In Past and Present Continuum Speaking to Thota Vaikuntam
by Koeli Mukherjee Ghose
On 9th December this year we visited Thota Vaikuntam in his home in Hyderabad. It was 10 o'clock in the morning, the artist had just returned from a walk. Dressed in a red kurta and a beige jacket he looked cheerful and ready to talk. We settled down comfortably with steaming cups of tea while Parameshwar Raju readied both his cameras to capture the vibrant mood of the artist.
We have been in dialogue with the artist since 2007, to gain an insight into his work; together we had explored his return to Boorugupally and the sketches of the life and people of the village that he created from 1971 to 1984. In the current instance I prepared myself to take into account his present considerations but could not resist my interest to delve into the past again in the time Vaikuntam came as a student to Hyderabad.
The sight of crisp lines drawn with charcoal on canvases impelled me to ask him “Vaikuntam Garu, what is rousing those new images? What has been stirring your thoughts lately?”
He answered me swiftly “The festivities of Telengana - that is to say, Bathkamma, Gouri puja - the vision is innocent and colourful. The faith in the celebrations are so overpowering that the people of this place exult in prayer entirely.”
Bathkamma and Gouri Puja are essentially the worship of the goddess Shakti; the festivities engage the women of the region in rituals. They appear specially, in bright finery, bedecked in jewellery, in preparation to usher the Goddess Shakti into their habitat. The atmosphere is warm and cheerful as the women gather and greet each other with haldi and kumkum, clothes, fruits and flowers, whereas the rituals of Shakti puja performed by men are austere in nature.
In an understanding of the appearance of the women in clusters in his paintings, as not painting Telengana women as such, but to bring in the experience of seeing things happening around him, I confirmed - “Your work culls from experiences of the past, always placing in context your origin, your culture”.
“Yes. All I know is what my village gave me, the music the folklore the festivities and much more” said Vaikuntam in response.
The inclination to enhance the social and familial bonding happens through festivities all over the country, and the factor that weaves these festivals intricately in the lives of people is belief perhaps, but Vaikuntam had his own interpretation of how and why these festivals come to be, he stated that it is the nature around us; the change of season brings in these festivals. That is how these festivities come to a full circle, in being born from the urge to usher and celebrate the gifts of colour, fragrance, flavour that nature endows us with and the seasons are unanimous with the festivals that celebrate it. It is not just worshipping the deity; it is also in celebration of the colour of the flowers and flavour of the fruits of that season, a natural response to things.
He reminisced “my village was green and beautiful when we were young, now it is quite dry and there is not much water as I get to see”, instantly bringing in to context his village in the present times. “Nevertheless what I noticed in these festivities is the simplicity of worshipping; grains, flowers and fruits that are available in the household turn into precious offerings.”
I have always felt this awareness in him and like ruminations, unstoppable and powerful, they captivate him.
“What wins the form or the idea?” - I wondered.
Vaikuntam was swift in responding to it. “The form itself is the idea here, the engagement in crafting it is what gives me pleasure and if you ask me what is art? I would say it is the experience itself, other than the experience of art making” I realized that he was also referring to the culmination of experiences that seep into the art finally. He sustained his deliberation “relevantly or otherwise at this point I recall my parents, telling me to be meticulous and involved in my work.”
It did occur to me that it was incredible on the part of the elders in his household, to let him pursue what he hankered for, to be that artist, in the city, away from the village and the fields.
What was happening in the arena of art when you came to Hyderabad in 1960? I urged him to respond -he informed that initially it was his mother who understood his aptitude and then convinced the elders at home especially his father. “I truly feel that they were ahead of their time to let me be in my pursuit, so different from their idea of a livelihood. I studied Fine Arts at the Technical Institute in Hyderabad that taught Architectural studies too,” said Vaikuntam.
In Hyderabad the artist stayed in the hostel that was near the Rosary Convent and Satyananda Gouda was a boon in the form of a roommate. Well read in History of Art, he introduced Vaikuntam to the Western art theories and contemporary art trends. Vaikuntam pointed out “being straight from the village, I did not have information of this nature. I learnt to adapt like most villagers in the city, I listened and tried to follow, reciting the same notes that I committed to memory while conversing with seniors and teachers. Finally it is the spoken words of the instructor that stays with you.”
I was curious to know on the subject or the primary concerns of the artists, who were contemporary to Vaikuntam - were they seeking a movement in pronouncing an Indian identity, like their fellow artists in the other parts of the country. What did the synergy predict?
Vaikuntam recalled that Satyananda had taken him to meet PT Reddy, an established icon; as a painter, he was also the Director of the State Lalit Kala that existed before NT Rama Rao's term as a chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. They discussed in great involvement the working principles of Matisse, Cezanne, and Gauguin. He mentioned noticing the fact that Impressionism had a great impact in Hyderabad from 1940's as this was apparent in the works of artists.
I was keen to know how Vaikuntam interpreted the notion of movement did he think it was resultant of a unified growth of a community of artists or the idea of a unified path or direction?
Vaikuntam had clarity on this piece of contemplation and he articulated that. For the movement to gain momentum it was important to contribute individually and strengthening it with the varying nomenclature as it surfaced in the works of various artists. He felt sure that it couldn't be achieved by producing images akin to those belonging to a community of artists working together, in a certain time. “I realized I had to take to my own discovery, even though I believed in the fellowship of my contemporaries” he emphasized.
I said “It brings us back to your conscientious stance to evoke and reinforce the cultural context specific to your region time and again.”
Vaikuntam responded: “It is a produce, of method and practice, my teacher Raghottam Reddy also known as Raghottam Rao made me aware of the strength of looking at things in my own terms and internalizing the character of the element of interest. He brought my attention to maximize the usefulness of the medium I was working with charcoal then, the sticks would break or create overtly dark impressions, gradually I learnt to see the range of tonal gradations lying between light and depth and render it. So primarily it is my own experience of being, seeing and creating, this is what renders it specific to my culture.”
1] Photographs by Parameshwar Raju