Review by Palakshi Dass
March 15, 2017


Bhaavanaatharangam A Retrospective
Exhibition of works by Thota Vaikuntam
Presented by India Fine Art
February 18-27, 2017
Chitramayee State Gallery of Art, Hyderabad

This artist requires nointroduction. His iconic painted figures of Telengana women have made him a household name across India. His sensual lines, and vibrant rustic palette turns his works into a celebration of life. The 75-year-old artist was honoured with a retrospective of his works, which he has been doing over 45 years, in Hyderabad recently. Mumbai-based art collector Manvinder Dawar curated Bhaavanaatharangam A Retrospective showcasing over 200 works from 1978 to 2016done bythe master at the Chitramayee State Gallery of Art in Hyderabad from February 19, 2017. The show was earlier showcased in to Mumbai in November 2016.

Vaikuntam was born (1942) in Boorugupali, Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh. He came to Baroda in 1972, soon after finishing his diploma in painting from College of Fine Arts and Architecture in Hyderabad. At that time he was a national scholarship holder who got chance to study painting in M.S.University, Baroda.He feels that this was the turning point of his sojournthat made him today’s Vaikuntam. Another important name of his life was K.G. Subramanyan,who guided him throughout these years in Baroda. Vaikuntam recalls his days by saying, “In those days I was fascinated by western painting and tried to copy them. Sometimes in my drawings,I used western musical instruments in the hands of local people. But my mentor told me to stop doing all these and had suggested to start drawing of my own surroundings. We used to have long discussion on it.”

Vaikuntam was highly inspired by K.G. Subramanyan’s ideology of nationalism.Manida’swords made a deep connection with him.For the first timem he realised the necessity of nationalism into the pictorial space to articulate the ethnic cultural identity. After two years, he came back to his native village and started rediscoveringthe local people and their lifestyle thathelped him to increase his visual vocabulary. The figures, facial structure, gesture, posture, shapes of eyes and moustache, skin colour, pattern of saree, dhotis, turban, feet, fingers, everything became his object of study and had made severaldrawings and sketches of native people. In those days he preferred to work with charcoal andthen used very minimal colour to highlight some parts of it.These early paintings were less decorative, but more expressive and livelier than the paintingshe has been making in the recent times.

In 1960s and 1970s in Indian Art, the strong feeling of nationalism and living tradition was noticedamong the artists. The visual language moved to revisit the Indian mythology, tradition, folk and tribal culture, narrative style that gave birth of a new era. Vaikuntam alsoembraced this,but in a different manner. He created his own style by documenting the socio-cultural life of Telengana people, emphasizing on their ethnic beauty. He neither adopted the narrative style nor considered themythology as subject in his recreated space. It was all about the local people to celebrate their life events.

Vaikuntam observes, “In thosedays I used to watch movies of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. It was so amazing to see the real India in their visual interpretation; the people, the landscape, the rural life, the culture, music everything I enjoyed while watching.” Vaikuntam also worked for the Telugu movies, where hedid character drawing, set designing, costume designing. He was the art director of theTelegu film Daasi, directed by B. Narsing Rao, which won four National awardsin 1989 including one for art direction.

Vaikuntam reminisces his past experiences and struggle as an artist. He lived in Mumbai for a few years, where he worked as a painter. He use to paint eyes and lips of wooden dolls. It was a tough time for him to survive in Mumbai but he accepted it positively. He feels all these experiences helped him to refine his skills as an artist.

Vaikhuntam experimented with colour and the stylistic formin human figurewhich integrated to his signature style. Primary colours,which are the integral part of folk life and culture transformed into the visual composition of hiscanvas. Vaikuntam decorated his female figures with natural colours – yellow of turmeric, red of hibiscus, charcoal black and parrot green, bringal colour (purple), lime white.His Telengana women are characterized for the turmeric smeared forehead with a round vermilion red bindi on their dark skin. These natural colours and designs of the sarees wrapped by the women in his paintings are the result of his experience working with weavers of his village. He says, “These are the sarees from Sircilla district. In my village the weavers make these beautiful sarees,that were light as air and can fit inside a matchbox. Now it is all fast disappearing thanks to the mills.”

One may also see a lot ofparrots as women’s best friends in hisworks. According to the artist, many households in the village keep parrots who can ‘talk’ and they are supposed to know all the secrets of women.Comparatively less known male figures of Vaikuntam are also very rustic in nature: their body structure, complexions, three quarter length dhotis are the basic features coming from thisrural landscape.

Rhythm plays a striking role in Vaikuntam’s paintings to balance between line and form, dark and shade, gesture and expression, colour and contour. Each part of body movements balancing with the other part in a rhythmic gesture. In his creative space the standing posture of the women with their steady looks, movements of hands and fingers,the glittering jewelry of their head with the drape of saree are all perfectly weaved in curvature lines.

Vaikuntam’s creative process has constantly evolved over the years and created a strong visual and distinct aesthetic language, especially in his portrayal of people from Telengana. He believes, “If you don’t have nativity, you can’t be an Indian artist. Be original, if you copy you are not yourself.”May be his works are not contextually relevant to the contemporary art practice,but he will be remembered for his path-breaking individualistic style, which he is has carved out for himself in Indian art. This retrospective confirms this fact!