The Bengal School, now a spent force, arrived with a bang at the turn of the present century. Full of idealism and fuelled by patriotic fervor, it became a rallying point for the artists who fancied that revivalism was the only answer to the “menacing” modernism of the West which by then had become a formidable force.
The exponenets of the Bengal School, under the leadership of, paradoxically enough, an Englishman, EB Havell, south to recapture the power and glory of the great Indian masterpieces of the past, such as the Ajanta frescoes, the Mughal and Rajput miniatures and the delicacy and harmony, of the traditional designs.
A few dedicated and dynamic pioneers of the revivalist wave translated their vision and philosophy into their art which was Indian without being syrupy or sentimental and modern without being alien or aggressive. They were all gentle giants. One such heroic figure was K. Venkatappa (1887-1963) whose birth centenary is being currently celebrated in Karnataka under the collective auspices of the state government, state and Central Lalit Kala Akademies and the Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishath.
Venkatappa was aware not only of the limitations of the modern idiom in the Indian context but of the inherent weakness of the Bengal School. So he decided to concentrate on painting in a style that suited his state, temperament and technique. He was a natural artist perfectly in tune with the subjects he painted.
I never met Venkatappa. Never even saw him. But I followed his career from a distance with the sympathy of one who cared for him. My concern for him was prompted by my realization that he was a serious, sensitive and self-respecting artist who knew who was and what was what in the world of art. I was convinced that had the experience and expertise to translate what he knew into visual form. He used his brush as a poet used his pen and they both produced the same result; a succession of exquisitely evocative images, Venkatappa visually and the poet verbally.
Venkatappa came of a family with a long tradition of artistic skills. His ancestors were all “chitragaras” who intuitively painted with uncanny precision and delicacy using gold leaf for building up their decorative designs. But he differed from them in one respect: What they regarded as mere craft was to him creative expression, which meant that he had to look inward for drawing the spiritual strength and sustenance needed to give an aesthetic thrust to his work. But he had no pretensions, struck no poses, propounded no theories and issued no manifestos. He was a strong, silent and sophisticated painter in love with his own vision and technique.
What distinguished him from other followers of the Bengal School was his own intensive search for what he understood as the ethos of Indian art fitting neatly into the format of contemporary expression. He was against modern art. But he was not against modern sensibility. He was against modern art. But he was not against modern sensibility. He was against the idealistic overtones of the Bengal School. But he was against the basic inspiration behind it.
He had the early training at Mysore where he was born. The local Government Industrial School, was where he had his first lessons in drawing (1902-1908). Later he went to Calcutta for advanced study. He joined the Government School of Arts and Crafts where he studied for seven years (1909-1916) under Abanindranath Tagore and Percy Brown. In 1910 he was selected by Lady Herringham as one of the artists commissioned to copy the frescoes at Ajanta. His teacher, Abanindranath Tagore, was his ideal. Abanindranath taught him among many other things, the eternal truth that “to an artist his art is father, mother and God -- his all.”
In Calcutta Venkatappa came into close contact with many important artists such as Nandalal Bose and Gaganendranath Tagore. He welcomed the opportunity to copy the Ajanta frescoes in the company of artists he admired. But he knew that copying was only the first step. Copying is necessary for an artist in the early years of his career. It is a discipline he has to go through in the interests of his own responses to the challenges of an evolving technique. But copying should stop, the moment he acquires control over his technique.
Venkatappa naturally decided to go whatever his own vision and technique took him. So he came under no influences. He worked with Gaganendranath but in his own style showing little interest in his colleague’s romantic cubism. They both painted serene Himalayan landscapes set in Darjeeling. But they never influenced each other. They were too self-assured and self-sufficient to express themselves in borrowed accents. Venkatappa’s heart was in Karnataka though his mind was obsessed with all the good things of life the Bengal School had stood for but failed to achieve.
By about 1920 Venkatappa has arrived in a big way. He was one of the major artists of India. He left Bengal and returned to his native Karnataka. His desire had always been to interpret the soul of Karnataka in a national idiom. Mysore opened its heart to him and he settled down there to become one of its most illustrious sons. He kept up a studio and soon attracted an affluent and influential clientele. He had widely acclaimed one-man shows and his works began to find their way into many prestigious private and public collections in India and abroad.
His Ramayana and Mahabharata series made a strong impact on public opinion. His feeling for human figure which he rendered with extraordinary warmth and empathy could be seen at its noblest in his interpretations of Sankaracharya, the Buddha, Tipu Sultan, Pratapa Simha, Damayanti, etc. His favourite medium was watercolour over which he had an unsurpassed mastery. But he painted in oils also just to prove his openness to western ideas and materials. He had a receptive mind and a strong will. He was fond of painting landscapes, birds scenes from our ancient epics. Impressed by one of his bird scenes from our ancient epics. Impressed by one of his bird studies, William Rothenstein is reported to have said: “Venkatappa deserved to be the head of any school of art.”
An important aspect of Venkatappa’s art needs stressing. It was smooth, sober and suave and was free from overtones of any kind. He had a genius for telling understatement. He was not interested in painting poverty, misery, squalor, violence etc, because he was an ardent lover of beauty, harmony and peace. Similarly he wouldn’t be casual or brash in his drawing or brush strokes, though he was capable of impairing virility and vibrancy to a figure just by drawing a few broken or suggestive lines, the gimmicks-the pseudo-modernists resort to as cover for the technical incompetence. He was against shortcuts, formulas and clichés. He believed in solid and sound craftsmanship not for its own sake but as a tool for tightening the nuts and bolts of his compositions.
People thought that Venkatappa being a recluse by choice was a sulky, imperious snob with little respect for social graces and refinements. He was no doubt reticent and withdrawn, shunning the company of fools and bores. But when he accepted someone, he unwound himself and felt thoroughly relaxed. He was full of fun and bonhomie.
Venkatappa did some relief work in plaster. But he was not very successful in this medium. His natural medium was watercolour and the subject which drew the best of him was landscape which he painted with remarkable skill and sensitivity. It is said that when an artist loves the subjects he paints, his work become juicy. No wonder that Venkatappa’s art was never a bore. One could readily respond to it as was unpretentious, natural and spontaneous. He was at his best in the miniature format. His paintings had the tenderness and sensuousness of the Pahari and Rajasthani masterpieces. He was an artist perfectly at peace with himself disciplines, well organized and totally committed to whatever values he cherished.
He was a great musician too. A veena virtuoso. His guru was the legendary Veena Seshanna. Venkatappa is said to have designed a unique veena of 22 srutis. Whatever he did, he did with the diabolical determination and passion of a perfectionist.
Published in The Times of India, May 17, 1987, pp. 2