists lack recognition abroad?

If anybody asks me about an Indian artist of international fame, I feel ashamed. Very few Indians are recognised. Not like Picasso or Matisse. But then, until the national academies were set up in 1954, there was little chance of them exhibiting abroad. Yet, at a recent Venice Biennale, I was told our paintings were thrown in a corner, while all the other countries had their own pavilions.

(With disgust) Once, I went to our embassy in Paris to get the address of Raza. They didn’t know who he was! They had a large painting of his at the entrance, but they’d never looked at it or bothered to find out who he was!

Do you know that in Bombay, there’s not a single gallery where you can see my work? Where will you go? If I don’t have any work in my studio, you’ll have to find out the names of collectors and ask if you can see the work. A shame! I’ve tried my best, but could not succeed.

How strongly do you feel an integral sense of Indianness?

If you just copy established classical work, it doesn’t become Indian. You have to be Indian first in your thinking, your attitude, the way of your life, then only can you produce Indian work. Anyway, I can’t even paint outside India. That may be my weakness. In India, human relationships are still very strong…

What keeps your artistic quest alive?

In your creative efforts, you don’t fix an end. It’s all a quest. I don’t repeat what I’m doing. I go on changing. That’s my nature. I feel there’s nothing like perfection. That you must realise. Your search goes on. 

(Originally published in Deccan Herald, 1995)