Contesting National and the State: K K Hebbar’s Modernist Project : HA Anil Kumar

An attempt to grasp and understand Modern Art in India is to agree to travel in a vehicle which is extremely hegemonic in nature, with too many ‘left over’ from within that hierarchy. It is high time for that vehicle to stop and get an overhaul done before it traverses more sophisticated premises. In other words, the deletions and inclusions of Indian Modern Art (IMA) indicate a ‘selection’ of artists- and hence art works and art situations- framed and hung as ‘the’ Indian Modernists. The selection itself speaks about a certain epistemological politics of rejection, which, perhaps, is more evident now rather than when it was initially ‘framed’. This is also an Ulmerian*1* attempt to take note and contest if possible the critique of IMA as well as the ‘modernist’ avatar of that very critique itself, with the help of the dialogue around cultural expressions in paravisual artistic activities in India! Hence every time an Indian Modernist is being referred to, addressed or explained, now, it also means:
(a) An addressal of the silenced ones, not only those from the ‘other’ gender,
(b) A re-construction and endorsement of the cultural imagination that a single, singular object (alone) makes an artwork (‘Meaning follows Object’ that sounds like ‘form follows function’, an architectural dictum, and never the other way round); and
(c) The consideration of an elaborate critique of ‘Art’ as unwarranted, indulgent and “too much of reading” as a taboo.

In other words, there is no Indian Modernist Art beyond its construed institutional imagination! The ‘power’ (structure) of this imagination also marks the outermost boundary of the overall personality of this Modernity. The specific characteristics of this imagination was constituted in the form of singular objects, aided by specific (ity of) celebrated authorship (like the Bengal Masters and the Bombay Progressive Groups); and an uncritical idealistic (almost metaphorical) position for those authors/artists/art experts.*2* Thus it would be hypocritical and/or innocent to consider or assign an ‘absolutist’ position to IMA, as it might (or might not) be in the case of European Modernity.

The apparatus of modern art, in general, as and when it is ‘upgraded’, redefines what Modern Indian Art means. At least ideally it should be so. The only seemingly relevant question to be posed, now, by the Indians about Indian Modernity is “whose ‘Indian’ ‘Modernity’ is it?” with a stress on both the italicized words, simultaneously! This implies that Indian Modern Art is yet an incomplete project, in the making, whose fate is decided by its critical apparatus and the power structure it hails from, that undergoes a metamorphosis, time and again. Or, how democratic and dramatic it would be to treat IMA as an ever incomplete project, and consider how it would then (alone) intervene beyond its ‘timely’ boundaries. The pleasure of ‘sharing’ (note the ‘left’ utopia in the highlighted word) is always a thorn in the rejoicement of the celebrity status!

In this background of slightly disengaging thought process, and a clear pleasurable demand for a spoke into the turning wheel*3*, added with a warning about danger of yet ‘retaining’ a simplistic definition about IMA, I would like to contemplate on such and other notions about modern art, possibly, through a monographic mode. Towards this, I would like to reflect upon the making and breaking of one such Indian Modernist Artist, K K Hebbar or Kattengeri Krishna Hebbar (15th June 1911- 26th March1996)

Hebbar’s relevance lies in his serving of this very nationalist position of an Indian modernist very irrelevant. He was a diasporic-from-within, neither a nationalist nor a regionalist. Hence Hebbar is a vertical split in the imagination of artistic Nation-State: Actually his works belonged nowhere, which implies that they neither belonged everywhere. Those who have written, debated (hardly), discussed his works categorized him as a Progressive Nationalist in English and as a State Hero in Kannada! This is what I term as splitting the notion of Nation-State vertically! The question to be asked is: Where does one place that creative output that refutes both the national and the regional?

While the Cholamandalam artists consumed the regional, the Kalabhavan artists created the regional; Hebbar was actually contesting the regional. Both Yashavantha Chittala and Hebbar hailed from a linguistically oriented geographic identity (Karnataka) and problematised such belongingness in their creative outputs*4*.

