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Artist Profile1
Motivations and inspirations of a doyen of his era
In spite of having been trained in the Western tradition, Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar’s work remained soaked in the Indian folk traditions. His idiom was a unique mix of both impressionistic & expressionistic techniques. An acute social concern prompted him to focus on themes like poverty and hunger.

Keen to break away from the constraining academic shackles, he charted his own path and explored the true essence of creativity through India’s traditional and folk art forms albeit with a contemporary touch. In his quest to connect with the roots of his land and culture, he observed the illustrations in Jain Manuscripts, the Ajanta murals as well as Rajput and Mughal miniatures. He even took lessons in the dance form Kathak for a couple of year under Pandit Sunder Prasad which infused an element of rhythm into his drawings and paintings that captured its graceful gestures with precision and unmatched meticulousness.

Born in 1911 in the Udupi district of Karnataka, K K Hebbar belonged to an artisan family. His father would make idols of Lord Ganesha. The background in folk art made him pursue art as a career. During his formative years, he often used to draw from instinct and memory with any material available including lamp soot and peculiar red pebbles ground in gum water. In 1964, he got an opportunity to see the remains of the mystifying Mayan civilization situated in Mexico. The sight of the ruined remains of where the temple of the glorious Sun & the Moon once stood inspired him to paint.

To begin with, especially during the Kerala period when he opted to paint lusty landscapes of the state, he was visibly influenced by the style of Amrita Sher Gill and Paul Gauguin. In fact, the works that he created during this particular period, covering almost a decade or do starting from 1946, is considered quite influential in the evolution of modern Indian art. Critics agree that it has an important place from the point of view of Indian art history. After initial training in Mysore and then at the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, from where he did a Diploma in Painting (1934-38), Hebbar worked as an art instructor there. The artist then visited Europe to study at the Academy Julian (Painting) and Ecole Estinne (Graphics), Paris.

Several of his solos were held at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi (1993); Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai (1987, 1980, 1978); All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS), New Delhi (1973); Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi (1971); Bonythan Art Gallery, Australia (1969); All India Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures, traveling to USSR, Poland and West Germany (1953); Salon de Mai, Paris (1951) apart from show in London, Paris and New York as well as participations in Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil (1959) and the national Exhibitions (1958, 1957, 1956), and Venice Biennale, Italy (1955). His selected posthumous exhibitions include 'An Artist's Quest: K.K Hebbar- A Retrospective', at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore; New Delhi and Mumbai (2011-12); 'The Body Unbound', Rubin Museum of Art, New York (2011-12); ‘Manifestations IV, V, VI', Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi (2011, 2010); 'Indian Art After Independence: Selected Works from the Collections of Virginia & Ravi Akhoury and Shelley & Donald Rubin', Emile Gallery, Hempstead (2009); and 2009 'Bharat Ratna! Jewels of Modern Indian Art' at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2009).

Among several prestigious shows and events in which his work featured were the Venice Biennale, the Sao Paulo Biennale and the Tokyo Biennale, and a series of national exhibitions at Rabindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), New Delhi (1956, 1957 and 1958). The artist won several awards like ‘Padma Bhushan’, Maharashtra State’s Gaurav Puraskar, Karnataka State Rayotsava Award, Karnataka LKA Award for Distinguished Artists, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Honorary D. Litt. from Mysore University, Fellowship, LKA, New Delhi, Padma shri, National Academy of Art Award for his work ‘Mahim Darga’, LKA, New Delhi, National Academy of Art Award for his work ‘Song of the Field’, LKA, New Delhi, National Academy of Art Award for his work ‘Rhythm’, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, and the First Bombay State Art Award, Mumbai. He was nominated as the Chairman of LKA by the President of India (1980-84).

To mark the legendary artist’s birth centenary, NGMA held a major retrospective of his works last year. Apart from showcasing his milestone paintings during the event, talks and workshops were also conducted. A documentary entitled ‘A Tryst With KK Hebbar - An Artist And Innovator’, conceptualized and directed by Mani M Mani was also screened. Expressing his sentiments, the filmmaker was quoted as saying, “It’s an honor to have made my debut film on the legendary artist. This is a tribute to the greatness of an artist whose works continue even after decades to shape the contours of contemporary art worldwide. Hebbar lived life on his own terms and we have captured the essence of it.”

The 30-minute film done over four months was based on references from newspaper clippings and interviews, leading to compilation of useful information about him. The fact that how the artist relished art forms such as kathak and yakshagana and the way they influenced his practice were covered among other aspects and facets of his multi-faceted personality. Captivating characters from the ancient Yakshagana tradition, the colorful open-air drama had indeed cast a spell on him. K K Hebbar breathed his last on March 26, 1996.