From the very beginning of my life as a painter it has been my aim to be able to express my joys and sorrows through colour and line as freely as a child expresses its hunger by crying or its joy through laughter. For this purpose, I had to learn the vocabulary of art and also draw sustenance from the vast treasure accumulated from the past and practiced at present all over the world.
While at art school and immediately afterwards, I used to paint landscapes and figure compositions in the academic style. "At Karli Caves", oils on canvas, 1939, "Street Scene", water colours on paper, 1940, "Thoughts" in oils, 1942, won me awards wherever they were exhibited. Technical skill and colour sense must have been the deciding factors.
The encouragement and the satisfaction that I derived from this initial success did not last long. I wanted to break away from the academic shackles and explore the meaning of creativity through the traditional art forms of my own country. I studied the illustrations in Jain Manuscripts, Rajput and Mughal miniatures and the murals of Ajanta: I discovered that in these works the themes chosen were mostly religious or the life of the elite; whereas I preferred to depict rural life using the traditional techniques that I was familiar with. Prominent among works of this period are "Cattle Mart", "Threshing" and "Festival Dance".
In traditional Indian art, surrealistic and abstract elements co-existed without any conflict. In my paintings "Ganesh" and "Deity", I attempted a similar fusion.
Apart from working in the traditional Indian style, I also painted academic portraits from life in order to earn a living. Although works of this period proved very successful, I was unhappy as I felt that I was not breaking fresh ground.
In 1937, at the annual show of the Bombay Art Society, I saw "A group of Three Girls" - a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil I was thrilled. Sher-Gil had completed her formal education in art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, and back in India, her creativity was enriched by the study of Indian miniatures and the murals of Ajanta and Cochin. It seemed apparent that she was a great admirer of Gauguin. Equipped with 'Western' techniques with which to express her perception of the Orient, she produced such an impressive body of work within a short span of time that she soon became a doyen of modern Indian Art. Her career, though short-lived, inspired and influenced many a young artist. I was one of them. But although I admired her creative ability, there was no trace of her influence on my work until I went on a South Indian tour in the summer of 1946.
While in Kerala, sketching and painting, I was very much reminded of Gauguin's works produced in the South Sea Islands. I could then appreciate the extent to which Sher-Gil must have been influenced by Gauguin's characterisation and brilliant colour orchestration. Purple bodies, draped in white, against green fields in the background, under a bright blue sky, inspired me to paint without being conscious of any style. From then on, until I left for Europe in early 1949, I went on painting freely, subjects that inspired me most. "To Maidenhood", "Sunny South", and "Bathing Beauties" were some of the major works of the period. Reviewing the works of this period in 1948, in 'Bharat Jyoti', art-critic R. Chatterji wrote" … the powerful execution of character and form, the bold colours which he admired in Gauguin but did not have the courage to use until he visited the South some time ago when he actually saw a similar character, form and colour in reality... That has been the turning point of his art. Now he paints without being conscious of any style or technique. He paints as he feels, always searching and experimenting, for something that he has not done before...”
In the year 1949, I went to Europe on a study tour. During this trip, I visited important galleries and Museums in Europe, and finally settled down in Paris for practical training at the Academy Julian. I had taken along with me, quite a few of my earlier works. Wherever I showed them, my "Cattle Mart" became the favourite of artists as well as art-critics. Even the famous French Artist Rouault, pointing at my "Cattle Mart" said "My boy, this is your handwriting, go ahead. What more do you get in Europe?" But I knew I had to learn a lot from the West. At the annual competition held at the Academy Julian, I submitted a composition that I had painted in miniature style. This won a prize of honour. But inwardly I felt dissatisfied for following the beaten track in order to compete with my Western colleagues.
Back in my country, I contemplated on my future approach; to discover myself and to establish my individuality. I realized that reality in art meant different things to different artists. Even to the same artist, it could mean differently as he matured. By this time I had observed the course of art over the centuries both in India and in Europe- from Mohenjodaro to Amrita Sher-Gil, from the primitive to Picasso. Child art also impressed me very much. With so many influences crowding in my mind, I found it difficult to actually get down to working for two years or so. I was just experimenting with media, methods and styles. The lyricism and soothing quality of Indian music, the grace and rhythmic quality of Indian dance, both folk and classical, inspired me to express my feelings in line and colour. I took lessons in Kathak for about two years under the noted Pandit Sunder Prasad, an experience which helped me to infuse rhythm into my drawings.
