Tradition is a loaded term when employed in a cultural context. Moralists often use it to keep the wayward tendencies of the scandalous artist in check. And progressives bandy about the term as a form of caution — tradition is something one needs to grow out of. The challenge for an artist is to strike an aesthetic balance between old forms and new ideas. In Thota Vaikuntam’s art, one is able to sense a steady equilibrium of just this sort.
Where the modern Indian artists went in search of inspiration towards the city — Bombay, Calcutta or Benares — Vaikuntam was alone in heading towards a rural setting in his search for modernity. The folk musicians, theatre artists and puppet shows of his childhood in a small village in Andhra Pradesh (now in the state of Telangana), Vaikuntam has immortalised in his paintings. The “Telangana women” series of paintings, which still continues, brings to the fore Vaikuntam’s uniqueness of style and his urge to distinguish himself from artistic convention.
“When I started out as an artist, I naturally followed the dominant trends in the world of art at that point of time. I thought I had to paint like all the others, and follow the western way of things,” Vaikuntam told me over the phone from Hyderabad, where he now lives. The twin peaks of artistic achievement, back in those days, were Picasso and Matisse. And hence, these figures exerted a powerful hold on the imaginations of young artists like Vaikuntam.
“There were some artists, even when I was studying art, who would condemn Raja Ravi Varma’s work, while themselves trying to follow the same European style of painting,” he said. And these, Vaikuntam added, were people who had on some level forgotten that European art itself underwent great waves of transformation in the last 200 years.
This anxiety of influence between artistic generations has been a fixture of art history. But it took Vaikuntam longer than it should have to resist and reject the lure of the old masters. He tells me that he was “45 or 46 years of age” when he understood the true value and complexity of rural life, beginning to see it as potential material for his art. “My roots lie in the village. And a village has a culture that is very different to cities like Hyderabad. So I figured that my compositions, too, needed to be different: simple backgrounds, simple decorations and simple lines became very important to me.”
The emphasis on the “line” in Vaikuntam’s art may be one of its central and distinguishing features. Most of his paintings create an illusion of depth, so finely layered and sharply composed are they. But it’s that other crucial element in his art that a viewer’s eye retains: colour.
When I started painting I decided to be particular about colours. And I rarely use composite colours. See the colours in any village. How many colours are there? Hardly 10-20.
Every artist has his fixation to particular colours. Raza has his reds just as Van Gogh had his yellows. But Vaikuntam has a whole theory of colours: he refrains (almost completely, except in some recent paintings) from using composite colours. Primary colours, and ones that are found in nature, are what he mostly prefers to work with.
“When I started painting I decided to be particular about colours. See the colours in any village. How many colours are there? Hardly you’ll find 10-20 colours. Red, green, yellow. Sometimes I use two dominating colours in my paintings. Sometimes blacks and browns. But when I begin a painting I don’t think what colours I am going to have. Slowly, and one by one, the colours begin to fill up the frame. But first, you have to be sure of what you want in a painting. When you’re sure of that, only then you think of the colours.”
There have been parallels drawn between Vaikuntam’s and Jamini Roy’s works. Certainly, the two styles, if not similar, do complement each other on the aesthetic scale: both these artists have a remarkably original body of work that seems to issue from sensibilities that are more or less congruent. But there’s another uniting factor here: the preponderance of human figures in their paintings, which comes at the expense of the landscape.
I pointed out this curious lack of landscapes in Vaikuntam’s oeuvre. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll tell you. You can’t find landscape in my paintings. I developed the iconography of the human body. But landscape is a big thing in itself, it is a big challenge. I am trying to do it [paint landscapes] now, but I don’t know how far I will succeed in doing that. Painting landscapes changes everything. But it’s ture: I can’t ignore landscapes.”
The artist is now preparing for a solo exhibition, after a gap of almost a decade, which is slated to open in London’s Grosvenor Gallery later this month. Put together by the Art Alive Gallery, the coming exhibition is entitled “Telangana Icons”, and will present some of Vaikuntam’s newest paintings, which are similar to his previous work and yet very different.
It’s the nuance that matters here, more so than the subject or the outward form of a painting by Vaikuntam. The new collection thus features what some would see as characteristically Vaikuntam-esque figures — dark faces, almond-shaped eyes, ornamentation, ritualistic colours, and elaborate designs. So, I asked him, about how he answers those critics who have called his work somewhat repetitive.
“Look sir,” he said. “At this age, what can I do that’s new? Even if you take Picasso, he may have changed a lot of things in his paintings, he took influence from many places, but basically they’re all the same. Even Matisse did the same thing all his life. He didn’t create different paintings. His pictures are essentially similar. So I can’t do anything new. Main naya kya kar sakta hun (what can I do that’s new)? For that I’ll have to go back to my village, sit there and start all over again. That’s not possible. I’d only say that I’ve done what I’ve done in this life.”
That reminded me of something that the Hindi poet Vinod Kumar Shukla once told me. “You see,” Shukla had said. “The poem that I write next is the same poem that I wrote last.” I shared this with Vaikuntam and I was glad to hear his full-throated laughter on the other side of the phone line. He appreciated the sentiment, he said: “Really, most creative people think alike.” But very few of those have a creative vision as rich and appealing as Vaikuntam’s: it has a lasting force, like the colours that occur in nature.