Why does one refuse where they hail from, and in turn, why do they address such refusal itself in their artistic construct? You want to forget, but before that want to make that very act of forgetfulness an everlasting act. Arguably, the better known contemporary friends of Hebbar (Husain, Raza, Gade, and Tyeb Mehta) were all in the process of ‘construing’ the urban-metropolis while Hebbar was refuting this very process of addressal, a genuine reversal of the Indian Modernist Agenda. Nehruvian ideology was to ‘construct’, ‘be constructive’ and be involved in nation-‘building’ process. The currently resounding urban ‘real estate’ meaning that such terms evoke, now, is rather a post- Indian Modernist evocation, connected to such critical progressive utopias. However the origin of such positivist attitude was held to be something that was to be forced in a nation which had newly gained an identity of its own self, owing to political independence. Being progressive and seeing progress only in the modernist production was perhaps the main drawback of the writings about the progressives!

Hebbar was either silent about it in ‘person’ or protested about this by ‘representation’ both of which can be wrongly refuted by those who presume to know his works thoroughly. One of the reasons for this is that the initial decade’s post-Indian independence which produced ‘visual signs as cultural representation’ later found a historic past to these signs (concepts like the living tradition). Postivisim, a la Nehruvian project was an attempt to position Hebbar in the National-feel of Indian art history. However, the same Hebbar, as seen by the Kannada critics*5* tried to place his paintings and drawings as a homage to regional flavour, that too within the cultural past of South Canara, which lies to the western part of Karnataka. Here is a catch-22 situation, wherein the nationalist Hebbar is pitched against the region-specific Hebbar. In the former case he is a tiny figure among the first urban Modernist while in the latter case, he is a hero who projected the otherwise remote and unknown South Canara flavor of performative practices of Kathakali, Yakshagana on a nationalistic canvas. The vertical divide that Hebbar was subject to, through his creative representations, makes him a true internal-diasporic, who stayed in Bombay all through his professional years, yearning for the long lost ‘home’ only through representations. Neither did he return back home (like say Chagall) nor did he forget it, nor did he legitimize the physical space he lived in Mumbai.

However, the formal readings into his works, through his persona alone, and the group belonged to, are so mesmeric that those who hold on to it, more sullenly after reading my point of view, represent that very formal analysis to which paintings and painterly representations suited more than anything else. Hebbar held drawing in that extreme position where exactly his co-creators held for or against oil media. His ‘drawing lines’ are a title availed to him due to his subconscious approval of replacing the national/modern/painterly through deconstructive-nation/contested modern/linear depictions.

Interestingly, the major body of works that Hebbar produced is inter-textual. Be it the ‘Nagamandala’ painting, his Yakshagana drawings, his live production of dance performances, all in all are (a) negotiative acts and question as to how the representational media and devices of static visual culture could intervene with other ‘nationally’ recognized and endorsed non-literal art forms. An internal diasporic producing inter-textuality is the last thing that a positivist, nationalist (alone) body of writings and criticism around the Indian modernist art preferred or would prefer.

He was perhaps ‘the’ only theoretically acknowledged Karnataka artist to have undergone an ‘urban-Diaspora’ experience, painting:
(a) Memories of the rituals from his childhood rural hometown; and
(b) The world events that came to him through the news media.

In this sense, he experienced and represented a certain multiple-alienation, and ‘translated’ them into contemporary visual premises. For instance, the folk-tribal-traditional visual language became a subject of his mainstream art. His experience of the urban Diaspora and his concern for the ethnic language metamorphosed into a subject that mutually recreated each other through his works. His “Nagamandala” painting, for instance, has an urban international painterliness as a style, while the subject matter is specific to the Western belt of Karnataka. Being a witness to the major art events, movements, and socio-political happenings to 20th century India, Hebbar- like MF Husain- and his works, can be summarily grasped as a container of (a) various painterly styles, (b) belonging to deviant genres and ages, (c) that too alive in an age when internationally the Euro-centric critics announced the ‘death of painting’.

