Free Press Journal

Painter Rekha Rao: Keeping Her Father’s Legacy


My first meeting with Rekha was on the cruise from Stockholm to Oslo. Graceful, soft-spoken, mild-mannered and very very polite: Rekha is the epitome of good upbringing and great lineage. A pleasure to be with, always.

Your father KK Hebbar is one of India’s best known painters. Is it burdensome to live in the shadow of a famous father?

 I had this inexplicable need to draw and paint from early childhood. It had a lot to do with my father being an artist. Our house was filled with canvasses and colours, our home crackled with culture and creative energy. Papa set before me a challenging path by insisting I study Indian and Western Art History and not attend any formal Art School. It was a Guru-Shishya relationship where the teacher believed ‘the less you teach the more your student learns’. In my early paintings, Hebbar’s influence did linger in the subjects and strokes but gradually I brushed them off.

Three important things you leant from your father?

I learnt to tap my experiences of visual and tactile pleasures and compulsions in a disarmingly direct, interesting and instantly recognisable way. Colour became the vehicle of my thought.

My father used to admire the works of Picasso and would often quote; ‘ To draw you must close your eyes and sing’. Painting is not a literary exercise. It should be the story woven by the artist whose vocabulary comprises shapes, surface texture and colour .

He taught me to see an image within every stone and rock and let loose the creative process. His words keep ringing in my ears ‘Let colours speak to you as inexplicably as music.’

Is Rekha Rao’s style inspired by KK Hebbar or is it independent?

As I was growing up, Indian artists had to grapple with a lot of contentious issues. In the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, artists K G Subramanyan, SG Vasudev, Sankho Choudhary,P T Reddy, writers (Mulk Raj Anand) (Dr Shivaram Karanth), journalists(A S Raman, Dharam Vir Bharati), musicians(Halim Jaffer Khan,), dancers( Chandralekha, Sonal Mansingh), Balraj Sahani, Hrishikesh Mukherjee often visited our house.  And there was a regular debate and discourse on art. I was influenced by their socialistic thoughts. I have conducted art classes for under privileged children in Mumbai for 10 years and taught local unlettered women, basic banking skills. These experiences have coloured my works. My approach to painting is spontaneous. A thought germinates in my mind and acts as a catalyst. My language of colours is my own and has evolved over the years.

Your abstracts have many interpretations. What are your favorite themes?  

I explore themes that are etched in my memory like social inequalities, the environment, the position of women, daily events, along with dance and theatre, I want my work to live with a paradox: When it seems most descriptive and representational, the illusion of place and situation exists only on a superficial plane. For the real painting distends any factual reference. Conversely when the painting appears broader, its references are more specific.

In 2012 NGMA did your fathers retrospective to mark his birth centenary. Tell us more

In 2011, my sister Rajani Prasanna (Art Historian) and I were asked to curate an exhibition of my father’s works by National Gallery of Modern Art Bengaluru by Sobha Nambisan the then Director of the Museum, This retrospective show was to mark the birth centenary year of K K Hebbar. We were happy and at the same time sceptical. Collectors bought most of his drawings and paintings during his lifetime. Several others were acquired by museums in India and abroad.

Hebbar’s journey through five decades of relentless search to capture the essence of life culminated in symbolism which has been both deep and personal. We took care to select the best works spanning nearly half a century to present Hebbar- a lover of music, and dance. He was an artist of great simplicity and integrity. We sourced over hundred works that bore mythic simplicity, a timelessness and an instantly recognisable signature. This exhibition travelled to NGMA Delhi and NGMA Mumbai. A documentary,’ An Artist’s Quest’ was also produced covering his oeuvre.

How does it feel to be a celebrated artist’s daughter?

 I feel privileged and proud to be my father’s daughter.

(Mukul Rai Bahadur is an art lover, collector and critic. He lives in Mumbai and works in a media company. He can be reached at

Pictures courtesy: The Kailasham Trust; Mukul Rai Bahadur