27 Sept 2017

A Tribute to Artist M.B. Patil

In this insightful article, H.A. Anil Kumar contemplates M.B. Patil’s artistic contribution to the arts, and discovers he has made a statement by just being the way he was and that for him, the act was more relevant than the product

Artist mb patil, Image courtesy pramilalochan.blogspot.com
It was already two decades since he had retired as an artist employed with the State Government (Department of Information and Broadcast), when M.B.Patil (born: Tikota, Bijapur, 1939-2017) passed away recently. When he had freshly retired in the late 1990s and held a solo show at ‘Images’ gallery, Bengaluru, another artist-friend of his, K.T.Shiva Prasad had inaugurated it and given a piece of advice to the exhibitor: “Patil has retired now as an employed-artist, let him be creative from now on”. Most in the crowd smiled, giggled and laughed at this tongue-in-cheek remark, while Patil himself had his usual smile, which was not easy to decipher. It was a prejudice that ‘an artist who is not a freelancer is not creative enough’ that was unveiled and vented out during this occasion. Artistic activities are bound to be defined by what art means in any given, specific situation.

Patil’s artistic works might be as mysterious as his smile was: his works can be broadly divided, style-wise, into three categories: the collages, folksy images and his demonstrations, mainly portraiture. The burnt-wood style, for which he has been often so remembered, squarely fits into his folksy style. Perhaps painterly folk representation was already a tradition among Karnataka artists. Like many of his contemporaries (Chandranath Acharya, R.M.Hadapad, S.G.Vasudev), he did meddle a bit with the art of art direction in a few docu-drama films. Often some artists of Karnataka have been so varied in their styles that any amount of categorization style-wise or otherwise, would become impossible (ex: the visual works of R.M.Hadapad and Shivarama Karantha’s literary oeuvre). On the contrary, some artists are so well known for their unique styles, that there are even too many imitators of them; and those who generated the style themselves get creatively imprisoned in this demand for the ‘politics-of-imitation’.
They are bound to avail a longevity to their own style (P.B.Harsoor, M.G.Doddamani) as a survival strategy. By now a smart reader of Karnataka art history, post 1960s, might have realized that I have been hinting at a set of artists hailing and more so believing in a strong fraternity of being from the northern part of Karnataka. There is no counter to that, like, say, a fraternity of ‘the southern-Karnataka artists’. While in Kannada cinema, a strong 'belongingness' to the ‘Mangalore-belt artists’ is on the rise currently (a la the influence of the likes of Kochi Biennales and the awareness of Malayalee-belongingness). Patil alongside other artists like V.G.Sindhur, Vijaya Hagaragundagi and K.K.Makali, evoke this sense of being north-Karnataka artists, with pride. And this was the only (untamed) group to which Patil was most remotely connected throughout. Patil’s was a slender, tall, solitary figure which would always stand aloof even in a crowd, be it a general gathering or a theoretic leaning of right or left.
Women V, 1998, Painting by MB Patil, Image source published by Images gallery, publisher M.G.Doddamani
Women V, 1998, Painting by MB Patil, Image source Images gallery, publisher M.G.Doddamani
Mallikarjuna Bheemanagowda Patil (born: 1937, Tikota, Bijapur) spent the major part of his artistic life in Bengaluru despite visually representing the northern geographic premise, its agrarian, rural and folksy forms as if they were mutually undifferentiable. Most modernist and contemporary artists who have painted folk art forms, do so to exoticise, reclaim and appropriate a marginal art form to the mainstream. Such artists are usually exoticists, diasporic or nostalgic in attitude. Arguably, this is the visual story or story of the visuals from Picasso to Marc Chagall to K.G.Subramanyan. Patil’s folklore imagery, for which he is generally popular, have elongated figures, flat colours which seem to be certain auto-apperance of the artist himself, similar to the Badami-people series of paintings of J.M.S. Mani. Flat colours, clear silhouettes, the advantage of acrylic quick-dryness--all in all by Patil is a very subtle statement on who and what is that to which one belongs and which is distanced. In other words, though living in Bengaluru (Malleswaram, for a long time) Patil was always there, at Tikota or Bijapur by attitude. He was both insider and outsider to the city that gave him a livelihood and his skilled, pleasant folksy imagery is nothing by a reflection of the same: they were about the past, which is still accessible as and when he would return to the Hubli or/and Bijapur. Hence it should also be apologetic for someone to address his pictures as ‘rural’ since (art) historically the term positions the addressee as an outsider and urban. Patil’s artworks, first of all, refute this bifurcation, a typical act of being an internal diasporic.

