Gargi Gupta / Business Standard, April 02, 2011 New Delhi
Despite what the title of his latest exhibition claims, Thota Vaikuntam’s subject of choice remains images from Telangana.
In the increasingly city-centric world of Indian art, Thota Vaikuntam is one of the few painters who continues to be preoccupied with rural India. Though he has been living in the city of Hyderabad for many years now, the men and women Vaikuntam saw as a little boy growing up in his native Boorugupally village in rural Karimnagar continue to people his canvases.
He has painted them again and again over the past three decades, capturing them in all their vivid splendour — bright printed saris and colourful jewellery, their foreheads, palms and feet anointed with large tikas in red and yellow. These are not realistic portraits, but flat, caricatures that are delightful nonetheless. They have become Vaikuntam’s signature that assures him both loyal collectors and a healthy premium in the art market. And over the past few years, his stock has been rising with a large, untitled canvas from 2007 topping Rs 30 lakh at Saffronart’s winter auction in December 2010.
The buxom Telangana women remain Vaikuntam’s muse even today, whatever the title of his just-concluded show in Delhi, “Metamorphosis: The Changing World of Thota Vaikuntam”, may claim. There have, of course, been some changes over time. His colours have become far more nuanced, the jewel tones more measured; his earthly corpulent figures, which had plainly erotic overtones earlier, are thickening beyond human dimensions and veering towards the grotesque.
Music is the leitmotif of this show — again a theme that Vaikuntam has touched off and on — with a number of figures in the canvases seen playing the flute, their eyes closed in ecstasy. It also ties in with the religious, Radha-Krishna themes that is another favourite of the 69-year-old artist. The one discernible development is that for once men, who had hitherto been minor players, take centre stage in many of Vaikuntam’s canvases.
But ask Vaikumtam whether he hasn’t become slightly impatient with his Telangana figures, and whether he doesn’t want to sometimes paint other times, and he is quick to deny it. “I have always wanted to present my culture, my people through my art. Anyway, there is so much more to do in the area,” he says, dressed unassumingly in jeans and a fleece jacket with a jhola on his shoulder and floaters on his feet. For instance, he says, he is now working on a series on the festivals of his community. The first few canvases in this series, depicting women celebrating the bathukamma festival with elaborate arrangements of flowers in different colours, were at the Metamorphosis show.
But it’s the Telangana of his memory, rather than the region as it is today that Vaikuntam harks back to. In fact, Vaikuntam says he left the village quite early in life, first to attend high school in the nearby town of Vemuluwada and later, Hyderabad and Baroda for art school. He came back to the city in the Deccan later, and even worked for a while as an art director. The house in Boorugupally village remains with the family, but no one lives there because his brother shifted to Karimnagar recently for health reasons. “I go and stay for a few weeks and it has changed. There is even a government-sponsored liquor shop now,” says Vaikuntam.
For all his commercial success, however, Vaikuntam is hardly prolific. While he’s part of many group shows, it’s taken him four years to mount this solo. “We’ve had to postpone it twice because he just wasn’t ready,” says Sunaina Anand, the owner of Gallery Art Alive, which hosted the exhibition.
“It takes at least three weeks to paint these,” says the artist, pointing to the smaller paper works. Vaikuntam paints the old-fashioned way, first making elaborate pencil drawings on canvas before filling it with paint and then painstakingly adding the embellishments.
Age seems also to have caught up somewhat with him. “I have stopped travelling out much. Food is also a problem and it is better to be surrounded by the familiar.” You can see that in his paintings.