Strokes of a genius  

Artist and daughter Rekha Hebbar Rao, on the recent purchase, the legacy of her father’s work, his influence on her art and more.
KK Hebbar’s 'Krishna The Divine Herdsman'
KK Hebbar’s 'Krishna The Divine Herdsman'

BENGALURU: When Bengaluru-based artist Rekha Hebbar Rao heard of one of her father’s paintings being sold at a whopping Rs 2,90,37,188, she was glad to see his work finally ‘getting the recognition that it deserves’. “His works have been auctioned before but this is the highest it has been,” says Rao. Her father is none other than KK Hebbar, one of the most influential painters of modern Indian art who carved a unique path for himself by blending traditional Indian aesthetics with modernist techniques. In a recent auction hosted by AstaGuru titled Masters Legacy, which showcased an exquisite array of rare works from different periods of modern art, one of Hebbar’s oil on canvas paintings 'The Divine Herdsman' (1987)– an iconic image of Krishna with his flute – was sold for Rs 2.9 crore. 

“The post-Independence era began with a search for modernity in visual arts. Now a challenge lay for all Indian artists to confront and understand modernism. My father found himself confronting the same dilemma. He sought to address this by subtly turning to his own tradition and culture while using Western tools like canvas and oil colours. He found his own space to define his style through line, form and colour and establish his own identity. His painting, The Divine Herdsman bears testimony to this thought process,” shares the 77-year-old artist. 

Empathy at the heart of it 

Born to a modest Brahmin family in the village of attingeri, Hebbar’s artistic sensibilities were nurtured early on through frequent visits to the Udupi Krishna Temple. “There he saw certain mythological subjects painted on the walls of the temple (copies of Raja Ravi Varma) by a local artist Ramanna. He was so impressed that he bought an oleograph of Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma for two annas,” says Rao. As Hebbar set out on a quest to master art, he was driven by deep empathy for the underprivileged – a theme recurrent in his works. “There was a tile factory in front of our house where the workers after a hard day’s toil sang and danced. I often accompanied him across the street to sit amongst them and enjoy a cup of tea or join them in their festivities like Deepavali and Holi,” reflects Rao.  

Rekha Rao with father KK Hebbar and mother Susheela Hebbar
Rekha Rao with father KK Hebbar and mother Susheela Hebbar

‘No pressure on me to follow his style’ 

Rao recalls being drawn to art from a very early age. “My memories go back to when I was four years old. Every day, I felt this great need to draw, scribble, paint with sheets of drawing paper all strewn around me,” says Rao. Growing up in a house that doubled as a studio, Rao’s artistic path was inevitably shaped by her father’s legacy. “I am placed by history and personal circumstances. My father’s studio crackled with creative energy. Artists, writers, musicians, dancers and art students stopped by at his studio,” recounts Rao, adding, “Debates, arguments raged continuously about art, tradition and social justice. Every Deepavali, personalities like lawyer Karl Khandalawala and writer Mulk Raj Anand converged at our home to celebrate the festival. All this moulded my sensibilities and at the core of all this was my deep relationship with my father.” Despite the dynamic environment, there was no pressure on her to emulate her father’s style. “There was a delicate interdependence and creative exchanges. Every exhibition that I visited and our personal works were discussed threadbare with my father. But there was no pressure on me to follow his style or concerns,” she says. 

Within the vast repertoire of her father’s works, there are many that are close to Rao’s heart. “My father is renowned for his line drawings. His book, Singing Lines and drawings to illustrate the Tamil epic poem,  Silappadikaram are masterpieces.” Reflecting on the current state of Indian art, Rao observes a shift towards an rban consciousness, influenced heavily by technology and global trends.

However, she remains steadfast in her belief that the core of creativity remains unchanged, asserting, “Underlying everything are the unifying principles of creativity in art. Artists have always responded to their environment and happenings in their society and the world, irrespective fame and wealth.”   

Rekha Hebbar Rao
Rekha Hebbar Rao

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