The discourse, attention and communication he built around the making of imagery were more intense than what he did with the finalized, completed artworks of his own. Hence his works might not sustain the stylistic consistency that his friend Vijay Sindoor formally has, he might not be remembered for his teaching qualities that Hadapad is formally known for, but his demonstrative ability has something of a performative charm about it. In a way he was distanced from the formal definitions of styles, singular styles, genres and even an adherence to any one such program. Patil reminds me of Ki Ram Nagaraj, a Kannada writer-maverick who would spontaneously recite the poetry of Kannada writers created over a thousand year. Patil’s own paintings like Ki Ram’s own writings take a back seat while both are best remembered for an expression that surpasses the respective field’s documentary apparatus.
Rural family, acrylic on canvas, 2014, Painting by MB Patil, Image source pramilalochan.blogspot.com
Rural family, acrylic on canvas, 2014, Painting by MB Patil, Image source pramilalochan.blogspot.com
As I have argued elsewhere (in the forthcoming issue of ‘Mayura’ magazine in Kannada, from Deccan Herald publication), he was best at his demonstrations of portraiture, though popularly he is remembered and will be remembered for his folksy-like picturisation of the rural India in general and Karnataka in particular, which has a strong lineage of B. Prabha, K.K.Hebbar, Chawda among others. Therein I have argued that Patil’s talent is best represented in his ‘demonstrative acts/ability’ to live-portray, which, ironically, has not been documented or recorded for the purpose of archiving; and unlike the current performance art activities in the State, the process of remembering Patil through documentation and museumisation, is hence lost forever.

The varieties of images he created, beyond the number of styles he adapted, to suit the occasion of art camps, art demonstrations, art group shows and individual self-sponsored solo shows in Karnataka and Maharashtra, correlate with the innumerable places, cities and townships, he lived in. He even created images for tabloids (for Karnataka State government, to compete with other states at New Delhi) which fetched his office with awards five times, but his artistic contribution has not been acknowledged, even by his own self. Places like Mumbai, Hubli, Dharwad, Bangalore were major places wherein he created his works, and his role, even as an artist, in all these places were not the similar. For instance, at Mumbai he was a student of art, in Hubli/Dharwad he was a working artist for a medical college and in Bangalore he was an official endorser of the official Tabloid that he created to represent the Karnataka culture annually at the country’s capital.

Patil was a family person, with five children, a government job and a high profile education at Nutan Kala Mandir, which is apologetically admitted by most of his biographers. They claim that by the time he reached Mumbai to join the prestigious J.J.School of Arts, he was late and hence joined the poor man’s J.J. i.e. Nutan Kalamandir.


It is not very comfortable to categorise whether it was a maverick playing the role of an artist or an art maverick meddling with various media of expressions. The intriguing part is that he has made a statement by just being the way he was: did not stick onto any specific style of rendering (thus overcoming the modernist frame of stylisation) and did not produce images for eternity (thus liberating himself from museumisation). Was he rejoicing his already familiar terrain by representing them, within which the idea of exoticism (folklore), mimesis (portrait demonstration), diaspora (collage) were celebrated, rather than innovate and position one’s self on permanently uneven grounds. However, if one seriously considers how he laid stress on the act of being an artist more than producing artistic products, Basavanna’s imagination of a metaphoric temple, wherein one’s own body parts are equated with the constituents of a temple comes to the fore. Hailing from the land of the avante garde philosopher Basava (i.e. from a south-Karnataka writer’s perspective), M.B.Patil was more of an artist than a producer of imagery. He challenged not to be archived, and archiving his protest to immortality is, though ironic, a contribution on its own.

(M.B.Patil, 1939-2017, was a recipient of the prestigious Varnashilpi K.Venkatappa award from the Govt of Karnataka, Central and State Lalitkala Academy awards).​

About the Author: H.A. Anil Kumar is an art historian and critic, teaching and writing on Indian contemporary visual art and South Indian films since 1992. He has written, edited and co-authored books, papers and art columns, radio and television talks for both academic and popular publications and telecasts, in two languages (English and Kannada) since last three decades. He currently heads the Department of Art History at the College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bengaluru.  

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