The human figure, and human joy and sorrow, occupied an important place in my compositions. Because of my love for humanity in general and the working-class in particular, I have often chosen subjects depicting the life of the down-trodden and the under-privileged, as in "Shelter", "Paisa", "Hunger" and "Drywood". I wanted to express my emotional urges without being conscious of styles, East or West. My search was to find the inner beauty of the object: while painting a flower I would try to depict the fragrance of the flower besides its shape and colour.
In the landscape "At Kat-li Caves", I tried to reproduce what I saw before me, whereas in "Mahim Darga", my aim was to inculcate a spiritual quality into my method of working by redesigning the structure and by using mellow, harmonious colours. This painting won me the National Akademi Award in 1956 and was also acquired by the Akademi. Again, in the years 1957 and 1958, I won awards at the annual exhibitions of the Akademi. Thereafter, I stopped competing. I went on working with greater confidence. My aim was to express freely what I felt, or that which inspired me-be it real, imaginary or symbolic.In some of my works one detected the domination of the line, but in most, one could see a fusion of line and mass. My aim was to give equal importance to content and form.
My intention was then, as it is now, to integrate the representational, the metaphysical, the suggestive and symbolic in two-dimensional images in order to achieve inner satisfaction. I established my identity by my individualized method of using line and texture in my works. I was painting relentlessly and exhibiting regularly in the `Bombay Group' (formerly known as the `Progressive group') shows. The art-critic of The Times of India, Bombay, while reviewing my works in the 1959 group exhibition, wrote: "Hebbar’s works have certain distinctive qualities such as linear rhythm, special harmony and expressive colours. The themes he chooses are earthly and commonplace, but his penetrating insight, sensitive temperament and consummate craftsmanship transform them into sublimity itself."
The Lalit Kala Akademi (National Academy of Art), established in the year 1954 undertook the publication of a series of monographs on contemporary Indian art with the intention of popularising the works of India's leading painters and sculptors. The late Prof V.R.Amherkar, art-critic and educationist, in his introduction to a monograph published by the Akademi in 1960, writes: Hebbar is a difficult artist to tag a name on. He is unorthodox, though trained in an Orthodox western style. Avowedly an Indian mannerist, he is free from pseudo-traditional clichés. Though a lover of non-realistic forms, he is not an abstractionist. Deeply interested in the inter-weave of forms and space, he cannot he called a cubist. The different modalities of modern painting, however, are touched on and off, without making a creed. Yet his most successful work cannot fail to pronounce his interest in the problem of space. This problem of space is at the core of the Indianness of Heithar's paintings. All the earlier essays in Indian art forms and their organisation led him to a new understanding of aesthetic space. As a matter of fact, his present work is a re-statement of the Indian aesthetic space in the contemporary idiom.
As a young boy, I used to draw from memory and with available means like lamp soot and red pebbles ground in gum water, characters from the Yakshagana, the colourful open-air drama of South Kanara which had cast a spell on me. I still keep sketching from nature whenever I feel inspired, but with a difference. If I used to pay full attention to verisimilitude in the beginning, I tried later to look into the rhythmic aspect of the line. While sketching the temple sculptures I searched for moving lines in place of details. While drawing dancers, classical or folk, or any other subject in motion, I drew directly with my pen, eliminating the details but stressing the rhythmic aspect. Often I created such rhythmic compositions from memory as well. In such drawings my aim is to achieve the maximum with the minimum lines.
Dr Mulk Raj Anand, the well-known author and art-critic wrote in his introduction to a volume of my drawings: "In the beginning, Hebbar was slightly afraid of letting himself loose into the residuum of his passions. But then the searching vision seems to have travelled beyond mental hierarchies, overtaking practical obstructions, into the region where the tree of life branches out and flows like stars breaking across the sky". This volume, under the title 'Singing Lines', was first published by Peacock Publications, Bombay in 1964 and its revised edition was published by Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, in 1982.
There was a period of about two years when my canvases were filled with rocks of irregular shapes depicting scenes from mythological stories, wherein the forms, colour and texture obeyed the same qualities that I had observed and studied in stone, on the bas reliefs of the temple sculpture at Hampi in Karnataka. I called this series "Saga in Stone".
Music and dance were my favourite themes. While painting "War Dance" and "Garlands", I introduced the accompanying music in strips on the sides, thus adding the appropriate atmosphere. In "Tamasha", musicians singing and playing their instruments are incorporated on the same plane and the erotic content of the theme is emphasised by the use of brilliant red all over the canvas.