He wrote and spoke a lot about being ‘national’ while the State he hails from has officially endorsed him as ‘the’ visual representative of the Kannada cultural nationalism. The only State Government museum for a post-independent artist of the State is dedicated to him and his works (Hebbar section, 1996, at Venkatappa Gallery). He was instrumental in being the pedagogic support to the first generation of contemporary and postmodernist artists from the State in the 80s. He personally took care of availing scholarships and morally facilitating to art students, who wanted to study in established art schools at Baroda and Santiniketan.

An anecdote says that his work was chosen for the coverage of a major catalogue of Indian art in the Japanese Fukuoka Museum because he was “the least controversial” among Indian artist personalities! Being democratic might be inevitable for an internal-diasporic. This was perhaps in honour of his Tagorean outlook of being aware of the ill effects of confirmation to the nationalistic ideologies. For him a successful idea executed badly and the mark of a tired brilliant attempt led to legitimizing ideologies. His overall works, together, are interested in passing through various styles and media (oil, drawing, illustrations, and writings) rather than confirm to various ‘isms’.

Hebbar stretched the definition of an ‘art personality’ by making it both interactive and inter-disciplinary. Towards this, he illustrated landmark literary works of the like of Dr. Shivarama Karantha and was known for demonstrating line drawings during live performance. In the background of the fact that ‘demonstrating’ art was a Modernist (but not contemporary) preoccupation of art teachers, Hebbar’s attempt to make it interactive paved way to the future public-art formats, particularly in Bangalore. This could be considered as a certain aesthetic Diaspora.

Ideologically, he was neither left nor right, but was keen on–and often succeeded in- inculcating what was best of those two and their off shoots, that could effectively address the question of the twentieth century phenomena of ‘alienation’ and ‘Diaspora’. Hebbar artistically existed in a ‘home-away-from-home’, not only through his lifestyle but also in the way:
(a) he stretched the rudiments and language of art (by painting in deviant styles),
(b) got involved in art activism (by empowering a whole generation of artists to widen their perspective of art) and thus
(c) laid foundation for public and community art (through artistic demonstrations of performances, in public).

[1] Gregory Ulmer, article: “Object of Post-Criticism”, in ‘Anti Aesthetic Essays in Postmodern Culture’, Ed: Hal Foster.
[2] For instance the question as to why Hebbar’s select set of artworks are housed in a museum, alongside K Venkatappa (at K Venkatappa Chitrashale, Bangalore) and more importantly why the rest of the Karnataka Modernists have been un-represented are questions that belong to such heroic-narratives, about Indian modernists, through modernist critique.
[3] Read: the novel “A Spoke in the Wheel” by Amita Kanekar. The narrative involves the demand for a factual reportage about Goutam Buddha’s life, posthumously; hindered by the institutionalized and authoritarian re-articulation. In the end, the book (to be) written by Upali is subject to deconstruction in a situation controlled by Emperor Ashoka. The deconstruction of Indian Modern Art’s heroic narrative is so much authoritative frozen that forget about the addition of subtraction of its protagonists, even an attempt to re-arranging the mapping of the modernists and their representation, currently, is undesirable, though it might yield rich dividends.
[4] Chittala’s novels deal with intricate, miniature-like detailing of the Bombay houses, chawl, roads and is a thorough map that can be rendered only by a pronounced ‘outsider’, who wishes to retain the outsider-ness as a tag. If Chittala digs deep into the grain to prove otherwise, Hebbar refused to bring this refusal to ‘belong’ to either Bombay or elsewhere, by relying upon only on what he ‘imagined’ (in his paintings) and what he ‘saw’ (in drawings) about the ‘past’.
[5] G.Venkatachalam, B V K Shastry and S N Chandrashekar wrote in regional papers, but main in two languages. No matter what their outlook about Hebbar was, it did not–and will neveraffects the way the ‘national’ art historical agenda considers the artist.

Courtesy : ART news & views

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