Art review

In empathy with life

An Artist’s Quest, the K K Hebbar retrospective at the NGMA (August 21 to October 20), is a vast exposition marking the birth centenary of this painter so important to the shaping of modern Indian art who, although living in Bombay, always drew on his roots in the rural coast of Udupi. Sourced from various collections and institutions and curated by Hebbar’s daughters - the artist Rekha Rao and art historian Ranjani Prasanna, the array of paintings and drawings spanning over fifty years, aided by ample documentation, offers a good insight into the evolution of his idiom, its character as such indicating also a broader perspective on the period.

Hebbar’s artistic formation coincided with that of new India, his beginnings mediating the basis in colonial education and the need to establish indigenous identity, his maturity reflecting the Nehruvian ethos of simultaneous modernisation and affirmation of tradition as the anchor for an image of national unity. Thus, the trajectories lie between western academicism, classical and folkloristic ethnic stylisation as well as post-impressionist, Cubist and abstract inspirations.

They lie between clear references and the urge for private imprint, the very pathway necessitating an oscillation from description, statement or near verbal symbolism, together with the consequent design, to emotive spontaneity and expressiveness embedded in the throbbing animation of the figure and colour texture.

The display which follows the subsequent phases, while sporadically grouping theme-related works from different times, indeed accentuates the many streams that contributed to Hebbar’s development and visualises their varied persistence throughout whether quite separately or almost subsumed by the fully manifested individual style.

Here Hebbar seems to occupy a place after Amrita Ser-Gil or the imperative of reinterpreted indigenous quotation and somewhat before the cogent, personal modernist languages of the slightly younger Progressives. The 1940s likeness in oil sometimes use academic realism with literal correctness, yet sometimes imbue it with much sensitivity, while the portrait of his mother holds tenderness in the delicate precision that hold the memory of traditional painting.

The small watercolour landscapes bridge convention and attuning abut occasionally approximate vibrant, atmospheric abstracts. Soon there enter stylised elements of the indigenous, guided by Sher-Gil fist to be based on folklore’s flat planes of intense hues and emphatic, lucid outlines reconciled with Cubistic motifs. The rustic scenes of daily occupations, cock fights, dance and music-making become predominant evoking vital energy, warmth, innocence, creativity and also accepted sorrow endured passively. Not yet identifying with these people or protesting their condition, the artist is a compassionate, appreciative outsider who nonetheless sees in them the foundation of everything.

Their figure-described dynamism can be felt in the mainstream canvases dealing with the life cycle, its pulse animating the nearly abstract, subtly textured, rippling pigments with tonalities and its linear signs denoting the elements, cosmic phenomena, etc. If line is absorbed there as border between colours and as stroke mingled with and punctured or softened by textures, it comes to the fore in the copious drawings many of which form the most cherished part of Hebbar’s oeuvre.

Although ever echoing in diverse proportion of realism-grounding and a mannerist Matisse-Modigliani-Picasso-ethnic heritage, they often give in to sheer sensation and their rougher, powerfully dynamic, somewhat abbreviated strokes combine rawness and nuance, exuberance and brooding gentleness.

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