The fine lines

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Nov 27 2011, 08:07am hrs
The art world is often hit by stories of hidden canvasses and lost works of great masters surfacing after years of obscurity. But every time a gem is uncovered, it is a cause of wonder. Not just that the work could be hidden, but that it is discovered often by accident and entirely in circumstances which reflect an artists self doubt.

The discovery of 51 line drawings and sketches by KK Hebbar, depicting the great Tamil classic Silappadikkaram, is one such story. They are on display for the first time at a retrospective being held at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi.

According to Rekha Rao, Hebbars daughter, and her sister Ranjani Prasanna, the curator of the retrospective, the sketches were discovered during the aftermath of the deluge of Mumbai in July 2005. Our house in Kalanagar was flooded, and after the rains subsided we waded in to see what could be salvaged from the house. Our fathers studio was on the mezzanine floor of the house and wrapped up in a packet were these 51 sketches, says Rao.

The story of Silapaddikaram revolves around Kannagi and her husband Kovalan. When Kovalan loses his fortune while pursuing a courtesan, he returns broke and disheartened to the domestic hearth. Kannagi forgives her husband and gives him her anklet to sell and use the capital to start a new business. Kovalan, however, is arrested on suspicion of theft and beheaded. When Kannagi hears of the tragedy, she rushes to Madurai city where the beheading happened and condemns the city to be set ablaze. The story is rendered beautifully in Hebbars characteristic style and the irony of Madurai going down in flames and Kannagis story being revealed after a deluge is not lost on anyone.

In the 1960s, the Illustrated Weekly of India was edited by AS Raman, a great connoisseur of art and literature. He loved the Silapaddikaram story and persuaded Hebbar (as Rao refers to the artist) to do the series, she says.

Just why these sketches hadnt been discovered before is not something Rao dwells on. We were children then, we thought all this would last forever, she adds.

The lines of the sketches, like most of Hebbars line drawings, have a rhythm to ita reference to the fact that the painter, born in 1911, in Kattingere in Udipi, Karnataka, had formal training in music and loved the Yakshagana theatre.

His early works are structured and have often been referred to as his Kerala phase. It was when Hebbar travelled and studied in Europe at the Academie Jullian that his work, always India-centric, throbbed with a new idiom. As his work progressed, more abstraction appeared on his canvasses and line drawings. He was famous for conveying a particular mood in just five lines.

His preoccupation with music and dance and with the rhythms of rural life in south Karnataka come through clearly. His portrait work is housed in a separate section at the exhibition and shows the journey from a realistic approximation to a more abstract form most clearly.

He would always say that it was later in life that he grew more sure of just how he wanted the portraits to be depictedcapturing the essence of a person than an approximation of features. He referred to it as Bhava Chitra, says Rao.

If his European education and travels had taught him anything, it was that he had to return to India and paint there. From paintings depicting the birth of Bangladesh to a nuclear cloud to a cockfight, his concerns were Indian. During his lifetime, his close contact with great writers like Shivaram Karanth and Vyasarao Ballal provided the environment where his art flourished.

Most of the paintings have been sourced from various private owners, where insurance issues were not very complicated, and from the Hebbar Foundation itself. Hebbar did not believe that art could be claimed by simply having a blood tie. In his lifetime itself, the foundation was the custodian of most of his art. We three siblings have perhaps one painting each, says Rao, adding, We called up people who we knew had some of his paintings to provide as holistic a view of his body of work as possible. The retrospective, the eighth in a series organised by the culture ministry and the NGMA, is a wide ranging one. To visit the exhibition is, therefore, a visit in a sense a slice of history in Indian art, before the grand auctions and prices, and high society buyers. And to discover how in a very modern sense, one of Indias foremost artists embarked on a journey to find his oeuvre, his inner eye.