In the early paintings on music, the musicians were shown clearly, whereas in the later works, the musicians disintegrated and sound patterns dominated the canvas, for example in "Veena". Similarly, I painted a series entitled "Moods of Peacock". Art-critic Dr Hermann Hertwig, while reviewing my show at the Gallery Surya, West Germany, in the paper "Rheinfalz" on April 10, 1975, writes - "In the oils by K.K. Hebbar, music flows in colourful harmony towards the spectator, giving him a feeling of the mysterious". Another art-critic, Dr William Eisenbarth reviewing the same exhibition for his paper "Mannheimer Morgen" on April 11, 1975 writes: "To the enchantingly mellow colour harmony of his paintings on music, he adds a special quality, the speculative character which he derives from Indian mythology. At the same time, these canvases follow the laws of rational and constructivistic calculation. These elements of abstraction do not assert themselves in an isolated manner, but melt together with form and expression as a most subtle entity, as can be seen in these masterpieces"
The launching of the first rocket and its swirling movement in space thrilled me beyond comprehension. From "Rocket" onwards, I painted several canvases expressing my awe and admiration for the scientific and technical achievement of the present century. At the same time, I was conscious of the seeds of destruction that technology carried in its womb, and paintings like "Holocaust" and "Life and Death" express this fear. I sought to look into the world than be a mere looker-on.
Deeply saddened by the horrors of war in Bangladesh I expressed my distress in "Atrocity" where cruelty was depicted in contrasting forms and colours. In another canvas, "Refugees" the river Padma, flowing with blood, divides the canvas; with the bombarded city on one side and a group suggestive of refugees on the other. There is an abstract-expressionistic slant to the treatment in this particular work.
I was always fascinated by the antecedents of a sight and its precincts. In the year 1964, I visited the remains of the Mayan civilisation in Mexico. I saw two mounds almost crumbled, where, I was told, temples for the Sun and the Moon once stood. This sight inspired me to create "Homage to Sun and Moon". Here I have tried to show the awe and respect that the ancients had towards the Sun and Moon as universal deities. I had to treatthis painting in a different way to enhance its supernatural content.
During my month-long stay in Simla in 1982, I was fascinated by the overlapping roads that encircled the hill-station, with its awe-inspiring backdrop of mountain peaks. Back in my studio after a couple of months, I expressed my reaction with near-abstract patterns of bright and contrasting colours "CLOUDS".
I have earlier spoken about the `spiritual' quality in painting. I would like to refer particularly to 'Naga Mandala', painted in 1986. Here a cobra occupies a dominant position and covers almost the entire canvas. The person possessed by the cobra-spirit is shown with a bunch of arecanut flowers in his hands, vibrating from head to foot. The dancer praises the Naga occasionally and also abuses him at other times to the beat of drums. The textural quality achieved here enhances the `spiritual' content of the painting.
I consider Energy to be an all-pervading force with various manifestations. It was while I was contemplating on Energy, that I felt an urge to portray symbolically the five elements which are the sources of Energy-Earth (Prithvi), Water (Jal), Fire (Agni), Wind (Vayu), and Ether (Akash). Works relevant to this period are "Energy" and "Surging Form". While conceiving and executing these works, I made simultaneous use of my intuition, intellect and emotion. These are essentially symbolic expressions, as is, also, "Rituals" which depicts the austerity of a group of ancestor-worshippers, and the awe-inspiring atmosphere created around them, with oversized crows (to signify the spirits of the dead who are being appeased) sweeping down to accept the offerings.
Another recent work with similar overtones is "May Flowers'. In this painting the burning tree-trunk cutting across the background of mayflowers conveys the heat of summer, and the treatment is semi-abstract.
Earlier this year, I saw a bright red road running through lush green fields in Goa. I could also see blue water at a distance. Inspired, I composed a painting entitled "Goa", which seems to lean towards the abstract-expressionistic idiom.
Time and again, I have tried to depict the subjective aspects of poverty, hunger and imperfection. Each time, I have tried to bring out the active life-spirit hidden within rustic village folk; the poor and ordinary people of my surroundings. I have arrived at a point in my life when tranquillity and detachment prevail, promoting the possibility of inward contemplation and search. Expression of reality with the utmost simplicity has been my aim throughout. Calmness and quietude help my creativity.
I have traced the progression of my imagery from the academic to near-abstraction. My works are generated by my intense feeling for my environment. I seek to fine myself and follow it to wherever it leads me. Thus continues my voyage in images.