As a child, Rekha Rao learnt the ropes of painting from her father, artist K.K. Hebbar, at the family’s bungalow in Bandra, Mumbai. Now, its weathered walls and pillars house Rao’s own studio in the city, where she paints when her 4,000 sq.ft space in Bangalore doesn’t inspire her. The decrepit bungalow’s history is stamped on the numerous photos, sketches and paintings that hang from its walls, in its furniture and its books. We meet on a rainy morning, and more than her own art, Rao relives her childhood.
Hebbar—a contemporary of some of the illustrious graduates of Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art, such as M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta and S.H. Raza—bought this bungalow soon after independence. It was the regular haunt of Husain and Raza, author Mulk Raj Anand and others, where over tea, they would discuss the future of modern art in India. “There was this sense of euphoria. With political freedom, my father and his contemporaries wanted to break out of Western influences and create what is uniquely modern Indian art. I was little, but I remember that Nehru figured a lot in these conversations,” the Bangalore-based artist recalls.
The influence of her father in her sensibility and palette is hard to miss. Trained at the J.J. School and the Academy Julian in Paris, Hebbar discouraged his daughter’s inclination for formal education. “He told me that there is a childlike, spontaneous impulse in creating art and that gets diluted by formal training. Perhaps because of that, I’m a misfit in many ways,” says Rao. She studied at Mumbai’s Elphinstone College because it was close to Jehangir Art Gallery. Every other day, she would return home with exhibition catalogues and discuss the works displayed with her father. “We rarely agreed on what was good and what was bad.”
Rao also remembers accompanying children from her school to watch political leaders pass through the city: “On one occasion, I saw Nehru from very close, waving at us as he was being driven to the airport, and another time in the mid-1950s, when Nikita Kruschev visited Mumbai while he was secretary of the communist party in Russia.”
Rao’s semi-abstract idiom—robustly-coloured abstract forms are juxtaposed with light and sketchy geometric patterns or human and animal forms—is steeped in a traditional sensibility that is not in vogue today. She says the simple chaos of middle-class settings, such as the marketplace, appeals to her “old school sensibility”.
Nothing about Rao belies that sensibility. She is yet to embrace the radical changes that have come about in Indian art in the last two decades; her choice of subjects and medium are still dictated by instinct, as they were when she first began to paint.
Most of her works combine oil and acrylic and, at recent auctions, they have fetched between Rs12 lakh and Rs15 lakh.
Rao developed her own style as a painter through the 1960s, learning under her father, until her first solo exhibition in Mumbai in 1969. That was an era when abstract art in India was beginning to take shape through Raza’s experiments with geometric shapes and the bindu and the neo-tantric abstract form, which was inspired by tantra imagery. “A lot of young artists at that time tried to develop their own abstract forms. But I was never able to do away with figurative forms. But, like the present, it was a great time for Indian art. The Illustrated Weekly used to have articles on artists’ works,” she recalls.
Like many artists of her age, Rao is not entirely gung-ho about the explosion of styles and media in today’s art world. Quite predictably, too, she is cynical of the booming prices of Indian artworks all over the world: “Often, what arrests you at first glance does not linger. I get the impression that a lot of the images created by using new media are recycled.”