For 30 years Thota Vaikuntam has painted the Telangana woman. Here is the master at a moment when both he and his state are coming to a boil
Standing silent in the dark, electricity-less basement gallery, Thota Vaikuntam surveyed his one surviving collection of drawings that’s now under threat. The previous day, his many phone calls hadn’t opened the giant padlock on the gallery door. Thick-gummed with geniality, he’d remarked with a wry smile, “All this just to see my own work.”
According to the 68-year-old artist, the Hyderabad art gallery invested almost Rs 22 lakh to restore and present these 200-odd charcoal and pencil sketches from the 1980s. They are important since they were his first works in the initial discovery years of his legendary Telangana village theme. A film producer friend, who commissioned some of these drawings for a biopic of the Telugu poet Sri Sri, is now claiming 60 of the works and has got the gallery to shut down. Given the producer’s clout, both the artist and the gallery are anxious not to publicise the controversy too much. Says Vaikuntam, “My parents didn’t even know what art is, and yet they supported me. I want to leave this early work to a foundation dedicated to their memory. This is the only work I ever preserved for myself, the rest is gone. Whatever I’ve ever painted till last year, it’s all gone. [My buyers] have taken it all away.”
These works are also precious since Vaikuntam has never returned to most of the village themes he explored here — musicians, landlords, local goons, shepherds, migrants, still lives, room-scapes — except for his beloved Telangana woman. They tell the story of how he developed his singular vision of blocky, geometric bodies, exaggerating their muscles and angles towards grotesquerie. “There’s no scale, no parameter to it. What you like, you enhance,” he says.
Vaikuntam was born in Boorugupalli, Andhra Pradesh, where his father was a local supplies shopkeeper who struggled to sustain the family. Vaikuntam won the Bharat Bhavan Biennale Award in 1988 and the Lalit Kala Akademi’s National Award in 1993, and has participated in several solo and group shows across the globe. SH Raza has said, “Vaikuntam’s work is an original synthesis of traditional Indian concepts and the demands of a formal logic of international modern art. After Jamini Roy, his work is a new significant contribution to contemporary Indian art.” Vaikuntam continues to be popular among both the art fraternity and lay collectors. In its envisioning of a native Indian modernism, his work stands closest in relation to peers like Laxma Goud and Jogen Choudhury, and in its emphasis on drawing, to Jatin Das.
After working on his Telangana women for almost 30 years, Vaikuntam is now raring for a vaster design. A few weeks ago he decided to take a sabbatical from his usual female motifs to think through a fresh vision — monumental scaled canvases depicting all of village life, landscapes, interiors, festivals, temple life — and has gone back to his first love of drawing with intense detailing. “I’m not satisfied anymore, I want to reorganise myself. I’ve lost a lot of vitality with just painting for so long. It’s given me money, yes, and was needed. There was demand for the paintings, so I stuck with it. I kept thinking I’ll come back to intense drawing but it didn’t happen. I want to show people again how this type of drawing is important. I want to draw again the way I used to,” he says. Krishen Khanna has said, “The forms which Vaikuntam has created could bear amplification and could very well form the matrix for much larger and more ambitious works.” He’s determined to take up that mantle, and says in his soft voice, “Raza produces a hundred drawings in a day, but I don’t want to do that. Laxma [Goud], Raza, [FN] Souza, they’re nonstop painters. I’m not like that. Sometimes I’ve stopped and asked why I do it. When something hurt me, I’ve stopped. But I haven’t stopped right now. Everything is possible.”
Curator and critic Ranjit Hoskote is glad that the artist is trying to expand his oeuvre, saying, “Vaikuntam has trapped himself in the formulaic imagery of the Telangana women, although this has made him very popular. I’ve never really liked these paintings. They’re extremely decorative and their claim to represent a region or ethnicity through an idyllic rural past simply doesn’t work. His early work of ink-and-wash drawings, especially that from his cinema work, was his strongest. There he was more receptive to experience, displaying a curiosity towards the sinister side of things. He was concerned with the violence unleashed by landowners against the peasantry. He looked at various body types.” Vaikuntam’s women have, however, steadily evolved. He slowly added colours to his initial drawings and turned his initial sharp angles into softer jaws, brighter colours, smoother decorations – all with the aim of a quieter drama. His women’s eyes have thinned from diamonds to almonds.
