Yellow. The colour is strongly associated with Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s canvases which unfurl sunsets and sunrises from a canvas. The yellow in his paintings is real gold. The same hue rises elsewhere on another artist’s canvas, on foreheads of the figures he paints. And this colour is as authentic as its rustic origins, the yellow of turmeric smeared on foreheads of Telangana women. The colour is the signature of celebrated artist Thota Vaikuntam, also known as ‘Jamini Roy of South’.
The opuses, the 75-year-old artist created over the past four decades, will be on display at the exhibition aptly titled ‘Bhaavanaatharangam: A Retrospective’. The pristine white walls of Chitramayee State Gallery of Art have come alive with a riot of colours dominated by yellow, warm inviting shades of the sacred condiment from the kitchens and temples of Telangana.
The 200 paintings up on display were first showcased at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai last November. It took four years for the curator Manvinder Dawer to collect the artworks of Vaikuntam. He says, “I had to reach out to art collectors who had his works. Almost 80 per cent of the works on display here have been obtained from them.” Vaikuntam’s signature strokes invite you inside the lines and dots with their kaleidoscopic colours. One sees sunflower yellow, hibiscus red, parrot green and royal purple ruling the palette. The rustic life of people from Telangana is resplendently expressed along with their sun-kissed complexions. The lines and dots take a smooth curvature, defining the voluptuous women decked up in silver trinkets, flowers and big bindis that stay like sunsets on their wide, bright, turmeric-smudged foreheads. Their saris have thin borders and the fabric is speckled with tiny dots. Ask the artist about this piece and he says with a smile, “These are saris from Sircilla district. In my village, the weavers used to make these beautiful saris that were light as air and can fit inside a matchbox. Now it is all fast disappearing thanks to the mills.” A look closer, and one can’t help but notice parrots sitting on the shoulders of the village folks especially the women. Explains the artist from Boorugupalli village, “This bird talks to women and knows their secrets. In villages you see parrots in many houses as womenfolk go about their daily household chores.” The women that appear in his artworks are reminiscent of his mother, who while doing her embroidery inspired the artist while he was a young boy.
One finds that his works are in sync with each other. The brush strokes flow with finesse and the influence of the folk art is evident and holds the collection together. Vaikuntam, as a young boy, was exposed to scroll drawings of folk music and narrative performance. “Markandeya Purana and Kakipadagalu influenced me as a child. I also used to copy godly figures from calendars and watched a lot of street theatre. I was so good in drawing that my teachers would often ask me to draw maps,” shares Vaikuntam, who also has a penchant for storytelling, especially tales of kings from our history.
One sees a paradigm shift in his works from 70’s to 80’s. There are more pencil and charcoal works infused with the interplay of sombre shades. They slowly grow finer taking brighter colours. Instead of one individual ruling the canvas, the figures take collective forms with several men and women talking to each other, sitting or playing flutes. In one of his earlier charcoal works, which is part of his music series, there is a portraiture of village folks with violins in their hands. The edge of the lines in the works seem to be eaten up by an invisible stroke. “Your style changes automatically. It’s the experiences that decide your strokes and lines. I used to learn music from an institute at Gunfoundary. I learnt till the age of 45, and decided I had to choose between art and music. And then I chose my vocation art,” says the master painter of figurative art.
He completed his studies at the College of Fine Arts and Architecture in Hyderabad and learnt print-making at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda which is where he met his mentor, the celebrated artist KG Subramanyan. He chiselled Vaikuntam’s strokes and helped him polish his thought process as well. “He was a great teacher. If I infused nativity in my works, it’s because of him. He used to say: ‘If you don’t have nativity, you can’t be an Indian artist. Be original, if you copy you are not yourself.’ He helped me find myself and my art. That’s how I chose to paint my people. I celebrate them in their darkness, hard labour, their fields, their songs, their flowers and folk tales.” His artworks glow in a brightness of their own which halo him in a way that he forever belongs to rural, rustic Telangana and in no other topography.
The works will be on display till February 27. Time: 11 am-7 pm. Details: 23520438
— Saima Afreen