Perhaps continuing with the same motif of the Telangana woman has been a saving grace. “She is the dark Telangana woman. I worship her, she’s my goddess. She made me something,” says Vaikuntam. His voluptuaries of the female form has certainly come from a hard-won sensibility. In the late 1970s, his frustrations and insecurity led him to paranoia and feelings of persecution, even intended murder. Drinking continually, doing ganja and refusing to give up cigarettes occasioned stomach ulcers and bronchitis and an inability to sit, stand or hold a brush. It took months in a naturopathy hospital, and the return to his village to administer to his dying mother, to stabilise him and send him searching for a new native subject. The appetites of youth — unremitting sex, alcohol, cigarettes, conversation — came with the artistic struggle and intense poverty for him and his peers. “Many friends who were doing great work vanished. It’s a dangerous thing. People stoop down to their frustrations. I can say I was saved,” he says. He remains unrepentant of the past, however, and sees his struggle as central to his eventual serenity. Some of that hard backing remains. “When I was young mostly I lived alone, even after marriage. Even today, I’d like to be alone. Then you get a chance to think, imagine, to be in that dangerous silence, that wonderful silence.”
THAT THIS iconic Telangana artist is soul-searching for a new vision just as the agitation for a separate state is again underway, Vaikuntam slaps away as mere propinquity. “I don’t even follow this Telangana stuff now. At this age I don’t have any time. I’ll give my Telangana and India votes,” he claims. “I have to support the cause because cultural domination has been there. But when you think as a Bharat, how can you fight for a smaller India? I’m an Indian. I want [the issue] to be properly dealt with, but what will happen? Nothing will happen!” He maintains that Telangana culture has been damaged, and that it remains distinct from the larger state’s culture. “Ours is more primitive, more ethnic. But artists alone can’t sit in the villages and solve this. Now again it is a problem. Even today, I want Telangana. But how Telangana? How to support it? Politicians are very bad people, they do all kinds of things for money.”
Six months ago, Vaikuntam moved his family into a new mansion, designed by his architect son, in the swanky Jubilee Hills nei ghbourhood of Hyderabad. He now shares an address with the likes of film stars, industrialists and Chandrababu Naidu. He has no illusions about the benefits of money, and has no regrets about keeping up a steady production of paintings as his market grew. He realises the toll it’s taken on his drawing but denies that the market might have too much power over the artist today. “No. It’s good when money comes. Marriage, kids, continuity. Everything you have to provide for. No money is a problem. I have no regrets.” His works fetch anywhere from Rs 2 lakh to 15 lakh depending on their size. And the recent art market boom in India has definitely helped, taking what used to be priced at Rs 25,000 up to Rs 2 lakh. Says Hoskote, “Many artists of his generation struggled to establish themselves within India’s growing gallery system. Their strategy was to develop a style and stick with it. But the market is now mature enough to trust the artist to trust his own instincts, if he wants to experiment beyond the formula.”
Even in the new house, Vaikuntam still works in his small bedroom on a desk turtled with paint smudges. Age has slowed him and he’s abandoned his youth’s 16- hour workdays. He’s fond of comparing his life’s work to a form of travel: “So many people have so many ideas, but you need to practice. Riyaaz karo. We also say, saadhana karo. It’s a strong word. All my painting has been a riyaaz. You forget everything in trying to fulfil a subject. I never bothered [with it] if it didn’t give plea – sure, or stopped giving.” He remains committed to the old, familiar idea of finding satisfaction in labour, and in taking it from praise rather than just technical accomplishment. “I want to practice, and forget whatever I want. The feeling of just wor king,” he says. “Artists are involved. The truth comes, nobody tells you. It’s not mathematical. Same thing for the villagers. They sing songs, nobody taught them. It’s practice that makes you free, gives you freedom – that’s art. That I want.”